Published by: Tor
Release date: 8th March, 2002
Travel has it's downsides, yes, but I think exploding has got to be top of the list, even above taking a flight across some mountains, crashing, and having to eat the dead flesh of your fellow travellers.
The National Grid revamp was not a success.
Freeman, an innocuous technician, is travelling by runcible (matter transportation) to the planet Samarkand. Freeman is one unlucky motherfucker. He ends up as a thirty-megaton nuclear explosion. This wipes out the small human population of the planet, and James-Bond-to-the-galaxy Ian Cormac is sent to investigate.
Asher's work has been described as space opera. I honestly don't think it is, though it is set against a very large backdrop. The human Polity, which spans many worlds, is governed by AIs. From low-level and subminds, which govern a small or specialised area, to the vastly superior ones which oversee planets, spaceships and runcibles, they do their best to ensure the human race stays safe. They run a very benevolent dictatorship, in which there are no borders and everyone can travel where they please, with few limitations on what they may take with them. Sci Fi staples like aliens and androids are present, and it makes a nice change that the aliens aren't recognisably human, in shape or thought. The androids, usually relegated to highly moral do-gooders (nice one, Asimov, kick me on your way out) are not always so here. And the humans, as always, vary greatly in their moral orientation. Asher is more concerned with black and white than grey, but there's definitely more than a tinge of it in the book.
The scale of Asher's work is more to do with individuals than faceless teeming masses, and he likes a bit of the claret too, so the violence is plentiful but not especially lurid, which sort of puts him in the cyberpunk genre. Only sort of, though. I'm not too fussed with genres, to be honest. Couldn't give a fuck as long as it's a good read. And it is.
The characters are, whether good or evil, an interesting bunch. You don't get the story of their lives, and there are no flashbacks for the sole purposes of fleshing out character (thank fuck
. Didn't anyone hand out that leaflet saying flashbacks are a fucking lazy way to do things? Well, they are, and their use should be minimal) but you get a good idea of who they are and where they've been anyway. Asher has a good grip on the fact that you shouldn't have to tell the reader everything through flashbacks or narrative monologues (motherfucker
), you can show them through a character's dialogue and thoughts, through their actions.
Asher loved his shoulder pads.
Cormac has been pulled out of an undercover assignment. Mentally linked to AIs for thirty years, he's started to lose his humanity and on the recommendation of Hal, the Earth Central AI and the immortal Horace Blegg (the Prime Cause, to his friends) he disconnects his gridlink and sets forth, Separatist terrorists on his heels. Although hampered, he is armed with a Tenkian, an AI-enabled shuriken and backed up by the Sparkind, a special force of humans and Golem combat androids.
Arian Pelter is a fucking mentalist with a grudge and a personal fortune, a man superficially in love with Separatism, but actually obsessed with himself. He has reason to hate Cormac and it soon consumes him entirely. Tooled up with all the illegal weaponry he can afford and accompanied by mercenaries and Mr Crane, a psychotic android with a severe, nay, terminal
lack of interpersonal skills. He's not a happy bunny.
John Stanton is a mercenary with his own agenda, working for the Separatists. A hard case in pursuit of profit, he neither likes nor respects Pelter, but the lure of filthy lucre is too much for him.
Dragon is an alien, a strange conglomeration of kilometre-wide spheres of flesh with an evil temper and unknown motives. Wavering between Delphic obfuscation and butter-wouldn't melt-if-it-had-a-fucking-mouth forthrightness, one thing is certain. Dragon's top priority is not establishing a Federation.
There's a lot of sci fi elements. Lasers, flying cars, cerebral augmentation, matter transportation, chameleon camouflage, planet-destroying weapons and so on and so forth. You've seen it all before, right? Well, not in this style. Asher writes to entertain, and he does a bloody good job. The violence is kinetic and punchy; he gives the combat an intensity which sci fi sometimes lacks, presumably due to the lack of bullets and blades flying about. He manages to make the lack of physicality that lasers and photons have irrelevant, and though they'll never have the manliness of projectile weapons, they're pretty fucking cool anyway.
The dialogue is some good stuff, surprisingly realistic and 95% plain English, which is always nice and something most writers can't manage irrespective of their novel's setting.
The style is clear and quite concise, Asher doesn't piss about with perambulating when walking will do, and he starts most chapters off with excerpts from Polity literature, explaining the technology and sociology, and it's a nice addition even for sci fi veterans.
You have to appreciate the quality of the writing, the background, the sheer depth of the universe and the characters Asher has created. If you're looking for deep themes and symbolism, socio-political critique and commentary, not only are you a wanker, you're reading the wrong book. This is damn good sci fi, full of honest Story and free of that sly, suspicious character, Plot. It's not a radically original work, but it is a new angle, and a bloody enjoyable one at that. Besides, which other writer would dare to put a Ford Cortina in the 25th century?
Load your brains with this calibre.