Author: Neal Asher
Title: Brass Man
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.
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.
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.