I’ve been meaning to check out Neal Asher’s books for some time. They keep coming up as recommendations on Amazon, Goodreads, and in various other venues, and they sound enticing, like the kind of fiction I’d enjoy. Last week, I finally read the first book of his most recent trilogy, ‘Dark Intelligence‘.
The universe described in Dark Intelligence has some similarities to Iain Banks’ Culture novels. Earth lies at the center of an interstellar society call the Polity. The Polity isn’t nearly as utopian as Banks’ Culture, but it’s similarly ruled and run by AIs. Humans are still around, but in various combinations between baseline humans and ones augmented in various ways, either physically or mentally. In this particular novel, most of the action takes place outside of the Polity itself.
The Polity has an enemy, the Prador Kingdom, composed of a brutal crab like alien species called the prador. The Polity and the prador fought a war about a century before the novel begins, which ended with a tentative truce. What I’ll call the anchor protagonist, the awesomely named Thorvald Spear, was a soldier killed in the war, but at the beginning of the book is resurrected from a recently discovered mind recording.
It turns out that Spear was killed by a rogue AI named Penny Royal, who also took out a large number of Spear’s fellow soldiers when it went berserk. Penny Royal is still at large when Spear is revived, and he has a burning desire for revenge, so he sets out to find and destroy it. His chief lead to find Penny Royal is a woman and criminal boss named Isobel Satomi, who may know the AI’s location because she once visited it to attain new abilities, which it provided, but at a cost. As a result of receiving those abilities, Satomi is now slowly transforming into an alien predator.
Yeah, obviously there is a lot going on in this book, and everything I’ve just described is revealed in the opening chapters. The book has a substantial cast of viewpoint characters: humans, AIs, and aliens. Penny Royal is at the center of several ongoing threads, its actions affecting many lives. It turns out it is regarded by the Polity AIs as dangerous, a “potential gigadeath weapon and paradigm-changing intelligence”.
There are a lot of references to events that I assume happened in previous books, particularly on one of the planets, Masada. Somewhere in the book I realized that I had already read about one of the aliens in a short story by Asher: Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck. He appears to have written a large number of books and short stories in this universe.
I found Asher’s writing style enticing but at times tedious. Enticing because he enjoys describing technology, weapons, and space battles in detail, and a lot of it ends up being nerd candy for the mind. Tedious because he enjoys detail all around, often describing settings and characters in more detail than I really care to know, making his book read slower as a result.
Asher also has a tendency to evoke things like quantum computing or fusion power as a means for describing essentially magic technologies. Much of it is standard space opera fare, such as faster than light travel or artificial gravity. Some of the rest involve things like thousands of human minds being recorded on a shard of leftover AI material. This isn’t necessarily hard science fiction, although it remains far harder than typical media science fiction.
But what kept me riveted were the the themes he explores. The story often focuses on the borders between human, AI, and alien minds. Satomi’s transformation in particular is described in gruesome detail throughout the book. (It reminded me of the movie, ‘The Fly’, particularly the 1986 version.) But most of what makes her transformation interesting, as well as similar transformations other characters are going through in the book, are how their minds change throughout the process. Their deepest desires and instincts start to change in ways that really demonstrate just how contingent our motivations are on our evolutionary background or, in the case of AIs, engineering.
Not that this book was only an intellectual exercise. There is a lot of action, including space battles, combat scenes, and AI conflict, not to mention scenes of an alien predator hunting down humans, from the predator’s point of view.
Warning: this book has its share of gore and violence. I think it’s all in service to the story, but if you find vividly described gore off putting, this might not be your cup of tea.
This book is the first in a trilogy, so it ended with lots of loose unresolved threads. I’ve already started the second book, and will probably be reading a lot more of Asher’s books in the coming months.