Neal Asher, Brass Man (2005)

Asher Brass Man

Author: Neal Asher

Title: Brass Man

Format: Paperback

Pages: 485

Series: Agent Cormac 3

With my current rate of reading I’m suffering from overabundance of books to be reviewed. This apparent luxury becomes something of a curse instead of blessing, a bit like Midas’ touch, for I’m torn between different genres, authors, series and books every time I sit down to write a review. This particular review comes a surprise even to me, as I haven’t reviewed yet the second part of the series, The Line of Polity. However, as Brass Man has as much in common with Gridlinked as it has with its direct predecessor, and I’m careful to avoid spoilers, I hope I will be forgiven this slight desynchronization.

The reason for such a jump will soon become obvious, as it has more to do with my reflection on the underlying philosophy, or worldview, of Asher’s work, than with the story itself. But before I focus on this aspect of Brass Man, an introduction to the plot is required.

Following the discovery of active alien technology (alien in the meaning ascribed to something from beyond known universe, which in the world of Polity has become quite substantial, and active in the meaning that its remains, once thought long – some 5 million years – dead, suddenly appear quite aggressively lively) in The Line of Polity, Agent Cormac must once again pursue his once-human nemesis, Skellor, now a terrifying hybrid of AI, human, and the alien Jain, and, not coincidentally, his other nemesis – the Dragon. The whole crew from Gridlinked comes back together for this adventure: the nearly indestructible Sparkind Golems: Gant and Cento, his Sparkind human companion Thorn, Life-coven biophysicist Mika, and of course, Horace Blegg, still as infuriatingly mysterious as ever. They are accompanied by AIs of different levels of sophistication, some of which – such as the infamous warship Jack Ketch and his unruly offspring, as well as Jerusalem, capable of bending the laws of physics –  become fully fledged protagonists in their own right.

Here the similarities with Ian Banks’ Culture become more visible: for once, the AI of Polity become increasingly more humanized in a way that I have found many times before at once endearing and disappointing – endearing, obviously, because it is so much easier to relate to an antropomorphization; disappointing, because it showcases the limits of human imagination in a way all our fantastical worlds do, and probably will, until we actually encounter their real equivalents. The few books I have read about an imagining of an alien life-form that was utterly different from human were all by Lem; and all of them were irrevocably, undeniably pessimistic about our chances of communication with that life-form and comprehension of the Other.

Of course, Asher has a solid background prepared for both the fictional evolution of his treatment of AI and the treatment itself – after all, AI is an offspring of humans and as such, contains deep structures of thought, perception, psychological traits and so on, derived to some extent from humans. It is difficult to argue with that; and arguably it does make for a great read, evoking in the reader references to material as diverse as Banks’ The Player of Games, Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Richard Morgan’s Altered Carbon. Asher’s own memorable addition to the variety of androids populating SF is the eponymous Brass Man: none other than Mr Crane, the nearly three-meters-tall metal Golem with fractured identity, repressed moral instinct, and  henceforth absolutely no compunction about killing on orders of those who control him – and, what should come as no surprise, really, he is usually controlled by total psycho- and sociopaths. What makes Mr Crane unique, however, is his subconscious drive to become whole again: to join his fragmented identity into one whole, ultimately accepting or rejecting his memories and his self. He is the paradoxical underdog the readers feel compelled to root for: constantly tormented by the things done to him and done by him, at once innocent and psychotic, a-moral as a consequence of horrible abuse constantly heaped on him by people who enslaved and owned him, Mr Crane becomes a deeply humane figure, and his long, winding road to self-knowledge – the unintended center of the novel. That Asher managed to somehow cram in a reference to Bergman’s Seventh Seal is a testament to his skill –or, if I’m wrong, to the increasingly strangely workings of my mind 😉 Mr Crane, at least in my imagination, looks like enlarged, hard-faced Clint Eastwood from his Western times: flinty eyes, no facial expression whatsoever, a long, tattered coat covering his brass body, complemented by a wide-brimmed hat and a pair of sturdy tall boots.

Clint Eastwood

Agent Ian Cormac, despite the cognitive transformation he goes through in this novel, remains surprisingly stagnant in his development: still emotionally detached, still almost saintly in his quiet, lethal professionalism, almost fanatical in his devotion – called love by Asher – to the abstract ideal of Polity. A modern crusader, a professional weapon, in the end he seems less humane than the damaged Golem. If I hadn’t read two previous novels in the series, as well as its prequel, The Shadow of the Scorpion, I would have been more disappointed; as things stand, I still am slightly dissatisfied with this lack of character development. Admittedly, Brass Man is action-packed to bursting, and there are plots within plots in play – and yet, in the end, the crisis and the final climax between Cormac and Skellor lacked the emotional intensity and payoff I have come to expect from Asher’s novels. Too powerful enemy and too many moving elements, I’d say, compunded by that curious flatness of Cormac’s character, who by now started to resemble an idea of a modern/future hero than a living, breathing person.

Fortunately, others picked up the slack: I was immediately taken with Anderson Endrik, the Rondure Knight slaying monsters with a lance from the back of his faithful, insectile, two-headed, sentient ostrich (yes, you read that right), his young sidekick Tergal, playing a reluctant Sancho Panza to Anderson’s world-weary Don Quixote, and the whole baroque, hostile world of Cull, clearly – and fully – inspired by the unique art of Hieronymus Bosch.

Bosch Ogród Rozkoszy Ziemskich

And that Bosch reference brings me to the final reflection: for a reason that upon deeper consideration seems rather obvious, the majority of the best SF books is written by philosophical conservatists. The vision that humans are inherently and irrevocably flawed lends itself so much better to meaty, dramatic or outright tragic plots than the rather idealistic liberalism 😉 The potential of perfectability leeches away some of the tension while certain simplification and forced salience of conflict smoothes and propels forward the action; and the need for heroic agency, for personal sacrifice, for contested and yet fairly won chance to grow, remains at the foundation of human culture. Democracy just doesn’t seem to hold that same appeal in the imagined worlds, filled by us with every imaginable strife and torment, so that our heroes can overcome them and emerge victorious for the good of all humanity ;).

This difference is notable in the way Banks and Asher deal with their perfect Edens of human-AI coexistence: both worlds are derived from the same root; both look for conflict outside of their little enclaves of paradise; but Asher, firmly believing not only in the inherent imperfection of human nature, but also in the fact that it constitutes a form of original sin, transmitted from one form of sentient life to another, invites that conflict within, as a form of temptation. In a way, the author’s worldview is inevitably and inextricably enmeshed into the world he creates. Here, though, Asher goes a step further, and expresses these views openly in short paragraphs fashioned into fragments of fictional speeches, treatises and guides. As happy I am to read those tidbits of additional worldbuilding, in the end I am saddened by the intrusion of highly politicized, divisive language in a novel that ultimately praises diversity and tolerance as highest values. Through the use of such literary implements the author’s worldview becomes the only truth. And while I may agree with many of those authorial commentaries, I cannot shake the feeling that in the end in Asher’s view I would probably be labeled a soft-headed liberal, derided for still believing certain ideals of human rights and the human ability to improve themselves.

I had a lot of fun with this book; it was action-packed, at moments surprisingly tender, at others horrifyingly creepy, filled with a truly enviable breadth of imagination, bits of dark humour and even a dash of reflection on human nature. It is by no means perfect; the main conflict fell flat against all the other moving and changing plot elements, and the conclusion was less than completely satisfactory. Yet it is a highly ambitious addition to the world of Polity, which expanded Ashers’s world in many mind-boggling directions at once.

Score: 8/10

43 thoughts on “Neal Asher, Brass Man (2005)

  1. piotrek

    Well, maybe I will read that, after I finish Banks 😉 if you judge his books to be both fast paced and smart, it might be a better light sf than David Drake…or, I have to admit, Weber’s latest works.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve got to be kidding me to even try to compare Asher to Weber… Weber’s depth may be justifiably compared to that of a flatworm, and even then I might be unfair to the poor creature 😝 I read two of his books and that was more than enough for a lifetime.
      Drake’s work I haven’t read, but Asher is on par with Banks when it comes to the breadth of imagination, and better in terms of action and character development, even despite my complaints. Admittedly, I feel closer to Banks in terms of political worldview 😉 but Asher reads much better.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Bart!
      Yes, I’d say so. Gridlinked is a very good introduction to the world of Polity, and I might be actually a bit skimpy with my rating of these books, all things considered 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Butting in here…

      As a seasoned Polity enthusiast, I do think that that the Agent Cormac series (starting with Gridlinked) is the best place to start. I liked his Spatterjay trilogy more, but Cormac lays the foundation for the Polity.

      Go forth and read! 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I haven’t seen Asher reviewed a whole lot, but I’ve been curious about his stuff. Sounds like it’s worth checking out?

    Also- love the Clint Eastwood comparison! He’s great.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! 😊

      Oh, he’s definitely worth checking out, it’s one of the best political-military SF out there, and his worldbuilding is simply superb.

      If you’d like to try something by him, go for Gridlinked – it’s the first installment in Agent Cormac series and it’s a great entry point to the world of Polity. Additionally, this actually had already been reviewed on Re-E 😆


  3. Great review Ola. Glad you enjoyed this as much as you did, even with the caveats. To be honest, you’re assessment of Cormac as a future hero ideal is spot on and it tends to stay at this level for the final 2 books.

    I found it absolutely fascinating that you found Asher to be conservative and that he’d label you as a soft liberal. I’ve always assumed he was a Utopianist, what with his rants and outright denunciations of anything religious IN THE BOOKS. He walks the line of realizing how broken humanity is as a whole but offers only “knowledge” as the solution. Which even he knows isn’t enough, as characters in his stories show time and again.

    You’ll also find that a fractured identity and the fixing thereof is a thread that runs through almost all of his stories. Sometimes it plays a bigger part, sometimes smaller, but it is always there. It many ways Asher comes across as searching for a solution and yet rejecting the only viable solution, ie, God as the Supreme Being and Creator of all. I don’t remember which book or three it was in, but he REALLY goes off against anything religious in one of his books. Yet at the same time his stories and characters are all about searching for a true meaning to Life.

    On a review note, I hear you about reviewing being a curse. I was starting to get burned out a month or two ago and so it was a relief to only read 6 books last month, so that I would only have to write 6 reviews 😀 😀 😀
    Hope you can find a way to keep on. What with Pio slacking off these days ( 😉 )

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😀
      Well, that’s a bit worrying about Cormac, I must admit – I preffered him imperfect and doubting and more human 😉

      I find Asher very Hobbesian – the same main lines of thought, the same vision of Leviathan – Polity as the only entity able to transcend the basic human urge of Bellum omnium contra omnes and create a society where everyone is protected by a range of universally applicable laws.
      That doesn’t contradict in any way your take that he’s quite secular in his worldbuilding and that his take on gods and religion is one of material omnipotence, and transcendence coming as a result of material development. He actually calls the biggest AIs demigods 😉
      In this sense I feel Cormac is a kind of crusader, utterly devoted to the concept of Polity instead of god.

      I actually very much appreciate his secular take on the meaning of life, even if I don’t fully agree with it. I think the best SF always searches for answers to the big questions – and this is what makes it so valuable to me 😀

      Oh, man, this can be a real bother 😉 Not that I’m burning out with reviews, but as I’m actually more inclined to read than to write (as you know, my reviews tend to be quite long), I end up with a pile of books to review 😉 As I tend to review approximately one book in eight, I can now choose a book for review from a really wide array 😉

      That said, I intend to review the final installment of Cook’s Black Company next! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

        1. The one from back in the day – Soldiers Live. I’m actually quite hesitant to read the new one… Have you read it?
          And the final final conclusion, Pitiless Rain, is still not out, I think…

          Liked by 1 person

            1. Maybe if I’m feeling adventurous, one day, I’ll eventually read it. Don’t think it will be worse than Esslemont 😛 But not before I deal with other Cook’s books – The Dread Empire (I’ve read only 3 of those) and Garrett P.I. So… a long time 😉

              Liked by 1 person

              1. Cook seems to have a thing for ruining final books in his series. The Dread Empire ended up with a pedophile wizard as a “sympathetic” main characters. Totally ruined the whole series for me.

                And I’ve heard that one should stop reading Garret at Book X (that seems to be a matter of debate, but all seem to agree the last couple were stinkers).

                Liked by 1 person

                1. Good to know – thanks!
                  Yeah, I remember your review of the last Dread Empire book – that was unforgettable 😉
                  I’ll be picking up Garrett soon enough – I’m curious if I’ll enjoy it.

                  I actually thought that Soldiers Live was a fitting conclusion to the series – very bittersweet, but very appropriate as well, all things considered. I’m not too open to the idea of continuing the series… This was a solid finale. Review’s to come! 😉

                  Liked by 1 person

                  1. I might make it to the end of Garret before you. Depends if you read the whole series or space it out.

                    I concur about Black Company. I was perfectly satisfied with how things were left. I think I gave it 4 stars back in ’17?

                    Liked by 1 person

                    1. I’m closer to 9 or 9,5 😉 The change of guard was necessary, I think, as the conflict was so prolonged, but I did miss some of the old characters and wanted more of them 😉 Bittersweet, as I said 😉

                      Yeah, I think you’ll finish Garrett long before me – I’m pacing myself with series as I get this “too much of a good thing” feeling if I read too much of any series at once…

                      Liked by 1 person

  4. I don’t know how you do it to pinpoint so many references and make such enticing and intriguing comparisons to other great pieces by other authors. I was sold by Neal Asher’s work when Bookstooge read and reviewed them but it’s definitely great to see more love tossed his way, coming from you! Splendid review as always, Ola. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, Lashaan, as always 😀

      Neal Asher is an author definitely worth reading, and while his work is much more streamlined and action-packed than Banks’, thus allowing for a bit of simplification of certain matters, he nevertheless manages to create truly amazing worlds and beings, and ask most vital questions at the same time.


  5. Between you and Bookstooge, I am now firmly set to start reading Asher at the first opportunity (i.e. before I get distracted – AGAIN – by something else). Your description of a main character who seems immune from evolution does worry me a little, as does the author’s view on humanity as irredeemably flawed: if on one side I know (as JMS said in Babylon 5) that we will bring our darkness with us into space, on the other I hope that what we will encounter there will help us mitigate some of our worst flaws. Still, this sounds like a very complex universe (and the reference to Banks is just as intriguing), so I’m eager to see for myself.
    Thanks for sharing this amazing review! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh well, perfection is such a rare state of things… 😉
      But Asher is definitely worth reading whether you agree with his worldview or not. The worldbuilding, which I haven’t commented on much in my review, long as it was already, is absolutely amazing. Asher’s imagination is a fearsome power in its own right, creating alternative evolutionary tracks, nanotechnological threats and breathtaking vistas with enviable ease. And while some of the characters could definitely use a bit more growth, in such a streamlined, action-filled book that problem is something rarely noticeable and only by very picky people 😉

      Good reading then, Maddalena, and I’ll be looking forward to your reviews! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Because of you and Bookstooge (and a hefty piece of luck) I now have the five Cormac novels in my possession ready to read – you’ve both made excellent cases for my reading Asher. So, thank you.
    Also, LOVE this review! Seriously, you are very cool!
    Finally, Lem is right to be pessimistic methinks – look at all the ‘alien’ species we share the earth with and we can’t effectively communicate with any of them. We’re screwed when the aliens visit. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Now I’m a bit envious 😉
      I’m planning to buy them all at some point, if the series remains as good as it is now, but for now I’m a heavy library user 😉

      Thanks! I really appreciate the fact that books such as this, while immensely readable, at the same time inspire deeper reflection 😊

      And I couldn’t agree more when it comes to the current limits of our comprehension – though I remain optimistic when I remember how hostilely tribal we had been even a few centuries back. At least we have such concepts as human rights and non-human sentience – there’s still hope for us 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Believe me, this one has Eastwood vibe in spades 😆
      I ended up reading first four or five installments of the Expanse – the reviews of them are actually on the blog. I liked it, sort of – but definitely less than Asher or Banks, for that matter. One of them, Cibola Burn I believe, siphoned off most of my good will, and then even though it got better again, I just couldn’t find any eagerness to continue 😉 I’d say the Expanse is more like soap space opera than space opera 😂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I will wait until I have written my review to check yours out. I don’t want to be influenced by reading others just yet.

        Did you see the tv series?

        Ever tried Peter F Hamilton? Only tried one of his and was left underwhelmed.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I totally get it – I often do the same 🙂

          Yes, I had seen the first season and a half of the second. Similar thing as with the books happened and I just lost interest. Not bad, but there are much better series around.

          No, I was warned earlier his books wouldn’t work for me 😅 but I did try Weber’s Honor Harrington books and they left me foaming at the mouth…
          I quite enjoyed Kim Stanley Robinson’s SF, but admittedly it’s not very action-packed 😉

          Liked by 1 person

            1. I remember that I was either reading some reviews or something about Hamilton that raised certain red flags… With your confirmation of the quality of his writing I won’t be losing any time on his books now 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

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