Several months ago I wrote an opinion post recommending a number of currently working UK genre writers to North American readers. At that time I threatened to post, weekly, a brief synopsis of their work to date in alphabetical order, and reasons why North American fans should read them. Unfortunately, my time herding skills fell victim to managing the burgeoning career of a five-year-old entropy elemental. So here, months later, is the first of those recommendations.
When Geoff Ryman nailed the Mundane SF Manifesto to the door of the church, Neal Asher was inside saying mass. Everything that Mundane science fiction is, Neal Asher is not, and vice-versa. Asher’s strength is space opera, and he qualifies under my own, admittedly subjective, litmus test for New Space Opera that requires an author to deal with the potential of the singularity (even if only by explaining why it hasn’t happened). As I count, Asher counters the concept of singularity in , not one, but four, different, intelligently conceived arguments over the course of his eleven Polity novels.
Neal Asher made his first short fiction sale in 1989 and, although he published several novellas and a substantial amount of short fiction in the ’90s, 2001’s GRIDLINKED was his first novel and would have to be considered his breakout work. GRIDLINKED is set in Asher’s “Polity”, an interstellar confederation governed by AIs, which Asher had been developing in some of his previous short work, and introduces us to Ian Cormac, a Bond-ish ~ Retief-ish ~ Flandry-ish special agent of The Polity. The success of GRIDLINKED initiated a prolific cascade of novels (twelve, in all) over the last eight years. Of his twelve novels, eleven are set in the Polity milieu, and five feature agent Ian Cormac.
Asher has cited Iain Banks as an influence, and although it’s tempting to look at the AI-run Polity as an incipient Culture, there is too much divergence and originality in Asher’s work to consider The Polity as derivative. Asher’s work is also more overtly operatic than Banks’. It is set on a large stage and populated by a complex, hierarchic array of AIs (Polity and planetary governors, ships, androids, and military drones), hybrids ( human/AI symbiotic “haimans” and golems carrying dead human uploads), humans (augmented, unaugmented and malodorously reanimated), well-drawn aliens, exotic alien constructs, and what is, perhaps, the most astonishing and entertaining menagerie of alien fauna in modern SF. He has also gifted us with a recurring character that may be the most interesting and complex patchwork monster since Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. In a move intended to afflict the Lords of Mundane with apoplexy, Asher has built not one but two systems of FTL transit into his Polity universe: Traditional shipboard travel via “U-Space” and instantaneous matter and communication transmission via “runcible” (one of several examples of Asher’s mild fascination with the poetry of Edward Lear). Asher’s voice is colorful, direct and confident. He’s never met a fight he didn’t like, and he’s met a lot. If conflicts advance plots, then Asher’s novels usually reach redshift less than halfway in. And, unlike most current U.K. genre writers, Asher’s work tends to be largely apolitical.
Does Neal Asher write escapist fiction? Yes. Is it intelligent and internally consistent escapist literature? Yes, absolutely. You will never feel guilty after reading an Asher novel. Why should you read Neal Asher? Because it’s fun, dammit. Don’t discount the appeal and value of a superior, adult version of what drew most of us to the genre early in our lives.
If you read short fiction, “Runcible Tales” is an anthology that predates GRIDLINKED and is an excellent introduction to the Polity milieu. There is also a fair amount of non-Polity short work written before 2000 that I have not read and can neither recommend or condemn. Asher’s one non-Polity novel is COWL , which is a kind of “big picture” time travel book. The plotting is ingenious and it’s probably his most darkly humorous novel, but I didn’t think it worked quite as well as his NSO offerings.
Following is a bibliography of Neal Asher’s Polity Universe novels in chronological reading (not publication date) order.
- Prador Moon
- The Shadow of the Scorpion (Cormac prequel)
- Gridlinked (Cormac novel)
- The Line of Polity (Cormac novel)
- Brass Man (Cormac novel)
- Polity Agent (Cormac novel)
- Line War (Cormac novel)
- The Skinner (Spatterjay novel)
- The Voyage of the Sable Keech (Spatterjay novel)
- Orbus (due from TOR in September 2009 – Spatterjay novel)
- Hilldiggers (Spatterjay connection)