Thursday, 15 November 2007

Charity shop run

Time again to purge the library and create space. First up are two more novels by Neal Asher:
These novels form a pair (from the so-called "Spatterjay sequence") that coexist alongside his other Polity novels (see my earlier post). Like much of the Polity novels, they take place outside the Polity, this time entirely on a planet known as Spatterjay.

A major background component of both novels is Spatterjay's ecology which, while implausible, is at least quite imaginative and merits some discussion. The whole ecosystem is infected with a virus that, as part of its own survival strategy, conveys impressive resistance to injury and imbues remarkable regenerative powers to infected organisms. Short of being completely consumed, animals on Spatterjay can survive, and recover from, extreme damage. Of course, complete consumption is part and parcel of the ecology, but these regenerative powers allow, for instance, Spatterjay fishermen to catch aquatic animals, strip them of much of their flesh, then return the "carcass" to the ocean for it to regenerate (the mechanism behind the regeneration of the carcass but not the flesh is not fully, well, fleshed out).

Humans arriving on Spatterjay (in the past, relative to the novels' timelines) were also infected by the virus, which conveyed the same strengths to them. Known as hoopers, they now live indefinitely, with age conveying greater and greater strength and resilience. Physical risks are now far less important to hoopers than the danger that ennui brings in their long lives. Many of them (almost all of the characters in the novels) live as fishermen on the planet-wide ocean where, among other resources, they harvest a chemical known as sprine. This is an anti-viral agent used by animals known as leeches to kill their virally-infected prey, but it also serves the desire for suicide that many hoopers are driven to by their massively extended lives.

Against this backdrop, The Skinner sees the arrival of an unusual police officer to Spatterjay, Sable Keech. He is intent on tracking down the remains of a gang of hoopers who, in an past conflict between the Polity and an alien empire known as the Prador, sold humans into mind-controlled slavery with the Prador. The leader of this gang, Jay Hoop, is known as the Skinner because of his penchant for skinning fellow hoopers.

However, Keech hasn't arrived alone. As befitting a Neal Asher novel, there are a number of other plot strands, most of which arrive at Spatterjay alongside Keech. These include: one of the members of Hoop's gang, come to clean up any remaining evidence of their crimes; an emissary of Earth's second sentient lifeform - hornets; and one of Hoop's Prador contacts, also come to "take care" of outstanding business. And, this being a Polity novel, the explosive meetings of these various individuals take place beneath the watchful eyes of a Polity AI, and a ragtag group of free AIs that work for it. Throw in some sentient indigenous flying aliens who act sails for the hoopers' vessels, and the stage is set for all kinds of revelations, double-crossings and Mexican stand-offs.

Although The Skinner is fairly pulpy science fiction (much like the rest of Asher's novels that I've read), it creates a world that's never uninteresting, and one that carries the reader along. Among its many imaginative, if gruesome, details is that Keech is actually a corpse, a so-called reification - his personality is stored in some AI form while his body is a mummified shell. On top of this, during his stay at Spatterjay, he undergoes a form of reanimation to restore his body to life. Another Asher-esque aspect is his focus on a bloody ecology. The violent goings-on between his characters are paralleled by inter-species blood-letting in the natural ecosystem.

Also similar to Asher's other works is the treatment of his characters. His "good guys" may suffer, but they generally triumph; his "bad guys" usually come unstuck in assorted unpleasant fashions or, if they're just amoral, are sometimes lucky to escape with a severe beating. Having read several of his novels now, it does somewhat deflate the action when you know that, chances are, your favourite characters will make it to the final page. Still, as this is science fiction, we're already quite far from the plausible.

The Skinner's sequel, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, in keeping with the general rule of Asher's work, is enjoyable but definitely a case of diminishing returns. The novel's central strand this time is the endeavor by a reification to set up a sort of tourist pilgrimage for other reifications that aims to follow the story of Sable Keech - the first reification to successfully be restored to life. This strand is complemented by the further working out of several others from the first novel. These include another strand involving Asher's ever-entertaining AIs, and a further one following a surviving Prador from the first novel who turns out to be not so bad.

I suspect this sequence of novels has a shorter life than Asher's other Polity novels, but I certainly give him full marks for imagination. Execution? Well, probably not - this is pulp. But enjoyable pulp.

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