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August 1st, 2005, 10:38 PM #1
August '05: Book of the Month - Skinner by Neal Asher
Ok, time to start the discussion on this month's book. I have read it, but don't have time right now to post. So please jump in and start anyone who has read the book.
FYI: There is an interview with Neal Asher posted on SF Site . It talks about Gridlinked and Skinner, I haven't read it yet, so I don't know if there are spoilers.
Last edited by FicusFan; August 1st, 2005 at 10:56 PM.
August 5th, 2005, 02:15 PM #2
I haven't read the interview yet, but wanted to throw out a few things first:
For all of the biodiversity Spatterjay is supposed to have, there are an awful lot of leeches and an awful lot of dingles. Eskimo are supposed to have many, many words for snow, as they see so much of it. Somehow, the people of Spatterjay have only one word for a group of trees, and they were left with only one kind of leech and two kinds of whelk.
This book actually made me think a lot about the things I like in a book, and that's usually some sort of compelling mystery -- either what happened in the past to bring us to this point? Or now that all things are in place what will happen next? Or why would this character do this?-- some reason to read on and want to know more. Evil Agent has been talking about how well Rowling does this with Harry Potter. While I was away I read the second book of Hobb's Tawny Man trilogy, and she is an expert at keeping things going in a way that's compelling to me. The Skinner seemed to lack that.
First of all, three people met up in the first pages for no apparent reason, which I can accept, but then, out of the whole planet, they all seem to be heading in the same direction? Okay. Fine. Now we learn almost all of their secrets by about halfway through the book and then then AI enter. What? By the time I got to the last hundred pages, it seemed we were spending more time on the AI dealing with the Prador, with never a human in sight, than anything else. I ended up skimming over battles between Sniper and various drones. They just weren't interesting, and didn't really seem to have anything to do with anything, really. It seemed like the whole Prador story line just mutated into the book out of nowhere. I guess it would have been fine if it had ended up being attached in some significant way to what was going on with the Skinner and such, but it didn't seem to to me.
Now, a confession: I still have 40 pages to go. I found it so compelling that I left for vacation on Monday morning and completely forgot to bring it with me. I'll try to slip it in somewhere, but it's not high on my list.
Another, gripe I had, with the book was all of the, durned commas, that, seemed to be there for no, reason. It has to, be one of the more, poorly edited books I've, read in a while. They were all over the place for just no reason. They were separating subjects and verbs, they were splitting infinitives, they were severing predicate adjectives from the subjects they belonged to. I thought it was awful. And once I noticed it, I kept noticing it more and more. It actually made it hard to read. (The next thing I read was Hobb, and it was hundreds of times easier to read something with appropriate punctuation.)
There's only one other thing that bothered me...
August 5th, 2005, 02:26 PM #3
I just thought of something else:
I'm not sure if it was because of the cover or something else, but I couldn't help picturing the people and things that happened in this book as anything other than cartoon people. Just something about the descriptions in how some people looked and how people acted, from early on when the captain picks the woman up and holds her there to the way someone was described as hopping from foot to foot all sort of reminded me of something like Thundercats or a cartoon of that period, sort of a black-line, one-color, no good detail vision with cartoon leeches and monsters on land. (With the exception of one description of Keech that actually gave me a good idea what he was like in a real way.)
After a few chapters, I sort of got the point of the italicized opening sections of each chapter, that there is always something bigger to eat the smaller things. After that, those sections just got tiring. The only thing I could see redeeming those sections for me would be if they tied in to the overall plot somehow, that the last link in that long chain had some significant impact on the book overall. As I haven't finished, I don't know if that ultimately happened.
The way the Spatterjay virus worked reminded me a lot of the virus in Karen Traviss' City of Pearl, though I thought the one in City of Pearl was handled in a much better way. The Hive fellow catches the virus, and there's barely a blip. It seemed the only thing he really thought about it was, "Well, now I can sleep with her."
August 7th, 2005, 12:12 AM #4
Hey what happened to my post ? I did a whole post last night or early AM and saw it go up, but now it is gone ?
Did you see it Erf, or was it never really there ? They were having those stupid error messages last night about there not being enough space, but I am sure I saw it.
August 7th, 2005, 09:12 AM #5Originally Posted by FicusFan
August 9th, 2005, 03:48 PM #6
I finished the book last week and I had no idea it was the book of the month!
Anyway, I enjoyed most of the book. The planet Spatterjay is a very intense evolution-run-amok kind of place. The main characters were eminently forgettable (even the dead guy)
I actually enjoyed the scenes with the drone Sniper. (he was one of the more exciting characters IMV.)
Also, the scenes with ole Captain Hooper and his head-cradling box were pretty damm scary. The whole idea of Hoop flying around and reattaching his bat-eared noggin to his previously dead skinny blue body gave me the creepycrawlys.
Other than that, kind of pedestrian.
Now on to Niven's latest: Building Harlequin's Moon, which is excellent so far.
August 9th, 2005, 08:54 PM #7
Ok Since my post has never shown up I will try to redo it.
I never got that commas were a problem, but I knew something was. It was hard for me to read. It didn't flow and seemed a collection of vignettes stuck together for awhile.
I agree that Dingle was over done and silly. I thought it was some sort of fake "Ausiness' when I eventually realized he was talking about some sort of tree/jungle growth.
The slugs I thought went with the world and the terain. I thought that it was needed also to keep vivid how dangerous the planet and its life forms were.
I liked how he did the evolution thing and tried to show the impacts throughout the whole eco-system. Not sure that removable flesh/meat is the way evolution would go -- simply use energy to build it up and then abandon it. Maybe they would get more lean and harder so there was less and less for a predator to take. Also not sure how a bag of organs attached to a skull and a backbone would actually survive long enough to regrow. In any case it was still an interesting attempt to show the impact on everything.
I liked that it was mostly a water world and that most of the events were on a 'sailing' ship. I liked the characters on the ships better than the ones we met at the start. I think they were just the catalysts to get the story going, and to provide conflict and a reason for the events. The woman was I think meant to be the glue that held the 2 guys together, and to give the readers someone to focus on since the 2 guys were so bland. I liked the dead guy and I thought the explanation and how he had to live was done well, but it took almost all of the book to develop. The wasp carrier was just too passive most of the time, and Asher didn't use the link with the hive mind or the wasps much in the story.
Most of the time on the ships I enjoyed, though it took me a while to work out that there were 2 of them. One with the people from the start of the book, and one that they were trying to find. Asher would slide from one to another and it just 'felt' like the same boat.
I really liked the Sails, especially Windcheater. I really liked the AIs, especially Sniper and 13. All of them together reminded me of the machines in the recent Ilium
I also enjoyed the small stories as chapter headings. I thought that exemplified how life was on the planet, and how it worked seemed to depend on the stupidity and inattention of those who became victims, even though they knew better. That seemed to culminate in Sniper ending up inside one of them, and instead of playing by the rules -- he introduced superior technology and won. Perhaps jumpstarting the next bout of evolution lead by a molly carp who dreams of speed and flying.
I thought the Prador where there just to make it seem that there was more danger and jeopardy and less time so that the tension level went up. It also gave us a look at them, and at their social/evolutionary structure and I enjoyed it. Another look at constant predation, but done differently.
I thought that Rebecca was one of the more poorly done characters. She was a mindless, evil one-dimensional bad guy. It was explained that she was like that because of her trying to keep hold of a stolen body, and the drugs the Prador were secretly giving her, but still she was a let down in the book.
I l iked the idea of the 8 and that Keech was secretly tracking and executing them. I also thought the exploration of the idea of whether time, good behavior and suffering can expunge guilt in terms of mass murder was interesting. In Ambel's case they did, but they were content to keep two of the others in stasis coffins and thaw them out periodically so they could go nuts trying to claw through the little window. So is it length of suffering, or the fact that you have lost your mind and can't suffer anymore that earns you a reprieve ? Or is it living an upright life afterwards that does it ? Do we require some kind of death (mind, personality), length of suffering, reformed behavior, or all 3 to be worthy of redemption and a fresh start. Is that worse or better than simple physical death ?
I didn't find the Skinner very scary, to me the flying head was icky/comical. I didn't really understand why he kept the head for so long. I thought the idea that the virus which had an upside (immortality/speed/strenght/healing) also had a downside: eventual mutation into one of Spatterjay's life forms was cool. It reminded me of Dune, as the cover said.
I actually liked the US cover because it transmitted the essence of the book. The UK cover was prettier, but lacking in any ideas. I didn't really see the characters as cartoons, except Rebecca, but I thought the larger than life quality some of them had went with space opera.
I thought it had problems, but I liked it overall.
August 16th, 2005, 08:20 AM #8
Excellent review Ficus!
You have made some very good points that have caused me to revise some of my original thoughts this book.
So maybe The Skinner is not as pedestrian as I mentioned originally.
"I really liked the Sails, especially Windcheater. I really liked the AIs, especially Sniper and 13. All of them together reminded me of the machines in the recent Ilium"
The Sails were an excellent creation. The US book jacket helped flesh them out for me. (That UK cover is generic SF at best.) Just started Ilium, and I too enjoy the moravecs immensely.
August 21st, 2005, 11:00 PM #9
Finally finished the Skinner the other day.
Initially, after reading Erf and Ficus' reviews, I thought I'd end up somewhere in between them - not as irritated as Erf, not as enthusiastic as FF.
A book about sea monsters-how could it fail with me? It seemed a shoe-in. Frequently compared in reviews to the Death World books; I enjoyed them when I was a kid so I looked forward to this in a big way.
Dingle didn't bother me, although the word is peculiar enough so that it would have been nice if he reached for his theasaurus and described the island brush in other ways. But the author is a man who believes in the absoluteness of names and terms.
The comma thing didn't bother me, but the book did have a steady state pace that defied marathon reading; I accepted that and rolled on.
That was at page 150. By the time I got to page 278, the book had outstayed it's welcome.
My main problem with the book, is that it lacks focus. It should have been about Sable Keech. A story about a dead bounty hunter hunting war criminals for centuries is a great idea. But Asher doesn't really want to tell that story. The Keech story hits the dirt after he ceases to be dead.
The book isn't really about any of the characters in particular:
Erlin Tazer promises to be the central protagonist in the novel, also drops out of the picture by about halfway through the book.
Janer is a total zilch, basically a plot vehicle for the hive mind plot,and his romantic dalliance with Erlin is awkwardly done, unconvincing, and unnecessary.
Instead of these characters Asher turns his attentions to his AI drones and probes and the rest of the book reads like a cross between John Carpenter's The Thing, and a Transformers novelization.
Not that there aren't fun things all through this -Asher writes his most animated prose describing the AI war probe Sniper, outwitting Prador drones or dispatching of them with some spectacular explosion.I personally am tired of robots etc. talking in snappy colloquialisms, but that's me. I think it's the kind of thing that continues to be a crowd pleaser.
My second problem is one that Ficus touched on. There are 3 ( or is it 4?) ships on which the sea faring story line takes place. It's hard to tell them apart. I found myself backtracking to realize " oh I'm on the other ship now". That's a real problem, that involves a lack of descriptive clarity. Asher is big on terms and names. He's told you once, if you lose track, that's your problem.Fine. I'll say this though: when something happens to a secondary or tertiary character like Goss,he shouldn't be surprised if a significant portion of his readership, dont remember who she is,or care to know.
It's really a good idea to use establishing and reestablishing descriptive devices in one's writing, other than people's names and overused terms like dingle, or runcible.
My third problem is it's just TOO LONG. He packs the book with a lot of stuff because he's world building, but I really don't care how this book ties in with his other Polity novel when I'm crawling through this one.
Lastly, it is ultimately, a real boys and their toys book. He abandons the characters he starts off with to concentrate on what he really wants to write about; immortal Paul Hogan tough guys getting chunks blown and bitten off them, and things blowing up in general. One of the mercenaries muses on how "casually brutal" the planet Spatterjay is. I'd say that's an accurate description of the entire novel.I might be a little past the target audience age to really enjoy a book like this without reservation.
Two and a half stars for this one. Two stars usually is how I rate disappointments, but the half is a qualification for the stuff I enjoyed -like the sails. They are pretty offbeat, and I got a kick out of them.
In all fairness, this is his second novel. It's fairly ambitious in terms of plotting.I wouldn't be surprised if he writes something in the future that's a killer.
One thing about
leeches, leeches, leeches Erf-
one of the characters states at a certain point, that the relationship between the leeches, and the virus has all but wiped out the bio-diversity on land and that eventually the same thing will happen in the sea. So it is just -leeches, leeches leeches.
Oh and the chapter headings didn't work for me at all. If they read like a scientific text, they would have provided a wry counterpoint to the proceedings. As they stand right now, they just pound home the obvious.
"Eat or be eaten"-I got it, yesterday .It's on the back cover -Geez!
I liked the US cover, and looked at it frequently while I was reading the novel.
ON TO TRIFFIDS!!!
Last edited by ArthurFrayn; August 23rd, 2005 at 01:33 PM.
August 23rd, 2005, 12:29 AM #10
Sorry you didn't enjoy it much Arthur. I agree the reading was a slog, but I find the images and memories of the story left are quite vibrant.
I liked the world-building, and how it linked in to the rest of the Polity.
It was gory, and nasty, but I don't think that was the point, I think that was to show how different a world it was, to set up how different their mind-set was (not just becoming timid creatures who risk nothing so they will not be cheated out of their immortaility by an 'accident'), and of course to shock the reader.
I don't know anything about Transformers, so I can't comment on that. I acutally don't care all that much about robots/cyborgs/AIs - so don't read a lot about them, and this was a nice take on them for me.
Funny but I found the sailors on the boats more compelling as characters, so I didn't really have trouble keeping them straight when I was in the story (just which boat they were on ). Now I can't remember names, but I do remember them.
I have Gridlinked, and may have to order the other one about the Polity, because it isn't published in the US.
August 23rd, 2005, 02:16 AM #11
Actually the Transformers remark is more of a joke than anything. I don't actually sit around reading Transformers novels. Not that there's anything wrong with that.
Looking back over Erf's reviews I had forgotten that he had compared it to Thundercats. So between Thundercats and Transformers I think we've got the 70's cartoon comparison thing covered.
It's not that I totally disliked the book, as much as I was dissapointed by it.I guess I went in with expectations that were not met. Usually not a good thing to do.
BTW Ficus, here's an Agony Column interview you might not have seen:
Last edited by ArthurFrayn; August 23rd, 2005 at 01:36 PM.
August 23rd, 2005, 03:41 PM #12Originally Posted by ArthurFrayn
I think you hit one thing on the head, Arthur. This novel is a standalone, but he tries to do too many series things with it to tie it into his other books. Reading this as a standalone, I don't care about that stuff either, but it's not to say it can't be done. Plenty of authors tie works into their overall universe without hurting the work in question.
So I guess the big question, given that he jumps around to so many things, is what's this book all about? If sci-fi is the literature of ideas, what are the main ones tying this book together?
August 23rd, 2005, 04:54 PM #13
I don't think it's a big ideas book, I think it's a "wow,cool!"book.
And specifically, I think it's a "wow,cool!" for guys in their late teens-twenties. And if you read the descriptions of his other books in that Agony Column article I posted a link to above, they sound like
"wow,cool!"books for young guys too.
Feelin' old Erf, feelin' old.
Last edited by ArthurFrayn; August 23rd, 2005 at 04:58 PM.
August 23rd, 2005, 07:16 PM #14Originally Posted by ArthurFrayn
In terms of ideas I think the book shows how life adapts, and often develops strange kinks, to very harsh condtions. It also touches on the issue of crime/punishment/forgiveness and restituiton. Finally it just briefly talks about what superpeople (those who are immortal and almost indestructible) might be like. The locals seem to be content to live rather simple but precarious lives, when they could actually leave the planet in force and perhaps end up conquering and running the galaxy. There are hints that the Polity powers-that-be, are worried that it might happen. Where as on the planet they seem to focus on self-development, and a strong sense of community. What would motivate an almost indestructible immortal ?
And if you look at Sniper you see that the power of personality can win against all odds.
I get your point Erf, but given Asher's deficit of writing skills, it is probably better off that he uses just those few words for Leeches and Brush.
September 6th, 2005, 04:25 PM #15
I agree with most of what all of you have said here.
-It was definetely a slog of a read for me. By the last hundred pages I was just really willing it to be OVER. And it was hard to read for long stretches. The prose did not pull you along.
-Yeah, the meeting of three characters at the beginning was so forced as to be ridiculous. When would that ever happen. Then the woman was just fine to have them tagging along while she went to ask her old mentor "how to live with immortality?" yeah right.
-Characterization, basically nonexistant. Seems to have a problem common to many SF novels where the AIs and some aliens are more human than the humans. This was essentially the case with the Warden, Sniper and Windcheater.
-The Prador reminded me way too much of the bad aliens in C.J. Cherryh's Faded Sun Trilogy, which I also slogged through and didn't like. And all of the plot where the Warden was watching the larger political picture was so underdone as to make me wonder why it was in there.
I liked the ecology, and I actually did like the chapter headings. Although the message was blindingly obvious, it really showed how much TLC he'd put into his world building. It's almost like he liked this world better when there were no people in it and he didn't have to do characterization.
Anyway, here's hoping I can find a copy of Triffids, and if not I'll see you guys around "Lords of Light," which I KNOW I have a copy of.