Sunday, 1 August 2010

Space opera

Back to this blog's favoured science fiction pulp-meister, Neal Asher, and a return to his "main sequence" of novels centred around the cybernetically-enhanced Polity agent, Ian Cormac. It seems like yesterday, but I last read one of this series back in summer 2007. How time flies. Anyway, Line War picks up more or less hot on the heels of the earlier volume Polity Agent ...

As is the "standard model" for Asher's novels (including the last one I read), the novel picks up a number of characters that have graced earlier titles, and then runs them through a breakneck, multi-stranded plot. The cast consists of (among many others) the necessary (Ian Cormac), the unsurprising (Dragon) and the unstoppable-force-of-vengeance (Mr. Crane). As is also a popular motif with Asher, a vaguely bad character from an earlier novel returns here and is rehabilitated (Mr. Crane previously; here it's Orlandine). And, as has become increasingly the norm across all of Asher's work, Jain technology is at the fore, subverting Polity AIs and generally causing galactic-scale mischief. However, while pitched battles against the Jain still feature strongly, this time around Asher is cutting to the heart of his fictional utopia and suggesting that the bedrock on which it is grounded, the all-powerful AIs, is somewhat less considerate of human life than has hitherto been supposed.

Anyway, the above replaces my traditional plot summary because, let's face it, Asher's labyrinthine, fast-paced plots are largely superfluous to describe, and require a lot of backfilling to explain characters and their motivations. Which, to be fair, Asher usually does provide (albeit in fairly clunky, Basil Exposition-style shorthand), presumably to accommodate readers less familiar with his canon. Suffice to say: usual characters; usual multi-stranded plot that gradually comes together; usual "goodification" of previously "bad" character; usual extended battle scenes; unusual subversion of fictional universe's founding principle.

This latter shift, hinted at for the last few novels, is the most interesting thing here, though it is a little reminiscent of a plot thread in Iain (M.) Banks' novel Excession. And the dénouement here, that the morally ambiguous actions of the Polity's de facto ruler, Earth Central, will ultimately benefit humanity, also has a whiff of a similar argument sketched out by an AI protagonist at the close of Banks' (most excellent) Look to Windward.

Anyway, notwithstanding the above familiarities and parallels with Banks' (much older) work, Line War is still a passable and broadly engaging addition to Asher's body of work. Much as I suggested previously, I still think that Asher's tying in of everything to the Jain is going to cause him trouble down the line. Further, Asher should really draw a lesson from the work of Alastair Reynolds, and explore his Polity universe with different characters, different story structures and different perspectives. Reynolds' original Revelation Space series got bogged down with the same, tortuously-entwined characters, but he's kept his future history interesting subsequently by doing standalone novels set within it ... much like Iain Banks has been doing for several decades with his Culture novels.

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