Saturday, 22 September 2007

An oversupply of Neal Asher

Iain Banks just doesn't write his science fiction titles often enough. Inbetween his books, I'm forced to scout around for other authors to take up the slack. John Varley, Greg Egan and Neal Stephenson have filling in for him in recent years (though regular fiction more so), but I've also discovered a guilty pleasure in Neal Asher's novels ...

Gridlinked, Neal Asher, 2001, science fiction
The Line of Polity, Neal Asher, 2003, science fiction
Brass Man, Neal Asher, 2005, science fiction
Polity Agent, Neal Asher, 2006, science fiction
These are a series of four (thusfar) novels typically centering around the exploits of a single character (the unfuturistically named Ian Cormac). Set several centuries in the future, Cormac's universe is dominated by the Polity, a government operating out of the Earth. Like Banks' Culture, which it borrows heavily from, the Polity is both semi-utopian and organised, and run by, artificial intelligences.

The novels' plots deal with a range of themes: separatists trying to overthrow the Polity; aberrant theocracies at the edge ("The Line") of the Polity; alien intelligences with hidden agendas; biotech or nanotech out of control; the relationship between humans and their superior artificial offspring. Narratively, the novels are all structured with a number of viewpoints, but this really only serves to advance their plots. Nothing clever or literary is going on here. The plots themselves generally take the form of action set-pieces separated by brief periods of build-up.

One notable feature of Asher's writing are the regularly brutal fates of his characters. More interestingly, he populates his universe with a plethora of worlds filled to the brim with similarly brutal ecologies. Nature red in tooth and claw indeed. I think he goes over the top a bit here at times, but it's refreshing to read a novelist who tackles the hostility that characterises ecology.

Anyway, they're all very enjoyable romps, but (typically for science fiction) are weak on characterisation. Characters here serve mostly to move plot along. Despite the brutality that he metes out to characters, Asher does have a soft spot for his "heroes". Bad, sometimes very bad, things happen to them, but somehow they pull through in the end. Usually. Sometimes even his anti-heroes do too. This does tend to remove tension after the first book, but usually he's inventive enough with the plot for it not to matter.

In summary, perfectly enjoyable, but very much tending towards the pulpy end of science fiction. I'll continue reading him, but I won't be clamouring for each new title to hit the bookstores. As with many fictional universes, diminishing returns apply - the set-up novels are the most enjoyable.

No comments: