Author: Neal Asher
Title: Dark Intelligence
Series: Transformation #1
As weird as that may sound, Asher’s Polity books are my go-to comfort SF. Yes, they are filled to the brim with gore, lethal action, and body horror, and brazenly discussed issues such as free will, determinism, identity, and the origin of emotions, but they are also written (especially the newer ones) in a very accessible, quick and unobtrusive style, non-stop action, incredibly imaginative space battles and a general cinematic feel to the vast vistas of the void. Sounds like an oxymoron, but it’s the real deal.
Plus, let’s be honest here, this series boasts my favourite black AI Penny Royal as its protagonist. I just couldn’t pass this!
It’s by no means a standalone series. It’s a part of the Polity universe, and builds upon the foundations of the previous books, particularly The Technician and Prador Moon, and, to a lesser extent, The Shadow of the Scorpion. The enjoyment and understanding of the events of the Transformation series would be severely limited without reading these. Which, in turn, build upon Asher’s debut series, Agent Cormac (Gridlinked, The Line of Polity, Brass Man, Polity Agent, and Line War [aaaand I can’t believe I didn’t write a review for Line War. sigh]). So, I’ll state the obvious here: if you haven’t read the aforementioned novels, they constitute a huge time investment. Plus, Asher’s early books, mainly Gridlinked, do suffer from the lack of writing experience: they are somewhat clunky and undeveloped, with the main emphasis put on action. I love this type of gritty SF, with military undertones, inimical powerful alien races and their artefacts, and human – and AI hubris at the center of it all. But that’s me ;).
This time around, we get to see some new parts of the galaxy, beyond the borders of the Polity, and we even get a peek into the Prador Kingdom. There are new intriguing worlds out there, black holes, interesting societies, fascinating plots, betrayals and attempts at redemption. As the name of the series suggests, the main focus of these novels is transformation: physical, mental, and emotional. What Asher achieves in this regard is truly fabulous; and while most of it resides firmly in the softer end of the genre’s continuum, being technically as vague and incomprehensible as magic, it all was sciency enough for me to remain completely immersed.
Asher seemingly does take some shortcuts in this first Transformation installment: from the get-go we get an uber-manly hero as our main character, his manliness underscored by a rather preposterous name of Thorvald Spear (who names his ship Lance – a bit too on-the-nose Freudian, perhaps?). At the beginning, Spear is exactly what we expect him to be: handsome, highly intelligent, very skilled, competent, calm and composed, and very, very rich. Another iteration of James Bond or Jack Ryan, this time in space. But Asher has a few aces up his sleeve this time around. Spear, for all his impenetrable armour of apparent privilege and intellect, is a victim. And while we travel with him on his mad quest for revenge, we start to realize something more: he is, in fact, a construct, a puppet with strings manipulated by the very entity he hates. He has been constructed with a very concrete purpose in mind. Will he accede to that purpose, will he let it define him? Or will he try to fight these constraints, these external drivers of his behaviour? But this goes further than Spear’s dilemma: it applies also to us. How much is predestined in what we do by the limitations of our cognition, the material wiring of our brains, the pressure of the environment? Do we even have a say in all this, do we possess some vestige of free will?
And here we come to the crux of this novel and the entire series. What defines our identity? How the material substrate, of the mind, of the body, determines our mental and emotional state, our sense of self? While the answers that Asher offers here might be considered controversial in their trademark decisiveness stemming from an assumption that there’s one true answer, and ultimately prove somewhat simplistic, they are definitely, rewardingly thought-provoking. Yeah, Asher smashed it out of the park this time. Man, Penny Royal is a masterful creation. This AI with deliciously dark history is incredibly creepy, with a twisted sense of humour powered by near-omnipotence and near-omniscience, and with a serious multiple personality disorder (which, in the end, sounds like a bit of a cop-out, a contrived simplification of reality, but then, we’re talking about a popular culture artefact here, so I guess Asher can be forgiven ;)). Penny Royal gets a royal treatment here, complete with flashbacks and some long-needed explanations. I love how Asher portrays his AIs as beings which are fallible, deeply imperfect, and yet still leagues above us, humans – high enough to be viewed as gods by some.
As you can already surmise, I enjoyed the heck out of Dark Intelligence. I loved meeting some old friends (or nemeses) again, such as the Amistad, the war drone, Earth AI, the Atheter gabbleduck, and of course, Penny Royal. The cast of new characters is pretty impressive, too, and Asher definitely upped his game when it comes to character creation and development. I particularly liked the addition of Prador characters, Sverl and his family are a delight to read about. And the action scenes are absolutely fantastic, as usual.
I went on and gobbled up the next two installments in a blink. Comfort read, as I said ;).