Author: Neal Asher
Title: Polity Agent
Series: Agent Cormac #4
Wow. I can’t believe I hadn’t written this review before. In fact, I was so certain that I had, that in the end I checked my blog and Goodreads… twice 😉. And indeed, I hadn’t. Well, better late than never, so here it is.
With book 4, Asher is faced with the ultimate threat to any self-respecting series – getting lost within the intricacies of his own plot and the ever-growing cast. And in Polity Agent he must indeed juggle many pieces and characters, all working independently or semi-independently from one another, all moving in separate directions, all motivated by different things. We have agent Cormac, undergoing changes he doesn’t understand and is not comfortable with; he is becoming (or fears becoming) more machine than a man, and while all the changes are apparently necessary as elements of the life-saving procedure in the aftermath of the Skellor’s attack that almost killed Cormac in Brass Man, he still resents being stripped of choice. We have our magnificent bastard, Mister Crane; what he’s up to is anyone’s guess, but it’s always a wonder to watch him reassemble himself through unending iterations. We have Mika, still deeply engaged in her Dragon research, but also increasingly engaged in a relationship with Cormac; and of course, we have the Dragon. As enigmatic as Mister Crane, the Dragon spheres and their aims remain a mystery.
We also have plenty of AIs, from the nearly omniscient Jerusalem to the rebellious King of Hearts to Jack Ketch who renamed himself to “Not Entirely Jack,” and to the bloodthirsty, adventurous war drone Arach; there’s more, and they all seem increasingly divided and not entirely benevolent. Just take a look at the Legate, an emissary of the Jain technology: imagine Lang’s Metropolis upgraded to Terminator 2 and hell-bent on the destruction of Polity.
We have also Orlandine, a haiman (a meld of human and AI) tempted by the poisoned fruit of Jain knowledge. And last but not least, there is Horace Blegg and his particularly dangerous secret; let’s not forget Sparkind Thorn and Scar, the dracoman. Shall I go on? I believe that by now you get the gist: Polity Agent boasts of a plethora of characters and places and motivations, and is definitely not a good place to start one’s adventure with Asher’s universe. Start with Gridlinked, and slowly make your way through Line of Polity and Brass Man before you attempt either Polity Agent or the fifth and final installment, The Line War.
Asher does achieve what he set out to do, and admirably so. He introduces fresh, fascinating characters, new, unpredictable factors, and an ever-expanding view of the Polity as the universe in which AIs took over, more or less peacefully, and now live in a sort of benevolent, conservative equilibrium with humans. Yet while Polity Agent achieves a plateau of sorts, successfully managing all disparate elements and binding them together into an elaborate, coherent whole, the emotional payoff was a tad lower than expected and the conclusion somewhat lacking. But ad rem.
Polity Agent raises the stakes and adds new problems to the already besieged Polity. The sphere of the Polity denotes the rule of AI/humans; but is not the only area inhabited by sentient life. There are sentient alien species out there, many of them extinct (or seemingly extinct), others, like the Prador, having already made contact with the Polity to their own detriment. The Prador War that had decimated human populations and destroyed many worlds is thankfully in the past. But the Jain threat grows ever bigger, and certainly not without an outside help. This begs the question: who willingly introduces Jain nodes into the Polity and why? Cui bono?
Ian Cormac, the ultimate James Bond of the Polity (with the guns but without gratuitous sex), is dedicated to not only fight the Jain threat, but also to understand where it comes from. This quest will take him and his companions beyond the line of the Polity, straight into deadly danger, and bring them all either bloody, gruesome death or unwanted and impossibly costly knowledge. Because there indeed is an enemy, lurking out there in the unknown regions of the universe, preparing themselves for an all-out assault on the Polity and everything it represents. I won’t spoil the details, but I did love the description of Jain-changed entities; the reign of efficient, logical, deadly chaos. Asher’s imagination once again astounds, creating breath-taking imagery and seamlessly merging micro- and macro-levels of life into a coherent, albeit rather disconcerting, whole.
I’d like to write a few words about Orlandine. Orlandine is a complex character and a testimony to Asher’s ability of writing convincing personalities (I really like Cormac, but a convincing, complex personality he possesses not). Orlandine, when we meet her, behaves utterly despicably; she is a female version of a mad scientist, a mirror image of Skellor, but because she still works within the boundaries of Polity, she possesses that much more power: tools, skills, and information. And yet, while never becoming my favorite character, Orlandine grew on me (actually, this expression in context of Asher’s works seems rather off-putting). She is much more convincing than Mika, I must say; contrary to Mika, who in Polity Agent is once again more of an object than a subject, Orlandine possesses a ton of agency – and is not afraid to use it. She remains an ambivalent character through the novel and beyond; a very welcome exception in a series where the majority of the main cast behaves with remarkable consistency – though it may be a trick on Asher’s part, to lull us all into complacency and then spring a trap… But I digress, having foreknowledge of the events in The Line War 😉.
And yet, and yet… After all that buildup and the majestic journey through the far reaches of the galaxy, after all the revelations concerning Cormac, Blegg, and the Polity, and after all the sacrifices, side-switching, blood and gore and uncanny grossness, the conclusion falls flat. Part of the problem probably lies with me; I have predicted certain outcomes and so didn’t have any surprises here. But another part lies with the fact that this is a penultimate installment; the scene has been set, the players are slowly congregating, but the grand finale is still miles away. Still, it’s a satisfying addition to the Agent Cormac series; my pickiness stems mostly from the fact that till this book I’ve been constantly awed, challenged and provoked by Asher’s imagination and creations. I missed it a little this time around, but fear not – his prose is as fetching as usual:
“Coloron often pondered how a race, in which the stupid seemed more inclined to breed, had managed to come this far, and why human intelligence persisted – a discussion point in the nature vs nurture debate which had not died in half a millennium.” (p.185)