Sunday, 14 March 2010


It's coming up for almost a year since my last trip to the trashy but enjoyable worlds of Neal Asher and his galaxy-spanning creation, the Polity. But with a birthday and Christmas not long gone, he's been back on my book shelf and has now floated to the top. Orbus, while still technically a Polity novel, is set within Asher's parallel Spatterjay series. So vicious, crustacean-like space aliens and the series' eponymous super-virus are the order of the day.

Picking up only shortly after the climax of The Voyage of the Sable Keech, the novel is largely centred around three characters from the earlier book. The eponymous Orbus, an Old Captain from fleeing from a dark history on the planet Spatterjay; Sniper, an experienced military AI used as something of a free agent by the Polity; and Vrell, a renegade Prador alien now, like Orbus, infected by the empowering Spatterjay virus. The former two pursue the latter into the buffer zone that separates the Prador Kingdom from human-controlled space, but Vrell is more interested in exacting revenge on the Prador King, Oberon, the secret of whose prolonged reign he has uncovered. But as all of these various interests clash violently, they uncover a deeper and much darker truth about the origin of the Spatterjay virus, a revelation about the past that threatens the future.

I could go into much more depth with the plot here, but there's really no point. It's perfectly serviceable, and carries one along through an enjoyable read, but it's basically pure pulp. And I could go into character, but that would be a complete waste of time, since Asher's heroes, while they do leap off the page, owe more to pop-up books than literary fiction. They're fun to be around, and I do enjoy stories that spend time with and "humanise" misunderstood space aliens, but they are not ones for the ages.

All that said, Orbus is still a fun read. I'd definitely rate it more than the latter Ian Cormac novels and his Hilldiggers. There's something rather more-ish about his trashy appropriation of science fiction ideas and lingo, and his fusion of it with great heaps of violent action and visceral body horror. There's no one else that I read who manages this quite so successfully. And, to be fair to Asher, while he may be science-fiction-lite, he's still considerably more solid and thought-through than the vast majority of what passes for the genre.

One danger in this book, and something that cropped up in his earlier short story collection The Gabble, is Asher's tying up of key aspects of his fictional world. He's nowhere close to it yet, but there's something of a whiff of Asimov's merging of his Robot and Foundation series. These were great but separate series until late in his career where he decided, probably unwisely, to shoehorn them into a single future history. With the result of some unedifying latter novels. Asher's not there yet, but in linking everything up to the Jain, he's potentially setting himself up for greatly diminishing returns. Which is a shame since, as The Engineer showed, the Jain have a lot more potential than as some sort of convenient "bad guys".

Anyway, as ever, I don't think I'll be ditching Asher any time soon. "Guilty pleasure" being the operative description.

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