Shadow Of The Scorpion – Neal Asher
Neal Asher is a successful SF writer who has made a name for himself with a series of New Space Opera books set several hundred years in the future, when humankind has acquired faster-than-light travel. The human domain of Asher’s future universe is called The Polity, and he’s written about half a dozen books utilizing that backdrop.
Most of the books revolve around the adventures of Ian Cormac, an agent of Earth Central Security, in his ongoing battles to secure the future of The Polity. Cormac is a recurring character, serving less as a vital point of view than as a linking element to provide a central narrative strand for several of the Polity novels.
What makes Cormac interesting is the same thing which makes Asher’s Polity interesting: the interactions between the man, the technology of the time, and the society created by that interaction. Asher’s Polity exists as a result of several important technological advances, and Asher is obviously very interested in exploring exactly what those advances mean to humankind.
Aside from interstellar travel, exploration and settlement, probably the biggest change from our 21st century lies in the development of true artificial intelligences. The Polity is ruled by computer minds, which won The Quiet War not too long after the first such computer minds were successfully created. Now that the AIs are running the show – largely from behind the scenes, with human figureheads to keep humankind comfortable with their masters – those same AIs are struggling to understand how they can provide a future both for themselves, and for the human race. The questions are the same as ever: who are we? Why are we here? What do we want to achieve? This time, however, they’re being asked by minds once immeasurably superior to those in simple, human brains.
I say Ëœonce’ deliberately, for another very important strand of technological advance in Asher’s Polity lies in the augmentation of humankind itself. In the timeframe of The Polity, artificial minds can be downloaded to organic bodies. Organic humans can choose to be uploaded into nearly indestructible Golem bodies. Whole minds and personalities can be recorded and kept on file, so the owners can be reconstructed if they should die unexpectedly. And humans themselves can be updated, biologically retuned, genetically altered and cybernetically boosted to the point where they can think at almost the level of the great AIs themselves.
In another setting, Cormac would be a fairly generic and possibly even boring James Bond of the umpteenth century. However, by positioning Cormac at the cutting edge of all this technological change, all this tinkering with the fundamental elements of human identity, Asher makes his character a metaphor, a living avatar of the wild ride facing the human race. That Cormac is usually too involved in Polity-threatening super-dangers to actually have deep relationships or complex motivations becomes unimportant â€ and to be fair, Asher is good enough at his craft to ensure that Cormac is still human and interesting enough for us to latch onto.
In Shadow Of The Scorpion, Asher gives us a kind of Ëœorigin story’ for his super-agent. We see Cormac’s entry into the Sparkind â€ kind of a futuristic super-SAS â€ and his first encounters with Earth Central Security. The story takes us from his first military engagements against separatists (a recurring source of villainy in the Polity novels; separatists want to take their planets out of the benign dictatorship of the Polity AIs so they can lead human lives… usually in the Hobbesian sense of Ëœnasty, brutal and short’, because without the oversight of neutral AIs, human leaders all too inevitably fall prey to the corruption of power) which leads to Cormac trying to trace one particular separatist across the stars as the separatist agent attempts to sell a captured handful of super-weapons to the highest bidder. Along the way, we get flashbacks to Cormac’s youth, repeated references to his father’s efforts in the war with the alien Prador, and appearances by a mysterious War Drone shaped like a giant scorpion.
The book moves along nicely. Asher’s good with the techno-military action stuff, and he doesn’t hesitate to kick the plot along with plenty of firepower. And if we’re never exactly riveted by Cormac’s childhood, nor completely horrified by the terrible revelation of his father’s fate, it doesn’t stop the novel being an entertaining read for anybody with an interest in technologically driven action SF.
Despite this being the sixth or seventh or eighth of the Polity novels, the book doesn’t suffer for that. Asher is careful and kind enough to lay the material out for the newcomer, while at the same time not repeating enough to bore the hardcore fan of the series. As a matter of fact, since this book is all about bringing Ian Cormac to the centre stage, this is very likely an excellent place for readers new to The Polity to get a foothold.
The roundup? A good, fast-moving, active SF yarn with some interesting ideas woven through it. Worth reading, and worth buying.
- Published By: Night Shade Books
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