Author: Neal Asher
Having followed advice of the inestimable Bookstooge, I decided to embark on another bloody literary journey, but this time a decidedly hi-tech and futuristic one. Neal Asher’s Polity novels had been described as ‘a more action-packed Culture’, and it’s a description I find at once very apt and quite misleading ;). The world of Polity is indeed similar to Banks’s Culture in that it is an ever-expanding and galaxy-spanning political entity of humans inhabiting planets and space stations, all governed and kept together by extremely sophisticated AIs. The AIs have distinct personalities which are, as expected, highly logical and possessed of a worldview undoubtedly more affected by their computing skills than by any emotions, though they seem to feel them too – especially curiosity. In short, however you would slice it, they are not human. Their ascendance to the position of power in the human Polity has apparently been bloodless and quite benevolent, humans having realized that it’s ultimately for their own betterment – and that the other choice they have is definitely worse. The AIs act more like managers than dictators, quite content to improve the lives of Polity citizens and repel any possible threats. And there are threats aplenty, as on many worlds human populations hadn’t joined the Polity, mostly due to political differences (especially autocratic and religious regimes seemingly disapproving of the entire concept of Polity or even the existence of AIs). The major one is posed by Separatists, a loose coalition of terrorists, interest groups, or even governments happy to use Polity’s technology to bring about Polity’s demise, and they are a constant source of interest to ECS – the Earth Central Security agency, consisting mostly of human agents dealing with out-Polity threats.
Enter Ian Cormac, one of the most famous ECS agents. He’s already become a living legend, but the fame came at a cost. Gridlinked, i.e. linked to the AI net in ways that while enabling him to deal with astounding quantities of information at the same time dehumanize him, Cormac soon finds that he might be at the end of his line. Cut off the net in an effort to become fully human again, Cormac realizes that the Separatist threat he’s been fighting might not be worth the hassle, as a mythical creature, thought long dead, lets its presence known in a deviously brilliant and lethal way.
So… Let me first assert that Gridlinked put me squarely in Cormac’s camp, and the second book, The Line of Polity, only enhanced that feeling. I thoroughly enjoyed the technological side of the novels, with runcibles, AI-governed dreadnaughts, thin-guns, ECDs, APWs, and a multitude of other different weapons, Cormac’s near-sentient shuriken, and golems. The golems can be really creepy bastards, especially Mr. Crane ;), but Asher does great job showing their different uses – and the different personalities that can be downloaded into their near-indestructible bodies. The political situation is an intriguing one, and quite realistically played out – if anything set hundreds or thousands of years in the future can be even remotely realistic, that is. What I loved, however, were the wonderfully realized ideas about various worlds and life-forms. I adored the concepts of Dragon and Maker, and I was quite taken with Dracomen and their easy adaptation to anything the universe throws at them. Let’s not forget Horace Blegg, the mysterious Agent Prime, whose own legend starts at Hiroshima during the WWII… Blegg as the incarnation of the Wise Man is a wonderfully subversive character, for all that his scenes are quite short, and I’m eager to see what Asher does with him in the future installments.
Whereas Banks waxes lyrical on the subject of co-existence of AIs and humans (especially in The Player of Games), Asher leaves most of it in the sphere of assumptions – at least for now. I have a feeling there will be more of that in the subsequent books ;). In Gridlinked the details of the arrangement between humans and AIs are left intentionally vague, marked only with broad strokes indicating the easy life led within the borders of Polity: the various enhancements and genetic adaptations available to all willing, the low price of the everyday comforts, the universally high value ascribed to human life in general… Even the doctrine of non-interference on the worlds that hadn’t been yet accepted/incorporated into Polity seems more like a rather benevolent than disinterested approach, intent on limiting the number of potential victims of a possible conflict.
What Asher does pay attention to, however, and with great effect, is the danger and lethality of space and its various inhabitants – all the different life forms and weapons, the planets themselves, sometimes inhabitable or even outright hostile to any life, and sometimes sporting a vast array of deadly predators at the top of the lengthy food chains evolved during millions of years. It surely forms a wonderful stage for the mayhem surrounding our protagonist wherever he goes: and the action scenes are written superbly, in a highly engaging and satisfying way. But it is more than that: Asher excels at creating sophisticated, believable ecosystems and fills them with bits and pieces of history, archeology, sociology and biology. The complex human cultures existing within and without Polity, with special emphasis put on those nomadic, ephemeral ones created around runcibles and those existing in a near-symbiosis with Polity’s AIs, are described vividly and thoughtfully. The various creatures populating the worlds are a product of enviable imagination – and a lot of work. And, even more surprisingly, among the unremitting, vivid action there’s even a place for small, deeply personal scenes, for myths and legends and fables, for gossip and various individual idiosyncracies.
In the first installment, Ian Cormac seems a bit like a James Bond-type of character: cold, ruthless, utterly professional and legendary in his nearly robotic efficiency. Yet in the early twist that leaves Cormac vulnerable and imperfect, bereft of a big chunk of his earlier abilities, Asher achieves nearly instant rapport between the protagonist and the readers: as the hero finds himself flawed and outmatched, he finds out that the need for other people reaches beyond the mere usage of them as tools or Polity-dictated objects of due diligence – and rediscovers comradeship and human understanding along the way.
All in all, Gridlinked definitely delivered, and even more than expected – not only superb action, a solid, entertaining and surprisingly cerebral science-fiction setting matched by wonderful and easy to imagine worldbuilding, and a cast of believable, likeable characters, but also a promise for something more: a potential for a well-executed cosmic space opera :D. I’m definitely going to revisit Polity world soon.