Saturday, 7 May 2011

An increase in skill?

Another return to the high-octane-low-brow science fiction of Neal Asher. But there are a few slightly unusual angles to this 2008 novel, Shadow of the Scorpion.

Split between childhood memories and his first significant mission for the Polity, the novel is once more centred around Ian Cormac, Asher's favoured (and augmented) ECS operative / hero. In the present, Cormac is sent to a world ruined during the Prador War. There, the Prador remain a threat, but a significantly smaller one than that posed by Cormac's fellow humans. In the past, Cormac's recalled memories hark back to his childhood during the Prador War. They are united by the occurrence of a forbidding scorpion-shaped AI with more than a passing interest in Cormac. But as Cormac's latter day mission spools out, the AI reappears in his life, offering both assistance and closure to issues from his deep past.

I say "unusual" above because, while still holding to Asher's trademark fast-paced and violent conventions, this novel is rather more literary than usual. The present and past sections are interlaced with some skill, and are wrapped around a central mystery that's far more human than anything Asher's tried before. Ordinarily, I'd expect his slippery telling to obscure some super-weapon or some dull, if plot-relevant, secret. But, no, it's actually quite interesting for once. And the scorpion, the drone Amistad, is given motivations that extend far beyond use as a powerful and intelligent weapon.

All that said, this is still not Iain M. Banks (cf. his memory-based classic), and Asher's writing and characters are still largely in service to an action-filled plot. For one, the timing and content of Cormac's recollections are more straightforwardly in service of driving the mystery than a more skilled writer might have used them for. And I might just be overemphasising its better elements because it ends on them, but it is pleasing to read something in which Asher has invested a little more thought. Maybe he still has tricks up his sleeve after all?

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