by Neal Asher
Review by John Berlyne
Tor HCVR ISBN/ITEM#: 0765307359
Date: List Price 25.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In recent years Macmillan have given the genre two of the most exciting writers to be currently found in print. Both Peter F. Hamilton and the superb China Miéville have made huge impressions with their wonderfully creative fiction and it is more than possible that Macmillan have just found another name to add to the list.
Neal Asher's debut novel Gridlinked will be published in March in large format trade paperback and it will most certainly be noticed by the establishment. Asher has been very active for some time on the fringes of the UK genre scene having had a number of his short stories published in various small press magazines and collections. Gridlinked is his big break though and it couldn't be more thoroughly deserved.
This is a brilliant and audacious work, chock-full of (often literally!) cutting-edge ideas. At first it seems reminiscent of Iain Banks' Culture novels, but this is only a fleeting similarity between The Culture and the structure of Asher's Polity - a technologically advanced and imperially minded society intent on colonizing other worlds for no other reason than the belief that it would do them some good. Though being compared to Banks is certainly no bad thing, I feel that reviewers too often use him as the benchmark by which they judge most new home-grown hard SF talent. On the strength of Gridlinked, it is very clear that we'll all soon be seeing how future authors compare to Asher.
Gridlinked opens in a departure lounge. A technician is waiting to go through the runcible gate to be instantaneously transported to the planet Samerkand. This transport system (the idea of which put me very much in mind of the farcaster portals in Simmons's Hyperion Cantos) is run by super-intelligent AI's yet for this poor chap something goes wrong and his arrival causes a huge nuclear explosion and the deaths of about 10,000 people. The body count of Gridlinked starts high and goes on from there!
Ian Cormac is an agent in the employ of Earth Central Security and he is gridlinked. This basically means that through cybernetic implants (or augs) he is directly in contact with the massive AI's that run much of show. It takes us a little time to key into all this high-tech stuff - Asher crams his novel full of ingeniously conceived gadgetry. Cormac is one of the most senior and experienced agents and he is instructed to go and investigate the Samerkand explosion. This order comes from one Horace Blegg, a mythic figure in the ECS believed to be over five hundred years old and to have a finger in every pie. Blegg also informs Cormac that his gridlink, having been in place for thirty years, is now doing his brain irreparable damage and that if it is not removed immediately he will die. With his reliance on his link so central to his very being, this is grave news indeed but there is no alternative. The link is severed and Cormac must now rely on nothing more than his instincts.
Meantime there is trouble brewing for Cormac. Much of his recent work has involved infiltrating groups of separatists intent on disrupting Polity business. Responsible for the killing of a young separatist woman, Cormac finds himself the target of her brother, Arian Pelter, intent on vengeance and with a group of mercenaries in tow. Pelter is a wonderfully drawn villain. In order to gain advantage over Cormac, he invests in an aug of his own and Asher juxtaposes his protagonist and antagonist beautifully. Without his link Cormac becomes a stiff and uncomfortable individual, unsure and uncertain. Pelter with his grotesque new hardware gains a confidence that steps beyond madness. This role-reversal is gripping stuff indeed.
This is a story of betrayal and treachery and it moves along at break-neck speed. Cormac pursues his investigation of the Samerkand incident uncovering a link with his past that gives him just cause to suspect it was no accident. At the same time we watch with mounting horror the cold and detached Pelter on the hunt for his quarry. This is often gruesome and shocking but it is always engrossing and never once does Asher drop the ball.
There are many ingredients of Gridlinked worthy of a mention; the terrifying android, Mr. Crane, a two meter tall brass killing machine; Dragon, the huge unfathomable alien entity that sees Cormac as it's nemesis; the various examples of future tech that function as integral plot devices rather than mere cosmetic set dressing. All these and more help to make Gridlinked an accomplished piece of work.
There are moments when the pace dips or when Asher chooses a phrase that seems a little clumsy but these are few and far between and only stand out because 99.9% of the time he has everything just right. The author's web site mentions that another of his novels is due from Macmillan next year and a projected follow-up to Gridlinked some time after that. I look forward to them enormously and to seeing Asher receive the success he is clearly destined for.