Author: Neal Asher
Title: The Technician
I realize I haven’t written the review for the final Agent Cormac book, Line War, and I can promise I will do that at some point, but since The Technician became the star of my previous post, I decided to give it the much-deserved review first.
The Technician is theoretically a standalone, and can indeed be read as such – though it is worth noting that it’s directly linked to the events described in The Line of Polity and the Agent Cormac series in general. I’d definitely recommend reading Agent Cormac series first – and that in the extended version, starting with Shadow of the Scorpion, where we first meet one of the main characters of The Technician.
The events described in The Technician take place in the year of Line War (2444 CE), though it would be difficult to figure it out since the planet Masada is so far away from the main arena of events. However, the timing works well in setting up previously underused characters, such as war drone Amistad and their lethal protégé, Penny Royal, in main roles, logically explaining the absence of Polity’s usual big shots such as the AIs Jerusalem or Earth Central.
But ad rem; the eponymous Technician is a gigantic albino hooder, a near-mythical creature used to scare naughty Masadan children. Among the lethal fauna and flora of Masada, hooders proudly and without effort keep the most prominent position: they are absolutely, ruthlessly lethal. So much so, that there has been ever only one survivor of a hooder’s attack: the former Theocracy proctor Jeremiah Tombs, who, it seems, has been intentionally left alive by the most infamous of all hooders: the legendary creator of grisly monuments of bone and skin, the albino death machine Technician. Tombs’s mind is shattered; the horrible experience of being eaten alive has never left him, being replayed again and again by his altered brain. It would have been a mercy to just let him die: but the Polity’s AIs sense something intangible, incomprehensible even to them in Tombs’s aberrant fate. Is it possible that the fabled Technician acted intentionally and by altering and adding to Tombs’s neural connections left an undecipherable information package? The AIs may be keeping him alive and well, patiently treating him and waiting for a breakthrough, but the outside world is not so kind. Even after twenty years from the death of the old order, there are those who feel the erstwhile Theocracy members should pay in blood for the decades of iniquity, slavery, torture and deaths. The Tidy Squad, a deep-cover cell consisting of former rebels who still resent Polity’s rule and thirst for vengeance, chooses Tombs as his main target. And so, as Tombs escapes from his confinement and makes his befuddled way toward painful enlightenment, he must be protected by both humans and AIs. And who could be better at this kind of job than Amistad the war drone and his darkly disturbing protégé, the black AI Penny Royal?
The Technician is a fascinating book; I have already professed my love for the Boschian and Gigerian proliferation of lethal lifeforms on Masada in my review of The Line of Polity, but here it becomes clear that also Asher couldn’t let go of his fascination with this world, born in the darkest recesses of his twisted mind. And I’m very happy about it. For the Polity’s Masada is a world where everything tries to kill you and all artifacts of your technologically advanced culture, because it had been designed this way by an ancient race who in face of Jain threat chose devolution and mental oblivion instead of total annihilation. The gabbleducks – the devolved, intentionally dumbed-down progeny of the once-proud Athether – roam the grassy expanses of Masada, watching with bewilderment the human wars and struggles. And as they do, their insane gabbling thoroughly confounding human colonists, so do the remnants of their collapsed civilization: hooders, molluscs, tricones, and other incredible lifeforms thriving (literally!) on destruction.
But this Asher’s standalone is also markedly different from his Agent Cormac series; focused less on action (don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of action here!) and more on some hard questions concerning a world after a deadly war, where both sides of the conflict – the oppressed and the oppressors, or, more precisely, what was left of the oppressors after The Line of Polity events, must find a way to live together. Reconciliation, acceptance, obsession, hatred and grief, revenge, and – first and foremost, echoing through all events of the novel – the process of rebuilding oneself after mind- shattering trauma – are the main themes of The Technician. You’ll find fighting aplenty, from a nano- to the planetary and cosmic level. You’ll find greed and hatred, manipulation and ruthlessness, injustice and tragedy – but, quite surprisingly for the old cynic Asher – you’ll also find a glimmer of hope.
I loved the big reveals of The Technician; this novel, a thoroughly gripping blend of SF and political thriller, presents a new facet to what till now seemed a straightforward, if incredibly ambitious in terms of worldbuilding, space opera filled with classic tropes and a brutally honest dose of political realism. But The Technician, for the most part firmly grounded on the planet of Masada, is at once smaller and bigger in scope, dealing with aspects rarely encountered in speculative fiction: the war may be officially over, but it has not ended for everyone; for those of survivors who had been made by it its end would mean the end of how they define themselves. The vicious circle of vengeance, brilliantly described by Rene Girard in his seminal work Violence and the Sacred, seems to be an indelible part of humanity. Can one intentionally stop it? How do you find reconciliation? What do you do when at last you can look at your former tormentors? And what do you do when you realize that the place you have lived in for generations in fact belongs to someone else?
This being Asher, though, you can still read The Technician as a fast-paced thriller, full to bursting with assassination attempts, close shaves with horrible creatures, battles on cosmic scale, grisly yet colorful descriptions of death and punishment. A bit of a conversation with Alastair Reynolds’ Revelation Space ideas can be detected, too – and it’s rather interesting. And last but not least, this was my first encounter with the black AI Penny Royal; while I met them on their final stretch to redemption, their deliciously ambivalent, completely amoral character makes them at once a delightful and terrifying character to read.
The Technician is my favorite Asher’s novel to date. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, that it gets