The Voyage of The Sable Keech by Neal Asher
Published by Tor UK, February 2006
Review by Hobbit
For those who haven’t read the interview I did with Neal (Read it here), Neal Asher is presently seen as one of the new leading lights of the so-called ‘Brit-New-Wave’ of SF. Along with Peter Hamilton, Stephen Baxter, Alastair Reynolds, Richard Morgan and Charles Stross, Asher’s technological space opera romps of high-action, biology and violence have steadily been gaining a growing readership. His latest, The Voyage of the Sable Keech, is a sequel to his book The Skinner, (published in 2002), which won the Salamander Award, given by the Czech Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror as the best SF book published there in 2004.
The book begins five years after the events of The Skinner.
Since the events of The Skinner, (when the dead-but-living policeman Sable Keech was adapted by the Spatterjay virus into something living again), the planet has now become a pilgrimage place for scores of alive-but-no-longer-living reifs (reifications) all after the Sable Keech treatment. To this end, the reif Taylor Bloc has had built an enormous Ark-Royal type of ship (called The Sable Keech) to take reifs on their pilgrimage to the Little Flint, where Keech was reborn (and is now deified by The Cult of Anubis Arisen). Running the ship for Bloc is one of the techno-pirates of yore, Captain Ron, who like the other Old Captains have been evolved by the Spatterjay virus into a near-immortal with remarkable strength and self-healing recuperative powers.
Having survived the battle at the end of The Skinner, Vrell, a member of the crab-like carnivorous alien race of the Prador, whose idea of a good time is to eat their young and enslave humans, looks toward leaving the (mainly ocean) planet of Spatterjay this time around.
Erlin, one of the characters from The Skinner, has gone on self-imposed exile to sort out how she feels about her extended life.
The living sails have now developed a means of bartering for their services and are in the process of being uplifted to being an economic key player on the planet.
At the same time, the Prador return to the planet, determined to dispose of Vrell before he leaves Spatterjay.
Such a brief summary of the book doesn’t really convey the style and pace of the book well. It is one of those where you have to experience it to get a real feeling of what’s going on.
The story shows a lot of Asher’s strengths – it moves along nicely, with the broad variety of characters shooting and eating their way through the aliens with relish. As the brief summary above shows, the plot is also fairly complex, involving nefarious dealings and double-crossings galore.
I would say that it may be useful to have read The Skinner before this one, but it is by no means essential. There are subtle (and not so subtle) references to the earlier book, but the new story is clear enough, even if a little hard to follow at first. As it is a sequel, many readers will enjoy the return of characters from the earlier book. As well as many of the Old Captains (and new ones) and Erlin Taser Three Indominal, there’s also Janer Cord Anders, the man connected to the hornet hive mind explained in The Skinner, and Olian Tay, now in charge of the world’s bank. It is useful, though not crucial, to know of their past to enjoy the book.
As rather expected, the alien lifeforms are a strong point, with some genuinely bizarre creatures lurking on land and in the ocean depths of Spatterjay. As well as seeing the return of many of the strange species met in The Skinner, such as the living sails, the emergence of a giant whelk, (whelkus titanicus!), in particular is awe-inspiring, not to mention intimidating. Whilst avoiding the temptation to shout in places (in my best pirate-speak) ‘Giant whelk ahoy!’ the delight at reading about such nasty and alien creatures is one of the book’s (and Neal’s) strengths.
There’s also a healthy mix of technobabble (nanites, nano-circuitry, anti-gravity) and megaweapons (ceramic missiles, rail guns, fusion bombs, the singun) too, as is befitting an SF novel of this type. It is, perhaps above all, entertaining, and therefore possibly not to be taken too seriously. What Neal does well is to take a lot of SF tropes but meld them into his own entertaining vision.
At times, this sense of entertainment led me to find odd jarring discrepancies in characters – for example, with the return of characters of Sniper and the AI drones such as Thirteen. Their bickering banter and colourful curses in contemporary language (for example, coming out with phrases such as ‘F*ck me’ and calling an enemy ‘a sh*thead’ at a particularly heated moment) destroyed my suspension of disbelief whilst reading, though also making me consider that this is a book that doesn’t want to be taken too seriously.
In summary however, even though I enjoyed The Skinner, I am pleased to write that I enjoyed this more. It is a complicated book, yet one which gives Neal a chance to expand his writing strengths: his extensive use of new, bizarre and yet plausible wildlife, his gleeful use of technology (particularly weaponry) and (rather unusually for an SF writer, I think), his humour.
There is much to enjoy (and shudder at) on the world of Spatterjay!
Hobbit, February 2006