Author: Neal Asher
Title: The Line of Polity
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.
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.