Neal Asher, Polity Agent (2006)

Author: Neal Asher

Title: Polity Agent

Format: Paperback

Pages: 562

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.

Mandelbulb by Tom Beddard (2009), www.subblue.com: a 3D version of the Mandelbrot fractal. Image from https://livebook.manning.com/book/generative-art/chapter-8/4.

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)

Score: 8/10

56 thoughts on “Neal Asher, Polity Agent (2006)

  1. Every time I read one of your Asher reviews (or one of Bookstooge’s for that matter) I wonder if I was not too hasty in letting my disappointment with Gridlinked – a DNF for me – color my view on this series. One of these days I will have to give Asher another chance, maybe from a different starting point… 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, I’m sorry to hear you DNFed Gridlinked! What was that didn’t work for you there? Maybe I could offer another recommendation… Definitely, The Line of Polity is a much better book, after all! 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I did like the overall concept but I found the writing a bit… awkward – for want of a better word – and the characters felt more like tropes than people: the main antagonist only lacked a mustache to be twirled! 😀 Anyway, I read afterwards that Gridlinked was not the best place where to start, and that since it was Asher’s first book it was bound to suffer from some “growing pains”, so Bookstooge recommended I start with The Skinner, which I will read one of these days. I hope 😉

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Gridlinked has this problem indeed, but thankfully it gets better and more complicated by the page, if you’re willing to overlook the first clunky chapters. I think the fact that Asher packs so many ideas into the beginning of Gridlinked, and doesn’t make his characters very likeable at first, may put off some readers. Still, I felt that even this bumpy beginning was better written than Banks’s Culture novels… 😂 Plus, in the end you might find yourself quite surprised by the villain… 😁

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, it’s one of few sure winners with me – at least to date! 😁 It’s very SF, a bit on the hard side, with plenty of technical stuff – especially in the beginning. Not everyone enjoys it, but to me it’s a bit like military fantasy in space 😄

      Like

  2. Glad you like Orlandine, because she plays a massive role in the new Rise of the Jain trilogy. And that wretched Dragon is back too, sigh. I hate that thing even while finding it interesting 🙂

    Considering how far you’ve read and what you’ve thought, you should like just about everything else Asher has put out. I’ll be on the lookout for which series you like better because that’s the interesting part. We both can like Asher but different parts 😀

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Aaargh that’s the stupid new editor actually. I told you about my workaround, I believe… Well, I can’t use it anymore – Admin gets me right back to block editor. Anyway, in the block editor when you look for image block it gives you a few choices. One of them is “compare images” or something like that, and it gives you two spaces for images: “before” and “after.” I found it worked pretty well with what I had in mind for the Legate 😄

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Yep, all the ways to use the classic editor are now gone, or about to be gone. There was another wave of angry users on the forums at the beginning of October when wp did another forced roll over.

          Liked by 1 person

          1. 😭 I really feel it’s disrespectful to the users. It’s not like I’m not paying for this, so as a customer I really should have an opportunity to influence the product. And WP now behaves like a bulldozer, flattening out everything in its way to suit only itself. The Russians had a name for this, during the Communist times – they called it uravnilovka.

            Liked by 1 person

    1. I warmed up to her all right 😉 She’s not on par with Mr Crane, but then – who could be? And she’s definitely more interesting than Mika 😁 I do like Dragon a lot, though! Glad he’s back (or they’re back, if there’s still more than one sphere!)

      I’ll be very curious about that too! 😀 Next on my list is Spatterjay trilogy, maybe I’ll be able to fit in at least one book before year’s end.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I have not found a character to match Mr Crane yet 😦 I suspect the only way Asher will match that creation is if he brings him back. And he hasn’t so far.

        Definitely looking forward to your thoughts on Spatterjay, whenever it happens 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        1. First I need to review The Line War… 😁 Oh, Mr Crane would certainly deserve his own book! My first Clint Eastwood impression was spot on, especially considering the conclusion to Agent Cormac series! 😄

          Yeah, I’m more hyped up for Spatterjay now, so I’ll be trying to sneak it in soon… 😁

          Liked by 1 person

  3. S.D. McKinley

    Man, hard science fiction. I don’t know that I have read much of it, but I can feel the tug already. do you feel like a novel can be ‘hard science’ fiction and ‘smooth reading’ at the same time, Ola G?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a tricky question 😉 I think the first book, Gridlinked, might be a bit hermetic; it starts off a deep end, with complex descriptions of technology required to travel through space. At the same time, though, it’s fast-paced and action-packed, and after a while, if you get used to this style, it becomes very smooth indeed.

      I’d say start with Gridlinked if you want to give it a try, but keep in mind that the beginning might be a bit bumpy and it takes some time to warm up to the characters (on purpose, actually; one of the main themes of this novel is the border between human and AI…) You can check out my review for Gridlinked and see if Asher’s books are something you’d be interested in 😀

      Liked by 1 person

                  1. S.D. McKinley

                    Yeah, I can still remember the coyotes howling at night. Ah, come on. I was picturing you reading hard SciFi watching the Packers. 🤣🤣🤣

                    Liked by 1 person

                  2. S.D. McKinley

                    Yo Ola G. So, after reading Mr. Bookstooge’s recent review on one in this series I have officially decided to add book #1 to my list. It’s a whole nother story about when I’ll get to read it, tho. 😂

                    Like

  4. Your enthusiasm for this author is catching! I know I’ve said it before but I’m going to try Gridlinked soon. Especially after seeing your comment about this series being “better written than Banks’s Culture novels.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m very happy to hear that! 😁

      I like Banks’s ideas but I don’t consider him a good writer 🤣 Asher is much better even in Gridlinked which typically for a debut might be felt to start rather bumpily…

      I’ll be looking forward to reading your thoughts on Asher soon! 😄

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yeah, it was a long time ago, but I remember struggling through Consider Phlebas. Read it in my younger days so I wonder how it would appear to my older eyes. I did enjoy The Player of Games though. I’ll have to have another look at his style and see what I think.

        I appreciated your comments about sticking with Gridlinked as it gets better as you move forward. I haven’t read any good Hard SF for a while.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Exactly! I didn’t get any further than you in Culture novels, because while I appreciate his concept of Culture as such his writing just made my teeth ache 🤣

          I do hope you’ll like Gridlinked and the rest of this series! 😁

          Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes! 😁 I’m pretty curious what will be your opinion on this. I do sell this very consistently, but please remember that the first book is a debut and may turn out to be quite bumpy at first 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. What a clever use of the split/comparison image feature thingy! It has me thinking of how I could make use of it myself too hahah

    Excellent review for this one too. Both you and Bookstooge have made Asher a must-read for me and hopefully, I could dip my toe in this universe in the near future. Really loving the complexity of the narrative and the fully fleshed-out characters constantly introduced, on top of our gratuitous-sex-free James Bond character!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah, that’s the only nice thing about the new WP editor 😀

      Thanks, Lashaan! Don’t think I didn’t notice your sarcasm in that last line… 😛

      I’m very happy I can spread some love for Asher and his phantasmagorical, slightly Boschian imagination. Not all characters are equally fleshed-out or multi-dimensional, Cormac himself is a bit of a poster hero, so beware (and yes, his chastity is an element of that psychological makeup; not that I’d like to see more sex in Asher’s novels, far from it, especially because for Asher it seems to be a point of difference between AI and humans – a bit like in Matrix ;)) But I’d love to see Cormac beset by doubts, fighting with weakness, overcoming his personal demons…. You get the gist 😉 And truth be told, there’s more of it, especially in this fourth novel – but just so you know, Gridlinked is a bit of a rough sketch compared to the later installments when it comes to psychological realism :D. The narrative, though, is really baroque in its complexity, and I love how it all tightly fits together from book one – no loose or dead ends here! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Another tempting review. As I’ve not read any of the earlier ones, I’m putting all four of these on my wish-list so that I can work through them in order. If only I could order up some extra reading time, too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I feel your pain, Cath! 🙂
      These need to be read in order, I’m afraid… So, a significant time investment. But if you’re looking for an action-packed hard SF with a surprising amount of thought-provoking ruminations on morality, rationality, violence, and the essence of what makes us human, this is a series I can fully recommend 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  7. This review is amazing! And as soon as I finished it I had to check out your review of the first book! The AIs sound great and now I have to meet them and all of these characters!!! Also, the worldbuilding sounds fantastic, so… How could I resist???

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! 😊
      I’m so happy I could interest you in these books, Susy! I do hope you’ll love them as much as I do, when you have the chance to read them 😀 The first book is probably the weakest in the series, as it’s a debut and moreover it starts in a manner quite unforgiving to the reader, with lots of technical details – but once you’re past the intro, it’s just plain amazing! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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