Sunday, 15 June 2008

Digging hills

Neal Asher seems to be cranking books out at quite a rate, so I'm no longer sure which is his latest. Hilldiggers has to be up there though.

Hilldiggers again takes the reader to Asher's Polity universe. However, similar to the books in his Spatterjay series, Hilldiggers is not part of the main series of Polity novels that feature the agent Ian Cormac. Instead it takes place in a solar system outside the "Line of Polity" (the Polity's border), originally populated by humans at a time before the formation of the Polity. However, the Polity is now bordering on the system, and has sent ambassadors, overtly and covertly, to contact the civilisation there.

But things are complicated in this system. Two Earth-like worlds exist, and while colonised together, their early history was marred by distrust and clouded in mystery. This distrust grew until both planets engaged in a seemingly endless war that occurred sporadically when the two planets were in orbital alignment with one another. The war only ended when an alien entity, the Worm, was captured by one side, the Sudorians, and its technology exploited to give that side a decisive edge over their rivals, the Brumellians. Though the war ended, it did so brutally, with the Sudorian military exacting a near-genocidal final blow. The novel picks up twenty years after the end of the war, with peace apparently firmly established.

The main narrative strand follows one of the Polity's ambassadors, David McCrooger (another Scottish-sounding protagonist), on a direct mission to establish relations with the victorious Sudorians. Distrusted by the Sudorian military, who fear a Polity take-over, McCrooger is caught in an assassination attempt that strands him on Brumal. Captured by the Brumellians, he begins to learn an alternative version of their history and that of the war.

The novel has a number of other narrative strands, including four quads (two sisters and two brothers) whose origins are related to the Worm, and have all risen far in Sudorian society. McCrooger's path intersects with each, and it becomes clear that something is driving each to their position, while also trying to effect changes in that society. The chapter frontpieces in the novel take the form of short excerpts from a revisionist history of the Sudorian-Brumellian system written by one of the quads.

Finally, the novel includes a Polity AI narrator, Tigger, who covertly watches over the solar system, and who takes an interest in one of the quads. While officially on a Polity mission, Tigger (who, unsurprisingly given the name, takes a copyright-violating form) is not averse to following his own conscience, and begins his own investigations into the Sudorian-Brumellian war, an investigation that unearths some truths that the Sudorian military want to keep buried.

As normal for an Asher novel, these strands start out fairly separate, but gradually wind together as connections form or are revealed. Also as usual for Asher, the novel is something of a page-turner, as one is quickly drawn into the world he creates. However, while the novel in part tackles a "big theme" (genocide), as is also normal for Asher, it gets bogged down in a rather long-winded yet carefully-described series of violent events. This culminates and an over-long space battle involving the Hilldiggers of the novel's title. Editing this section down could have vastly improved it, but I suspect that Asher likes describing such events. That's something of a shame, since in other respects the novel is more successful than his other books. Particularly the gradual revelation of the history of the settling of the system and its century-long war.

Possibly just by a quirk in my reading order, the novel seems to share a theme with Alastair Reynolds' Chasm City, with their common backgrounds of the settlement of a solar system and the resulting bloody war. Unfortunately for Asher, this shows clearly the gap between the two novelists. Reynolds handles the revelations more carefully and with much more panache in his writing. While it's still enjoyable, Asher seems satisfied with just revealing material artlessly to the reader. Reynolds also (generally, but not always) avoids the pitfall of describing action in great detail and at great length. On this count, Asher seems to be falling into a classic trap that affects series novelists: the exponential growth in size of later novels.

Anyway, notwithstanding the above, Hilldiggers is still an enjoyable page-turner. And while flawed, hopefully its better aspects reflect a growth in Asher's writing. Since he's now cranking novels out at full speed, this should be a testable hypothesis in fairly short order!

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