by Neal Asher
Review by Michael Rowley
Tor Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 1405054980
Date: 06 October, 2006 List Price £17.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
As a long time Neal Asher fan I was delighted by this year's release and the return of Agent Cormac of the Human Polity, especially after the high-octaine ride that his last outing, Brass Man,(see John Berlyne's review from our April 2005 issue here) turned into.
In that previous novel, Cormac chased down the Jain infected Skellor, who had been brought back from the dead by that same alien technology and during the course of the action, we were introduced to a variety of different characters and, of course, exposed to Asher's finely developed take on various vicious alien life forms.
In the process of the search for Skellor we were offered deeper insight into the mysterious Dragon entity, encountered the murderous brass killing machine, Mr Crane and a wonderfully quixotic adventurer on a different kind of Dragon hunt than we're used to in an Asher novel. To round it off we had spaceships being destroyed, and got closer than ever to seeing our hero killed, maimed and generally brutalised than we had in any of the previous novels.
In Polity Agent, Asher opens with Cormac recuperating in quarantine aboard the scientific research ship Jerusalem after his recent encounter with Jain technology, and we’re shown a more human side to this all but emotionless agent and a real sense of character progression begins. Of course the Jain technology, Asher's most insidious creation yet, isn’t finished with the Polity and Polity Agent draws together various hints and threads we've been shown to date, exposing the reality of just what this technology means, why it is there and what we can (or can't) do about it. This re-emergence of the Jain tech and the obvious threat to the Polity forces Cormac once again to track down the source of the danger, while his colleague Thorn tackles similar problems planet-side as the real force manipulating events attacks the worlds of the Polity with cold, ruthless precision.
In addition to this we get time travel, more AI ship characters than ever before and yet another wonderful drone that's been sitting around for years just gagging for a proper fight, not to mention a much bigger presence from the mysterious Earth Central AI agent Blegg.
So, Jain tech is loose in the Polity, weird stuff is happening everywhere and thankfully plenty of stuff is being blown up... but, good though all this may be, is action and adventure all there is to Neal Asher? You can't get away from the fact that these are hugely entertaining, action orientated books with all the major hooks that lull the reader into blissful suspension of disbelief and escapism, but like all really worthwhile SF, Asher manages to go one step further in his Polity novels. There are very real questions concerning ideas of self, identity and basic humanity in these stories, examinations of the dangers and potentials of new technology as well as the careful and deliberate evolution of a set of characters that live, breath and sometimes die in the service of their community.
Even death holds questions for Asher; technology that allows the mind to continue after the body dies is hardly unique in SF, but the fact that Asher spends a fair amount of time examining this question in his books is just one of many points in his favour. The fact that he manages to do it in a fun, accessible and entertaining way makes him easily one of the best British writers of contemporary SF. Go on, you know you want to read it....