Thursday, January 22, 2009

The Shadow of the Scorpion by Neal Asher

Neal Asher has become one of my favorite authors as of late.  This makes for some frustration when you’re living in the United States, where much of his work has not been published, making it necessary to either import or scour eBay and the like.  (Aside from Asher and Stephen Baxter, I almost never import books- I’m too cheap, I prefer to buy domestic editions of books by foreign authors to encourage the publishers to bring more of their stuff to this country, and my vast backlog makes waiting for a domestic release basically a non-issue.) Fortunately, Night Shade Books has been bringing more of Asher’s work to the U.S., first with Prador Moon and now with the prequel to Asher’s Ian Cormac series, Shadow of the Scorpion: A Novel of the Polity.

Part of Neal Asher’s Polity future history (Gridlinked, The Skinner, etc.), Shadow of the Scorpion is a story of the early days of future Earth Central Security agent Ian Cormac.  The young Cormac enters the service of the Polity as an infantryman in the aftermath of the Prador War, a cataclysmic conflict between humans and the monstrous Prador that lasted decades, destroyed whole worlds, and took billions of lives.  Fresh out of training, Cormac is assigned to the security forces on the devastated planet of Hagren, a Polity world that suffered ecological devastation and the death of half of its human inhabitants during the war.  Now rebuilding has begun, but the inhabitants are threatened by surviving Prador still lurking in the wreckage of a crashed Prador dreadnought, and by human Separatist terrorists who will commit any atrocity to overthrow the Polity and the artificial intelligences that rule it.

What should have been a relatively simple assignment policing Hagren while its society is rebuilt and civic order restored becomes much more when treason is discovered amongst Cormac’s squad mates, and Cormac is chosen by his superiors for a hazardous mission to infiltrate a local separatist cell.  This sets Cormac on a dangerous journey across the devastated former battlefields of the Prador War, pursuing humans as lethal and pitiless as the Prador themselves.

Interspersed throughout this story, Shadow of the Scorpion also tells of Cormac’s youth in the dark days of the war, and of the mysterious scorpion-shaped AI war drone that haunted his childhood- and that has seemingly reappeared.

I really liked this book.  It provides plenty of the intense action Asher is known for, and continues to explore the setting of Asher’s future history.  On a purely action/adventure level, the book definitely delivers, with Asher’s usual talent for excitement, description, and visceral power brought to the forefront.  It also gave me what were probably the two things I most wanted from Asher: more information about the character Ian Cormac, and a closer look at the society of the Polity itself.

Most of the Polity universe books are set primarily on worlds outside the Polity, or on the Polity’s frontier, or on worlds suffering some crisis, and are shown mostly from the perspective of Earth Central Security personnel or people outside normal society.  The flashback portions of The Shadow of the Scorpion gives us a nice look at Polity’s society on Earth itself, as experienced by average people.  I love the world-building aspect of science fiction, so I enjoyed this a lot.

An important part of the flashbacks revolves around technology to edit or erase your own memories, sought by Cormac’s shell-shocked older brother after returning from a tour of duty as a field medic on the front lines of the Prador War.  Quite plausibly, this is a much-sought service during the war, common enough to support the existence of large clinics dedicated to it, and Asher explores it well.  The book chillingly juxtaposes the psychological devastation of war and the grotesque physical injuries wrought by Prador military technology, with the Polity’s enormously advanced medical science seeking to reassemble shattered minds with same casual efficiency with which it repairs broken bodies.

While there is still plenty of action, this is a more character-based story than is typical for Asher, and fortunately I think the characterization here is stronger than what I’ve seen from him previously.  The portrayal of a newly recruited Ian Cormac several decades younger than the one we first met in Gridlinked is well done- Cormac is still recognizably Cormac, but he displays a previously unseen degree of emotional vulnerability befitting a man who has not yet become desensitized by decades of violence and horror.

The flashback sequences from Cormac’s childhood are also well-done.  Asher’s portrayal of the young Cormac, a bright, introverted, precociously serious-minded child, rang very true to me.  (There’s a brief line suggesting that Cormac has been diagnosed with mild autistic tendencies, and while it’s not the focus of the story, I think Asher’s portrayal is one of the more insightful and understanding fictional portraits of it that I’ve seen.)

The flashback scenes about Cormac’s older brother’s return from the war are also effective, and do a good job of portraying something often unexplored in stories of soldiers returning home.  Mixed with the happiness of seeing your loved one safely home, there is the tension and awkwardness of reuniting with someone you care about who has been profoundly changed, the trepidation of wanting to reach out and reconnect with someone deeply marked by experiences you can never truly understand and not really knowing how.  The portrayal of this is fairly subtle, yet to me unmistakable and quite poignant.

Shadow of the Scorpion is well worth reading for any fan of Neal Asher, action stories, vivid far-future societies, or examinations of some of the questions raised by technologies to reshape the human mind.  I think you’ll get more out of it if you’re already familiar with Ian Cormac and the Polity (Gridlinked would be the place to start there), but it is a self-contained story that stands well on its own.  I highly recommend it, and I hope Nightshade continues to bring this sort of book to the U.S.

Stumble Upon Toolbar

1 comment:

John - Grasping for the Wind said...

Wow! tastes do differ. I HATED this one, and didn't even finish it. My review of it is in this months Sacramento Book Review.