The Skinner, Neal Asher

Tor, 2002, 424 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-35048-3

There are a number of early clues about the gruesome nature of The Skinner, but perhaps the clearest sign of the novel’s true nature comes midway through Chapter 1:

Peck, the 180-year-old mechanic, had been attacked by a leech and it had unscrewed a fist-sized lump of flesh from his leg —a lump of flesh he had, after beating the leech to pulp, subsequently screwed back into place. The wound had healed in minutes. [P.10-11]

Yes, Spatterjay lives up to its back-cover blurb as “the most dangerous planet in the galaxy”. Given that it’s set in Neal Asher’s typically gruesome “Polity” universe, you can imagine that this one goes up to eleven on the yuck-scale. The rationale goes like this: In an ecosystem where things get nastier and nastier, nearly everything on Spatterjay is a super-predator, and the only effective way for prey to exist is for it to develop super-regenerative capabilities. That means being able to survive severe damage and regenerating quickly. In another scene, the human characters gnaws a chunk to eat out of the local wildlife, then throw it back in the ocean knowing fully well that it will likely grow back what’s missing. The key is a virus that radically changes one’s inner biology, with the added complication is that it’s possible for a human to be infected with the virus. In that case, the human stops being human and effectively becomes immorbid.

And that’s just the setting. As The Skinner begins, a motley crew of opponents have converged on Spatterjay, from semi-enslaved operatives to a woman contemplating her impending immortality, to war criminals, aliens, robots, at least two sets of post-human intelligences and various representatives of the planet’s native life-forms. Not surprisingly, nearly everyone wants to kill everyone else, which makes for bizarre alliances and a final battle that runs on for entire chapters and follow several characters to their destruction. Notice that I haven’t said anything about the sentient hornets or the still-alive head in a box. The most amusing character ends up being a war drone with a tenacity of its own.

It’s a lively novel.

It’s also one of the most blackly amusing book I’ve read this year, constantly hovering somewhere between disgust and a few winks at the reader. It’s hard to deny the over-the-top nature of the novel’s excess. Anyone who has glanced at Asher’s other work already knows that this is an author who’s not afraid to throw ichor and sharp-teethed worms at the reader, but The Skinner almost approaches self-parody. It’s not always easy to read: besides the “ick!” factor, there’s a density of complicated piece-shuffling that discourages casual reading. As planetary adventures go, this is an above-average one, though not one that will win unanimous applause. Patient readers with strong stomach will be rewarded.

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