Monday, 18 May 2009

A different sort of duck

From the sublimely literary The Poisonwood Bible back to the pulpy science fiction world of Neal Asher ... This time the short story collection The Gabble.

The eponymous Gabble, or Gabbleduck, is a predatory alien species that first appeared in the novel The Line of Polity on the planet Masada. Named for their appearance and for the nonsense speech that they continually spout, they are simply one part of the violent ecology that characterises this world. They feature here in three stories stories, the latter two of which question whether they really are the unthinking animals that they appear. Instead, the human scientists who encounter them gradually uncover evidence that once they were sentient with their own space-faring empire, but that events transpired that forced them to cast aside first their technology and then their civilisation. The nature of these events is darkly hinted at, but Asher seems to be saving his revelations for a further story.

The rest of the stories also take place in Asher's Polity universe, and range over a number of themes and worlds. Common to all is Asher's fascination with body-horror and with fast-paced tales centred around ultra-violent events. In one, a character discovers that the biological agent he contains to digest alien food is actually a corporation-modified parasite that is inexorably shortening his life. In another, a treasure hunter stranded on a world that experiences massive tides is forced to transform himself into a crustacean-like louse in order to survive and exact revenge on his enemies.

Much as with his previous short story collection The Engineer, these stories allow Asher's imagination to run riot while being, by necessity, short enough to prevent his weaknesses from showing. His writing is still pretty perfunctory, with rather cardboard characters that rarely show anything resembling emotions or an inner life, but the stories are strange and diverse enough to hold interest. Much as with the eponymous story from The Engineer, I was most interested and felt most empathy with his aliens. For all of their violence, Asher's uncovering of the history of Gabbleducks, with their casting aside of their civilised nature, made it a lot more easy to sympathise with them than with the assorted gun-toting humans that people these stories.

Asher remains a guilty pleasure.

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