Today I'll be examining Gridlinked (Tor Science Fiction) by Neal Asher, a British author who has only been published in America within the last few years, though he has been writing for some time now. The book is the beginning of a series set in Asher's "Polity" future history.
The setting is a futuristic A.I.-ruled human society called the Polity. Travel throughout the Polity is accomplished principally through teleportation devices called "runcibles," which can turn people into energy and instantly transmit them across light-years. When a runcible on the remote world of Samarkand is sabotaged, destroying the settlement there, Earth Central Security agent Ian Cormac is sent on the Polity spacecraft Hubris to investigate. Meanwhile, a ruthless terrorist leader from his last case is gunning for him, and mysterious, inhuman beings are at work.
Ian Cormac: Cormac is a long-serving agent of Earth Central Security. He has been rendered all but emotionless by the 30 years he has spent gridlinked- joined by brain implants with the Polity's computer network and the A.I.'s he works with. This is considered very dangerous- remaining gridlinked for longer than 20 years is highly discouraged. He is encouraged to give up his gridlink after he blows an undercover investigation because of it- he is so emotionally undemonstrative that he is mistaken for an android by the Separatists he was infiltrating.
Cormac is fairly robotic at the beginning- he has very little emotion, and is continuously frustrated by the fact that people are not as reliable or efficient as machines. It's interesting to see him try to adjust to losing his link- for instance, he has to get used to actually talking when he wants information, instead of simply downloading it into his brain. Getting used to relating to people normally is also a challenge for him at first, though he improves as time passes.
Arian Pelter: A ruthless terrorist and Separatist leader, obsessed with getting revenge against Cormac for killing his sister. Utterly ruthless and driven
Mister Crane: A homicidal two-and-a-half meter tall android under Pelter's command. When not tearing people apart with his bare hands, he likes to examine the various toys and knickknacks he carries around in his coat.
John Stanton: An experienced mercenary in Pelter's service. Stanton isn't a good man by any means, but he still has a few remnant bits of conscience, and working for a man like Pelter gives them quite a workout.
Dragon: A bizarre alien organism/machine of unknown origin, consisting of four linked kilometer-wide spheres. Decades ago, Ian Cormac encountered this enigmatic being on the Polity world of Aster Colora, just before it vanished in a cataclysmic explosion. Now, Cormac sees traces of Dragon on Samarkand. Before it vanished, Dragon claimed to have been watching humanity for millennia. But what is its true nature?
Gridlinked is very solid enjoyable space opera/action story. I found the setting interesting (more on that in a bit), with some interesting locations. The story moves at a nice, quick pace, and made me want to keep reading. In particular, the central mystery of Dragon's true nature and intentions kept me interested in what would happen next. The action scenes are exciting and well done, though not for the squeamish. I liked the characters quite a bit- Ian Cormac is a likable hero who has an interesting psychological challenge to deal with, the psychological and moral progression of John Stanton is well done, and Pelter is very good as a villain.
I have two complaints. First, I wish more had been done with Cormac's adjustment to living without his gridlink. There's a lot of potential in the idea, and I don't think the book fully exploited the possibilities. Second, the ending seemed a bit rushed. These are only minor problems, however, and they don't detract significantly from the book.
Gridlinked is one of the few works of science fiction I can recall that really deals with the implications of a "convert people to energy" style-teleporter- namely, the fact that the mass of an entire human body yields a lot of energy, and that this energy could be incredibly destructive if turned lose. I'm kind of surprised that Star Trek, to the best of my recollection, never did anything with this, considering how many episodes revolved around transporter malfunctions. (Though Trek was seldom very good about thinking through the implications of its own technology.)
I loved the mysterious Dragon. Plenty of science fiction stories have had enigmatic ancient aliens, but Dragon is just so damn creepy. The biblical allusions in his dialogue, his strange mixture of flesh and machine, the bizarre reptilian servitors- it creates quite an atmosphere. Excellent character.
The story touches a bit on some of the possibilities of human alteration. Several characters make use of electronic brain implants to enhance their thought processes or help them link to machines. The aging process has been defeated, though some people choose to look old to project more authority or gravitas. (An idea that also comes up in David Drake's Cross the Stars.) Some people have been genetically engineered to live in heavy gravity or in deep space, and many people undergo extensive cosmetic alterations.
As I mentioned above, the Polity is ruled by artificial intelligences. I rather like the way Asher addresses the idea- it is portrayed as neither a cure-all for social ills, nor as some sort of oppressive dystopian nightmare. The A.I.s seem to do a reasonably good job of it- the Polity has a very high standard of living and appears to be fairly free; people can travel anywhere they want in the Polity without restriction, and free enterprise seems to be thriving. This does not greatly affect the plot, but some social effects are briefly touched upon- it is mentioned, for instance that certain humans, including Cormac, have all sorts of wild, larger-than-life legends attributed to them by a public desperate for proof that humans can still control their own destiny. The people of the Polity do not seem to object to their masters- it is mentioned, late in the book, that most people take it for granted that humans are not fit to rule.
The obvious comparison, of course is the Culture universe of Iain M. Banks. The Polity, while portrayed as attractive, is a good deal less utopian then the Culture, where the A.I.s (or "Minds") do pretty much all the work while humans live in total leisure. (By the way, what's the deal with British space opera authors and these vague names? I half-expect Alistair Reynolds or Peter F. Hamilton to come out with novels about "The Society" or "The Regime." I kid, I kid.) The only other A.I.-ruled society in recent print SF that comes immediately to mind (I'm missing some, I'm sure) is the Consensus from David Drake's Northworld trilogy, and in those books it's just a minor background detail, albeit an effective and atmospheric one.
I would highly recommend Gridlinked (Tor Science Fiction) for anyone who likes action-oriented science fiction or interesting future societies, and I look forward to reading more from Asher. Fortunately, his books are becoming more readily available in the United States.For more information about Neal Asher, you can check out his website and his blog at The Skinner.