Dark In­tel­li­gence

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SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Books -

Re­lease Date: 29 Jan­uary

400 pages | Hard­back/ ebook Au­thor: Neal Asher Pub­lisher: Tor

The Polity books have

never been for the faint- hearted. Re­plete with über- vi­o­lence, more gore than you’d find on a plan­et­sized abat­toir and the nag­ging sense that some­thing hor­ri­ble might hap­pen at any mo­ment, th­ese are SF nov­els that mix early cy­ber­punk’s in­sou­ciance with the widescreen baroque spec­ta­cle of space opera and the pac­ing of an air­port ac­tion- thriller.

But even by Neal Asher’s stan­dards, there’s some­thing par­tic­u­larly grisly about Dark In­tel­li­gence, the first book of his new Trans­for­ma­tion se­ries. That’s be­cause, as the name sug­gests, grotesque trans­for­ma­tions un­der­pin the story. In par­tic­u­lar, we get to look on as gang­ster Iso­bel Satomi – not a lady you’d will­ingly spend time with – is trans­formed into a Hooder, a vast preda­tor. At which point it may help to quote Asher’s own blog: “Take a hu­man spine and graft a horse­shoe crab on the end of it, and you’re about there.” Lovely.

As to why she’s un­der­go­ing such a meta­mor­pho­sis, this is rooted in her own greed, stu­pid­ity and lust for power – she’s some­one who asks for help with­out think­ing too deeply on what the price ex­tracted for as­sis­tance might be – yet also in her en­coun­ters with a rogue AI, Penny Royal ( of whom more later), and a for­mer sol­dier, Thor­vald Spear.

It’s Spear we meet first, as he’s reawak­ened when a “mem­crys­tal” con­tain­ing his per­son­al­ity is found af­ter long years lost. As he comes back to life in a new body, even though he’s rich ( what with salary hav­ing ac­crued while he’s been out of ac­tion), Spear isn’t in a good mood. Haunted by ter­ri­ble mem­o­ries of com­bat and the af­ter­math of cap­ture, he wants re­venge against Penny Royal, which he blames for turn­ing on its own side when it was sent to res­cue Spear and his col­leagues from a show­down with Prador forces ( this time think geno­ci­dal alien crabs bristling with weaponry).

Penny Royal ( a name de­rived from a herb used to in­duce abor­tions, which at the very least sug­gests self- im­age is­sues), is thus set up as the bad­die here, a crazy, scar­ily pow­er­ful in­tel­li­gence that needs to be wiped from the uni­verse for the sake of ev­ery­one else. And yet Dark In­tel­li­gence is a novel where things are rarely as they seem, where even mem­ory it­self, so easy to tin­ker with, can be un­re­li­able. That’s not to say Penny Royal isn’t danger­ous – it is – but who’s to say what its mo­ti­va­tions might be?

It’s a book where there are far more am­bi­gu­i­ties than the ac­tion­driven plot, which es­sen­tially charts Spear’s hunt for Penny Royal and Iso­bel’s hunt for them both, might ini­tially sug­gest. All to the good… and yet this in it­self also high­lights the novel’s chief weak­ness. Bear with us here be­cause this may ini­tially seem churl­ish, but Asher is a nov­el­ist who dearly loves to en­ter­tain, to con­struct set­pieces where things ex­plode in spec­tac­u­lar and crowd- pleas­ing fash­ion. The trou­ble is that all this sur­face noise too of­ten seems some­how to dis­tract from the world he’s cre­at­ing. Imag­ine vis­it­ing a theme park and spend­ing lit­er­ally ev­ery mo­ment on the rides.

It’s a dou­ble shame be­cause many of the un­der­ly­ing ideas here – that when peo­ple ( us­ing the word here to en­com­pass all man­ner of clever crea­tures) change form, their per­spec­tive changes; that peo­ple’s per­spec­tive on the past shapes what they do in the present and the plans they make for the fu­ture – cry out for the more care­ful ex­plo­ration that, say, Iain M Banks would have given them.

Per­haps this will be ad­dressed in fu­ture books, but for now you’re left won­der­ing whether Asher be­ing so good at what he does might just be hold­ing him back from do­ing other things bet­ter. Jonathan Wright

There are far more am­bi­gu­i­ties than the ac­tion­driven plot might sug­gest

Asher says the Prador grew from a “long­time love of sea- life – es­pe­cially the kind of stuff you find un­der rocks at low tide”. In the ’ 70s se­ries Pyra­mid’s a card game and Triad a sport. The re­boot mixed them up so they’re the other way round.

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