Neal Asher

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.

Gridlinked, Neal Asher

Tor, 2001, 423 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34905-1

Even since his 2001 debut, Neal Asher has been part of a new generation of British Science Fiction authors with ideas to burn and no mercy to spare. Along with other writers such as Alastair Reynolds or Richard Morgan, Asher has been busy putting thrills back in SF action novels. His fiction has only recently made it over this side of the Atlantic thanks to Tor’s reprints of his first few novels. Clearly, it was time to see what the fuss was all about.

Starting from the beginning means going back to Gridlinked, the first novel in the “Polity” sequence that has so far tied together most of his work. The book works well as an introduction, even though its own introduction may be the best thing about it.

Fans of hard-boiled espionage thrillers will feel right at home throughout the first few pages, as protagonist Cormac is revealed to be an agent for the interplanetary human government. Within a few pages, he efficiently dispatches a rebel threat to the Polity, blows up a part of the city and escapes with his life. It’s all good fun, packed with fast-paced action and a bit too much dripping violence.

The real story then starts rolling, as the Polity sends Cormac on a primitive planet far away from the Grid in which our protagonist has been plugged for too long. A destructive act of sabotage may not be an accident –and it’s up to Cormac and his team to make sense of it. Meanwhile, the mindless action prologue turns out not to be so meaningless when a grieving man decides to hunt down Cormac wherever he is, bringing along some very scary friends…

As setup, the first half of Gridlinked works beautifully. Despite some awkward language (“runcible” may have some appeal to native English-speaking readers, but it doesn’t carry much emotional weight for me), the Polity universe is efficiently introduced, with plenty of details to keep us interested. Civilization spans the galaxy, Hyper-intelligent AIs run everything, bioengineering is common and there are troubling signs of long-lived aliens. As if that wasn’t enough, Asher comes up with Mr. Crane, an insane, indestructible and very homicidal brass android. Killer robots are a dime a dozen in SF, but to see an schizophrenic one travel with a briefcase of meaningless toys is something else. (It’s no coincidence if the latest Asher novel is titled Brass Man.)

But for all the cool toys and the fun stuff, the expansive playground and the thrill of good old action-adventure, Gridlinked seems to run out of steam midway through. Even weeks later, I remember a number of elements from the beginning of the novel, and almost nothing of the end. Not so coincidentally, I do remember a deep feeling of let-down at the point where the Dragon is revealed to be part of the novel’s plot rather than an amusing side-detail.

The rest of the novel plays like a standard chase thriller with stranger pursuers and faster vehicles. Asher doesn’t to much with the un-gridlinking of his protagonist and spends too much time with the antagonist. After a while, it just becomes a big blur. You’ll keep reading to see what happens to a few characters, and sigh in slight exasperation as one miraculous escape follows another.

I’m still not so sure why my interest evaporated so quickly: this is the type of novel that I’m supposed to like, and yet it just fell flat. The book as a whole runs significantly too long, leaving the impression that it’s overwritten. The mundane eventually overwhelms the interesting. Even the answers to the original mystery don’t seem so urgent by the end of the book. I found myself wondering when I’d be able to get my hands on Richard Morgan’s next novel.

But I’m not giving up on Asher. He’s clearly part of Cyberpunk 2.0, and likely to grow into a more skillful writer: the memorable elements of Gridlinked clearly show that he’s not to be dismissed lightly. My dissatisfaction with Gridlinked may just be a freak accident of public transportation distraction, or it may be the result of a first novel’s lack of control. Whatever the reason, I’m likely to have a look at Asher’s other work… in due time.