Polity Agent by Neal Asher
Published by TOR
Review by Hobbit, November 2006.
Warning: Unlike my previous review of Neal’s work, Prador Moon (see HERE), this is not the best place to start Neal’s books. In fact, I rather suspect that, despite the details along the way, if you started here you may feel a little adrift. This is the fourth Cormac novel, following on from Gridlinked (2001), Line of Polity (2003) and Brass Man (2005). To get this book’s full effect, you really need to have read these before this one.
Go on. Then come back.
For those who have read the earlier books, this is a satisfying book which concludes many of the earlier events in the series in a now rather typical Asher trademarks of big weapons, big events and violence.
The story begins with a typically ‘big event’. A runcible gate opens outside Celedon, an old space station from eight-hundred years in the future. Not only is this time-travel something which isn’t recommended in the Polity, it clearly heralds the arrival of something big and nasty chasing the people who came through the gate. This is the return of Jain nanotechnology (seen in earlier books) – an alien technology which invades intelligent species and then subverts them to ruthlessly colonize new territories, and believed to be the destroyers of the ancient Alien civilisation known as the Makers. The Polity AI sets up its defences, so that much of the early part of the book deals with rather large and impressive attempts to remove the infestation.
Unfortunately the invasion is not totally contained and a Jain node (the complex means of packaging and transporting Jain nanoviruses) ends up in the possession of the Separatists, a terrorist group seen earlier in the series, determined to rid humans of the Polity’s AI governance. Agent Ian Cormac and his team have to get it before the damage is irreparable and the future of humankind altered forever.
From this then, it can be seen that the book involves the return of characters and the resolution of situations created in earlier books. As well as the titular Cormac, there are Cormac’s friends, the Sparkind super-soldier Thorn and the athletic alien dracoman, Scar. The book begins with Cormac still recuperating from his previous injuries following the defeat of Skellor (which also led to an intriguing memory loss), Mika helping him convalesce whilst Cormac, Thorn and Scar are part of the group sent to stop the Jain invasion.
With such galaxy-spanning events, and such a vicious adversary, it should not be too much of a spoiler to suggest that not all of the characters survive. Indeed, as fitting in the last act of a story, many of the series’ earlier performers appear to reprise their roles. The Brass Man (Mr Crane) visits, albeit briefly. The Dragon, previously enslaved in earlier books, has a more important part to play, and as a construct of the Makers reveals more of its purpose and origin.
There’s also a a haiman (part human, part AI) called Orlandine, whose investigation of a Jain node leads to some very useful discoveries about the Jain.
What was of most interest to me here was the return of Horace Blegg, the seemingly-immortal enigma from earlier books. Here Blegg’s background history, mentioned fleetingly before, is tantalisingly realised through retroactive flashbacks, and lead to an unexpected plot development.
This book closes many aspects of the Polity set up in the earlier books, and interestingly sets up more puzzles, which will no doubt be examined at a future time. Fans of earlier books will want to see how the future history saga continues. Neal fills the story with his usual array of big conflicts, brilliantly realised technology and visceral action, but in a novel lasting nearly 500 pages also has time to look at wider concepts and issues – the role of AI in the Polity, the effect of alien species on Humans, the nature of aliens such as the Jain, even the nature of humans – all of which give the book a little depth. There is not a lot of deep conceptualisation here, but there are points where deep thought is going on.
The weakest area of the book for me was perhaps that some of the characters come across as rather disposable, though with planet-destroying events of this magnitude it is not always easy (or necessary) to go into an individual person’s innermost thoughts. Neal does this where necessary with the bigger characters, but there are some along the way that seem to be just using other’s oxygen.
Despite this minor reservation, the book is much more complex than Prador Moon, and deeper than Brass Man; if you enjoy your SF fast, violent, peppered with big ideas and unusual means of killing each other, this one shows Neal at the top of his form; it is therefore highly recommended to those who have read the earlier books.
Hobbit, November 2006.