The Engineer Reconditioned
By Neal Asher
Published by Cosmos Books
Published February 2006.
Review by Hobbit.
The story behind the publication of this book is quite complicated. The original book, The Engineer, was first published in 1998 by Tanjen Books. Unfortunately, as is often the way, the small press publisher disappeared almost immediately and the story collection has become rather hard to get since.
Of course, since then Neal has hit it big time, going onto novels such as Gridlinked (2001), The Skinner (2002), The Line of Polity (2003), Cowl (2004), Brass Man (2005), The Voyage of the Sable Keech and Prador Moon (2006), and greater critical acclaim.
As a recent convert to Neal’s more modern work. I thought it would be quite interesting to revisit some of Neal’s earlier labours. And so, appropriately, has appeared The Engineer Reconditioned, which includes not only the original Engineer novella (taking up the first ninety or so pages of this book), and the short stories originally included in the Engineer collection, but also three more not in the original collection, adding about another forty pages to the book.
With all of that in mind, is Neal’s earlier work worth a revisit?
Well: a conditional Yes, (if not a reconditional one!). I found the book a quick but worthwhile read.
These early stories fill in some of the back history mentioned in Neal’s later books. Though there are future histories not covered in the longer novels here, you can visit Neal’s early stories about The Polity, meet for the first time The Jain, (early back-story characters, mentioned in later books), go to Spatterjay (the planet where the events of The Skinner and The Voyage of the Sable Keech take place), and examine the early beginnings of the runcible on interstellar travel (explained further in Gridlinked and other Polity novels).
A lot of the things I liked in the later books are glimpsed here: Neal’s now-trademarks of violence, technology, sassy AI, pirates, regressed societies and nasty creatures (as well as some unusual ones) are all here. There is Alien-style exploration to places and things unknown. There’s even alien sex. The stories are stridently old-style SF, written with Neal’s now recognisable fast pace and obviously with a view for entertainment rather than any deeper concept.
I enjoyed meeting some of the characters of later books in their earlier incarnations. Of course, being in short stories means that some of the depth and deeper elements of the later books are not as apparent here; but there are signs of where Neal was going. The stories include characters we meet later, such as Erlin and Janer from The Skinner and The Voyage of the Sable Keech, though not always in the same story; so too some of the exotic alien lifeforms – giant leeches, rhinoworms, catadapts, lung birds and Golems.
There is also another universe that Neal has developed here that I’ve never come across before but hope Neal will visit again. His ‘Owner’ universe is an intriguing place, and one which is (as far as I know) only in this collection. The Owner is a superhuman God-like figure who visits worlds, uplifts them and then revisits at a later date. Think Gordon R Dickson’s Way of the Pilgrim mixed in with a touch of The Day the Earth Stood Still, but with lots of Neal’s flourishes.
The whole package is completed with some nice introductions from Neal, explaining how and when the stories got published, what he was trying to achieve and so on.
However, (and to be fair Neal is very clear on this in his specially written introduction to the book), they are early stories. Neal is still, here in mainly 1998, developing his craft. Some of the action covers up plotholes, which would’ve been more obvious with a slower pace or greater depth and the dialogue is in places, frankly, a little clunky compared with later efforts. Some stories seem to finish without a satisfactory conclusion. The extra stories are a welcome addition.
On balance though, this was a very satisfying read. Summing up, this is perhaps a good place to try Neal’s work if you’re new to his writing. It gives you a great flavour of his likes and dislikes and his style. If they whet your appetite, then the longer novels such as Gridlinked or The Skinner will be the place to go next. If you are a fan, you will be very pleased to fill some of the gaps and earlier concepts revisited in later books. The Engineer Reconditioned is a very welcome reappearance of earlier material. With that condition, recommended.
Hobbit, June 2006