Recommendation: The Warship

Back in January, I recommended Neal Asher’s The Soldier, the first book of a series called The Rise of the Jain.  The series takes place in Asher’s Polity universe, a future interstellar civilization run by AIs (artificial intelligence) and featuring androids, various degrees of posthuman citizens, and lots of aliens, both in AI and organic forms.

Throughout the Polity and surrounding regions of space, the remains of an alien civilization, named the Jain, are often found.  Jain technology is far in advance of anything the Polity has, but the technology is never what it seems.  It is always a trap, frequently destroying anyone who tries to make use of it.  As a result, most of it is sequestered for safekeeping.

But there is a concentration of Jain technology in an accretion disk, apparently a developing solar system, at a location between the Polity and its long time enemy, the Prador Kingdom, although relations with the Prador remain tentatively peaceful.  This disk is   guarded by a human-AI hybrid named Orlandine and her fleet of AI controlled battle platforms.

The Warship is the second book in the series.  It’s difficult to describe much about it without getting into spoilers.  I’ll just note that the situation in the first book intensifies, with most of the action taking place around the accretion disk and the nearby planet of Jaskor, Orlandine’s base of operations.

We learn new things about many of the characters from the first book and meet new characters, including humans, AI, and Prador.  The action in this book begins early and moves at a good clip throughout the whole story.  There are battles, both on and under the surface of Jaskor, as well as epic space battles at the accretion disk.

Asher teases us a bit by how the event implied by the series title will come about.  We saw one possibility in the first book, and others are introduced.  But by the end of this book, we learn which one the title refers to.

As always, Asher excels at putting us in the viewpoint of utterly alien characters, exploring the workings of their minds, and mixing technological descriptions with battle tactics.  As I’ve noted before, Asher’s writing is a type of mind candy for people who enjoy futuristic science, technology, biology, and other concepts mixed with space opera ones.

That said, this isn’t the hardest science fiction around by a long stretch.  FTL (faster than light), anti-gravity, and many other magical technologies are liberally thrown around in the story.  But it’s also matched with excellent speculation about the way an alien species’ biology influences its philosophies.

So if epic space opera is your cup of tea, highly recommended, although only after reading The Soldier.

Recommendation: Prador Moon

I’ve recommended Neal Asher’s books before.  This one is pretty much cut from the same pattern: superhuman AIs, fearsome aliens, exotic future technologies, and epic space battles covered in detail.  In terms of the chronology of his Polity future universe, Prador Moon is the earliest story, although it was written after several other books and stories in that universe.

This book covers the first encounter between humans and the prador, the fierce crab-like species that is featured in so many other stories.  This first encounter immediately leads to war.

The prador have no empathy, either with each other or with other intelligent aliens.  They have no problem eating each other, and discover in the story that they like the taste of human flesh.  They also have no problem experimenting on their own children and, of course, on humans.  They’re pretty much the epitome of the evil space opera aliens.

(Their depiction in later books I’ve read and reviewed is a bit more sympathetic, but only because the specific prador in these books are “modified” from the natural versions portrayed in this book.)

My only real disappointment with the book is that it’s short in comparison with Asher’s other books. (Although as of this post, it’s priced lower than most of his stuff.)  It felt like the story of one of the chief protagonists, Jebel Krong, could have been explored in far more detail.  He is referenced in other books, most of which I might not have read, so readers familiar with most of Asher’s work might have already had an impression of his overall biography.

So if you like space opera, might be worth checking out.

Recommendation: The Soldier

Cover of The Soldier showing a space battle near a planetI’ve recommended Neal Asher’s books before.  He writes epic space opera where the stories take place over a vast scale, most of the characters are superhuman or alien entities, and the forces involved are titanic.  That was the motif of his Transformation series that I recommended back in 2017.

Like that series, The Soldier, which begins a new trilogy titled Rise of the Jain, takes place in a shared future interstellar setting that most of Asher’s stories share.  Earth lies at the center of an interstellar society called the Polity, which is ruled by AIs that are (generally) benevolent toward the humans.

The humans are generally enhanced to varying degrees such that baseline natural humans don’t really exist anymore.  Enhancements come in a lot of different forms, including changes to just make the person more physically robust, cyborg enhancements, human / AI hybrids, or just uploading into an AI crystal (the advanced quantum computing substrate in these stories).  Some humans also are enhanced after contracting an alien virus that gives them superhuman strength, resilience, and longevity (albeit at the potential cost of turning into something monstrous if they are injured too severely).

The Polity has an old enemy, the Prador, an interstellar kingdom of vicious crab like creatures with which it fought an epic war centuries ago, but now maintains a sort of detente.  The detente includes a neutral zone type region called The Graveyard.  The Prador seem to be an ever evolving concept in these stories, with the ones in this one continuing to show their development.

The main focus of this book is an ancient technology that is occasionally found throughout the galaxy, called Jain technology, named after an ancient but extinct species, the Jain.  Jain tech always appears to provide powerful benefits, but it is always a trap, a trap calculated to destroy civilizations.  So it is heavily proscribed and controlled.  Of course, that doesn’t stop some people from attempting to play with it, often with catastrophic consequences.

It turns out there is an accretion disk, a developing solar system, that is heavily infested with Jain technology.  The beginning of the book describes a team of AIs led by a human-AI hybrid named Orlandine, who guard the accretion disk to prevent the technology from escaping.  Orlandine herself is infested with Jain technology, but it apparently able to control it.  Her and the AIs are assisted in guarding the accretion disk by an ancient alien AI named Dragon, although Dragon’s motives are often obscure and it’s not always clear just how much of an ally it actually is.

Orlandine has a plan to conclusively eliminate the threat of the Jain tech in the accretion disk.  But Dragon fears a trap, and sets in motion a plan to delay her.  This in turn sets off a cascade of events leading to, among other things, resurrection of an alien AI hostile to both the Polity and the Prador who ends up going on a quest of self discovery, incubation of an ancient Jain artifact that turns out to be a Jain soldier (giving the book its title), and destruction and battles galore.

Similar to the Transformation series, the story is told from the perspective of several characters.  Asher is fearless in taking the viewpoint of utterly alien characters, so we get the perspective of human-AI hybrids, enhanced humans, straight out AIs, alien AIs, and even (briefly) a Jain AI.  This does an excellent job at adding dramatic tension to the story.  It also makes many characters, even one hostile to humans, far more sympathetic than they would otherwise be.

My only beef with this move is that, when describing the internal motivations of utterly alien characters, Asher ends up working in a lot of phrases like, “as the humans would say,” or, “like an Earth centipede,” from characters that seem unlikely to have their thoughts dominated by how humans think or how Earth creatures look.  But this may be an inevitable awkwardness of portraying utterly alien perspectives, and I give Asher a lot of credit for tackling those perspectives.

As in all his books, Asher delights in exploring how technologies work using exotic physics and materials, and how characters solve problems with those technologies.  Although many of the technologies, such as faster than light travel or runcibles, amount to magic, he puts a veneer of science on all of it.

Sometimes the book focuses so much on these technologies and their use that it starts to feel like descriptions of players in a game.  And as I noticed in my review of Dark Intelligence, I think Asher sometimes gets a little too carried away with the detail, making some of his writing tedious to get through.  But for the descriptions you like, they are mind candy.

This is space opera in its grandest tradition, involving gargantuan technologies, aliens, heady concepts, the return of an ancient threat, and action galore.  It is the first book in a series, so it does end with cliffhangers.  The technologies invoked often border more on fantasy than science fiction, but if it’s your cup of tea, I highly recommend it.

Recommendation: Dark Intelligence

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.