Wpell, I’ve finally gotten the chance to read Asher’s first novel. The good people at Tor were kind enough to send along a copy of Gridlinked, and despite my usual ne’er shortening reading queue, various other day-to-day concerns involving paperwork and appointment planners and such, and even though you can clearly see from the above publication date that I hardly need worry about beating the presses with this review, I went ahead and read it last week. I’ve never been one for long series, and certainly the greater part of my reading time is spent on authors I’m encountering for the first time, rather than always going with the same old stand-bys, but what can I say? I get something new in the Polity universe and I know it will always be good. When it comes to escapist fiction, Neal Asher has become my most dependable travel guide. No surprise then I moved him to the top of my reading pile.
Many of the characters that we would see throughout the series make their first appearance here: Golems Aiden and Cento, humans Gant and Thorn, all of them Sparkind (an elite fighting force, spiritual successors to the Spartans, but literal successors of modern military and police special forces units, with additional skills in piloting, search and rescue in extreme environments, etc.); Mika, trained at Lifecoven, a sort of spiritual healer, physician, microbiologist, nanotechnologist, etc; and Chaline, in charge of the demanding job of runcible installation, which entails, among other things, engineering, AI installation, programming, high energy physics, etc.
As enumerated in later titles, we tend to find in this future universe a rather impressive array of skills in the average professional, be they scientists, soldiers, investigative agents, and so on. Additionally, we see a culmination and unification of multiple fields of expertise. Blame it on the long lifespan.
Of course, this is the first Cormac novel, and about half the book is from his perspective, with the other characters seen through his eyes. The other half, in the style that has established Asher as a complicated but engaging storyteller, is from the perspective of the book’s primary antagonists. Psychotic Separatist leader Arian Pelter, barely surviving an encounter with Earth Central Security agent Ian Cormac — losing an eye, and his equally psychotic sister — goes off the deep end.
We’re introduced for the first time, also, to his murderous, broken Golem, Mr. Crane. Along with his right-hand man, John Stanton, and other mercenaries they pick up along the way, Pelter has every intention of killing Cormac, slowly and painfully.
Meanwhile, Cormac has bigger fish to fry. He left the local planetary police to clean up the mess of Pelter’s terrorist cell to travel to Samarkand, the former site of a runcible installation. Since the use of runcibles involves travelling through Underspace, and arriving thousands of light years away moments later, any object, left unchecked, will come out the exit gate at only a fraction less than the speed of light. The excess energy must be bled off first. But somebody has sabotaged the runcible buffers on Smarkand, and one unfortunate individual came out the gate at full speed, the impact converting nearly all his mass into energy, far exceeding even the most powerful nuclear weapons, and killing 10, 000 people. Cormac has to figure out what happened.
Dragon is hanging about the planet, and offering assistance, but the mysterious and powerful entity has its own motivations. An alien from a far-off, and apparently extinct civilization, Dragon is a massive bioconstruct that can travel through space at beyond light speeds, is capable of creating life (its dracomen rival the most advanced Golem series androids in strength and speed), and is as enigmatic as a demon, djinn or Earth spirit in stories of old. It also has its own corporation and a series of biological augs (implants for humans that allow an advanced form of net connection and increased mental capacity).
Through all this, Cormac must do his job while in a sort of technological withdrawal, having just deactivated his gridlink for the first time in 30 years (the most advanced available aug, short of actual haiman synergy), for the sake of learning how to interact with others as a person again.
As the first novel, there is a lot that needs to be covered. A Polity run by powerful AIs, rather than people. A human society spread across hundreds or thousands of planets across the galaxy. Alien entities, hundreds of years of interstellar history and technological development. Even in this first outing, Asher is sparse and skillful with his exposition. Most (but not all) of his chapters open with a brief excerpt of some future work, describing some piece of technology, an important historical figure, an aspect of modern politics, etc. These are brief and enticing, always giving us what information we need to make sense of the story, but never as much detail as we want, forcing us to keep reading.
In later novels, other characters have more of a chance to grow, and Cormac becomes a primary character, but one of many. In this first novel, he is clearly the principal antagonist, and we don’t get to know the others nearly as well. Since Cormac is very much a man of action, spending more time from his perspective helps to develop a good baseline for him as a character for later books, which I lacked before. Additionally, many of the events in this book are referred to in later volumes: the event at Samarkand, the early encounters with Dragon, the lunatic Pelter and his loyal “Brass Man.” Though Asher’s novels tend to read well as individual works, this background certainly lends a further dimension to the later works in the series.
As usual, Asher shows that, even when first starting out, he’s pumped out good, fast-paced, hard science fiction. I’ve read an interview where he admitted an influence from Iain M. Banks, but in fact, I find Banks to be a little bit too slow for me. Asher has created a rich, well-developed universe, which any fan of high-octane, hard-boiled, and smart sci-fi should enjoy, and he conveys this richness without overburdening the reader in exposition, even in the very first book. This is a feat.
The danger of reading an early work by an author after later entries to a series, or even later stand-alone novels from the same author, is that one might discover the writer is still feeling things out, and perhaps stumbling a bit, lacking the experience his later works will reflect. While Asher has certainly found a somewhat firmer footing in later books (relatively speaking), this first novel is anything but clumsy. So I can happily recommend Gridlinked as the logical place to start for new initiates to the series. If you’re like me, you will be rewarded with a long and happy relationship with the Polity universe.