Neal Asher, The Line of Polity (2003)

The Line of Polity

Author: Neal Asher

Title: The Line of Polity

Format: Paperback

Pages: 485

Series: Agent Cormac 2

This review was promised in our summary post for 2019, so I actually twisted my right arm with my left to sit down and write it in the middle of sunny summer ;).

Having reviewed both the first installment, Gridlinked, and the third installment, Brass Man, I’m in a bit of a pickle when it comes to choosing the content for this entry. Probably, it would be sufficient to say that The Line of Polity was the book that thoroughly and inevitably sold me on Asher’s Polity universe, and even if I don’t agree with all the political and ideological views of the author, I plan to remain a devoted fan.

Polity is not as pleasant and safe place as Banks’ Culture, nor is it as boring ;). The immense and mind-bogglingly diverse universe (..and I’m sure I could find another -verse fitting here :P) containing Polity, the human society ruled by nearly omniscient AIs, is a wonderful treat for all SF fans. But Asher goes further than just worldbuilding, however impeccable: he creates a world alive – rife with conflict, ambitions, and emotions, not only human, but also AI. And for a series featuring amazing battle sequences, both in the space and on the ground, Asher spends a lot of time considering the sentience. True, his AIs are very human, but reading Polity books I have a feeling they are this way by design, and not simple lack of thought or convenience. After all, they have been created by humans, influenced by the constant contact with humans, and, in a world where alien sentient races are considered more of a myth or a cautionary tale from the past than reality, AIs remain in a direct relation to humans. This relation can morph into a myriad different constellations: a mirror image, a role model, a dependent, spoiled child, a doted-upon prodigy, a master, an apprentice, a pest, a threat, a hobby… Asher deftly shows the variety of responses possible between sentient beings, each of which has something the other doesn’t possess, and subtly incorporates them into his tightly woven narrative.

The Line of Polity takes place in several locations: the uplink station Miranda, populated by space-adapts and destroyed in a sneaky attack by the Dragon; the planet called Masada, remaining outside of Polity jurisdiction, tightly controlled by a confluence of fanatical religious fundamentalism tied with purely profane, economic greed into the form of Theocracy; access to modern technology limited to the ruling caste; and nightmarishly difficult environmental conditions, effectively rendering the planet uninhabitable except for a few far-flung and tightly controlled worker camps. The members of the ruling caste removed themselves to orbital habitats located above the planet, aptly assuming the all-seeing perspective of an omniscient being. But the time of reckoning is nigh…

What I loved about this book the most was the absolutely delightful and chilling variety of life forms. Dragon remains a thoroughly baffling presence: speaking in riddles, at the same time similar and different from its sibling destroyed in Gridlinked, wishing – and even challenging – for a contact with the Other who’d be on a similar intellectual and emotional level, he reminded me a bit of the ocean in Lem’s Solaris – the infantile god-child, starving for contact but unable to really connect. I loved Asher’s twist on evolution, and Dragon’s ingenious and yet very evolutionary appropriate solution to the problem of solitude. In short, I had become a fan of Dracomen 😀

But the best Asher’s creations in The Line of Polity are those non-human, especially the various members of Masada’s lethal fauna: heroynes and siluroynes, gabbleducks and – most importantly – hooders. Hooders, oh my. I’m actually tempted to draw one :D. The riot of form and function, not fully comprehensible for humans encountering them, but nevertheless working on some subconscious, instinctual level, leaves the reader in awe of not only Asher’s formidable imagination, but also his sense of aesthetics. The alien race of Prador, which had appeared in the prequels, is undoubtedly impressive, both in size and through their very competitive, lethal culture – but at the same time very conventional; it’s what you’d expect from alien invaders from the deep space, in a very Heinleinian, starship trooper style. The hooders and gabbleducks, and the Dragon and Jain, on the other hand, are anything but :). Terrifying, fascinating, and very, very dangerous, they remind the reader that a human being is in fact a very soft, very weak, and a very slow kind of prey, evolved in quite favorable and sheltered conditions on Earth – and that their only saving grace in the big, bad universe is their brain.

Polity Hooder
Hooder on the cover of Asher’s The Technician

The Line of Polity boasts an impressive supporting cast: not only our old acquaintances from Gridlinked make an appearance – the scientist Mika and the Sparkind warriors, but also several new characters get on the stage, with great effect: from the Outlinker Apis, an incongruously innocently efficient killer, through the olf cyborg Fethan, more humane than many humans out there, and an unlikely but wonderfully tender pair of the AI Occam and the ship’s captain Tomalon (learn from that, you Disney hacks!), to, of course, the Dracoman Scar.

The bad guys this time come in two types: the Theocracy elite, grown fat and lazy and ever more greedy on the backbreaking work of their slaves, and the stereotypical madly cackling villain, coming after Cormac for very personal vengeance. There’s no subtlety in Asher’s villains, I must admit. The criticism of institutional religion in a highly stratified and routinised form, reminiscent of ancient Egypt, Indian castes, and modern Catholic Church, is surprisingly heavy-handed, even if quite accurate. And while I enjoy the enactment of pride before fall adage, I’d still like a bit more nuance, especially in Skellor. That said, however, Skellor’s transformation is one of the strongest points of The Line of Polity – and not only because I read the third part already and know how it ends 😉 Skellor is a man driven to extremes by his passions and his lack of morality. His motivation is lacking, but his journey is ultimately very fitting for what he considers himself to be – a self-proclaimed Übermensch, standing above the Polity and the human-AI Leviathan, and owed the powers over life and death due to his staggering intellect and will. Sounds familiar? It should 😉 Yet these tropes, let’s call them Nietzschean for the sake of simplicity, though obvious, are threaded in skillfully, granting Skellor more depth than he would otherwise have.

All in all, I enjoyed The Line of Polity immensely. There were slower moments amid the gritty action, a bit less of character development than I would have liked, and the first signs that the author’s worldview significantly differs from mine, but these are only insignificant quibbles. The superb worldbuilding and the stunning resolution to the plot easily elevated The Line of Polity to the very top of my Polity reads and to a place of honor among the SF books I’ve read.

Score: 10/10

32 thoughts on “Neal Asher, The Line of Polity (2003)

  1. That cover art 😍 it’s gorgeous. Never heard of this series but now seriously want to check it out.

    On a side note; been tempted by Banks. Is he a bit dull? I tried Peter F Hamilton and found his 700+ pager (Pandora’s Star to be incredibly slow and boring). So hard finding good sci fi at the min 😭

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, the covers are splendid! 😀 And are actually very accurately depicting the content 😉

      I found Banks a bit boring; interesting, with many fascinating ideas, and his political views aligned with my own, but not very convincing as a writer – a rather plodding one, with good intentions coming in the way of good narrative, and ultimately not very graceful in conveying his admittedly often fantastic ideas.

      Knowing something of your literary tastes I think you’d enjoy Asher a lot! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting. His world building definitely sounds amazing. I think own something by Asher (The Soldier?). Have you read that one? I haven’t read it yet because I never hear anything about him but he sounds like he might be worth checking out. I’ll definitely add the Polity books to my TBR, I love that drawing of the Hooder!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Soldier is a later book – the same universe, but different timeline from Agent Cormac series. I asked my Asher expert, Bookstooge, and he recommended starting The Polity series from Agent Cormac novels – which I did 😉 Gridlinked is the first of those.

      That said, The Soldier is a first installment in the Rise of Jain trilogy and you already own it, so maybe it’s worth a try. 😀 His books are definitely worth checking out!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The summer is perfect, warm sunny days and cooler nights, and waves ideal to try out surfing 😄 Alas, all good things end too quickly, and our holidays will end soon, unfortunately…

      Yeah, yeah, so in the next half-century? 😂

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you liked this book more than me 😀

    Glad to see you’re still liking Asher. With 3 books under your belt I’d say you’re all set. You might not like some specific book as much as others, but now you’re an Asher fan 🙂 Welcome to the club!

    I’m currently working my way through his “Owner Sequence” trilogy and am hoping that by the time I’m done with it that the final book in the Jain trilogy will be out, so I can start in on that.

    I have to admit that I like the Prador BECAUSE they’re so Heinleinian villains. They’re the perfect bad guy 😀

    Keep track of any references to Penny Royal. It pays off down the road when you get to the Transformation trilogy.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😊

      I actually have five books read, the first three Agent Cormac books plus the Shadow of the Scorpion prequel, and the Prador War stand-alone 😉 Another Agent Cormac is in the reading queue already… And I’m very pleased that there are still so many books ahead of me!

      I do think I had already seen a mention of Penny Royal, but for the life of me I can’t remember exactly where it was… Something to do with Jain, I think.

      The Prador are well realized, but too predictable and stereotypical for me – like a tribe of warmongering barbarians clad in carapace 😜 I must say I much prefer Jain, the hive mind alien is by now also quite stereotypical, but somehow still more terrifying; the Prador can be quite funny at times, whereas Jain – not really. I do enjoy watching the AIs fight, though! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you and you’re very welcome! 😄

      I sure hope my proselytizing will win Asher some new readers, his Polity universe is definitely worth it 😁 And I can’t wait to read about your reading adventures in his world!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Hell yes to Ola’s 10/10 reviews!!!! You write with such a convincing and contagious tone, I love it! If Bookstooge hadn’t already made me want to try Neal Asher’s books, your reviews would have made do so immediately!!! I definitely need to pick up a copy of the first book now.

    The fanart/coverart/artwork for the creatures are incredible for this series! Again, phenomenal review, Ola! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you very much indeed, Lashaan!!! 😊

      Seems like your favorite among my reviews are those on both ends of the spectrum – either the unadulterated praise or the complete thrashing! 😁

      Neal Asher’s books are definitely worth a try and I’m flattered my review influenced your decision – and I do hope you’ll enjoy the books as much as I do! 😀

      The creatures are wonderfully realized, and they inspire a lot of creativity among the fans – I’m actually willing to give it a try and draw some of them! 😁

      Liked by 1 person

      1. You’re absolutely right though hahah Those reviews usually emit so much emotion from your part, so it’s always fun to see how you put it all in words! But ANY review by you is always such a pleasure for me anyways hahah

        Definitely keeping a note on Asher’s books for sure. Can’t promise I’ll find a way to squeeze into my reading schedule for 2020 but who knows, anything is possible! 😀

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Thanks, Lashaan, and ditto – your emotional reviews are also a pleasure to read! 😁 I think it’s about making the reader feel that we care about what we write 😉

          I think you’d enjoy Asher a lot, so if you have time, give them a chance! 😄

          Liked by 1 person

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