Neal Asher. Orbus (TOR 2009).
Neal Asher is another of those British writers of far future high tech space opera, like Iain M Banks, Ken Macleod, Alistair Reynolds, & Charles Stross (about whom I hope to write later). He’s constructed a particularly interesting & nasty future history of a distant & much changed humanity & what it meets in the far reaches of the universe. In his various novels, the star spanning Human Polity, run by massively intelligent AIs, has met an enemy species, the Prador, who apparently look a bit like huge & armoured crabs or lobsters. Asher has written a number of novels about the Polity Agent, Cormac, a few about other aspects of the Polity, & 3 about the effects of the planet Spatterjay & a peculiar genetic virus found there (which affects both humans & Prador). Although the Polity & the Third Kingdom of the Prador have ended a long war between them, there are still lots of border battles & lots of spying, etc, all of which come into play in Orbus.
Asher is clearly his own writer, but he has learned a lot from some of the better creators of the new space opera. His Polity AIs, for example, have a lot in common with Banks’s ‘Culture’ AIs, & like them seem to actually run much of human civilization among the stars. What distinguishes these writers is their scientific & technological awareness, & their ability to suggest the ways in which they might evolve over future millennia; some of their ideas are merely updates of earlier SF tropes, such as FTL, here accomplished through ‘U-space’ & various U-technologies. Nevertheless, the way in which he postulates computers slowly becoming self-aware is intriguing, & only implied in their actions & discussions. I’d add that smaller AIs, like the spy-fighter drone, Sniper (who appeared in The Skinner, as did the titular character of this novel), are represented as characters, & their demotic way of talking, at least to humans, also reminds me of those in Banks’s Culture novels. Perhaps Asher, again a bit like Banks & the others, is suggesting something about the way ‘nurture’ (obviously an eccentric term here) & culture affect evolution in intelligent species (including the AIs). Or maybe it’s just the company Sniper keeps.
At any rate, Asher is great on the incredibly advanced hardware & software of both species, especially its military aspects, as well as their capacity for violence. Indeed, his novels are strangely beautiful representations of harsh brutality in action, perhaps especially the Spatterjay series, of which Orbus is the latest volume. The titular figure is one of the Old Captains of Spatterjay, long infected by the virus found only on that world, now several centuries old & perhaps emerging with something of a soul still left from a long life of sadistic brutality to others there.
With one of his old crewmen, now also infected, & a couple of war drones, Sniper & Thirteen, & a fairly large, supposedly commercial AI dreadnought, Gurnard, Orbus, as its presumed ‘captain,’ is sent to The Graveyard, the open area between Prador & Human (Polity) space, in which they are to pick up a Spatterjay-infected Prador corpse for study. This does not go well, as the space station holding it for them has been taken over by a Prador agent of the Third Prador King. Meanwhile, another Prador, Vrell, infected by the virus on Spatterjay in an earlier novel, is trying to take over his father’s huge warship (Prador family relations are marked by nothing but violence & the desire to overcome all others; only under the Kings have the Prador as a race been able to work together to become a dangerous space traveling species). Asher’s descriptions of these battles are exemplary of a kind of highly technical poetry of war (indeed, he could teach a lot of other military SF writers just how to do it without getting lost in the technicalities, but rather making the arcane jargon work as a kind of war song).
It would take far too much space to try to detail the convoluted intertwining of plots as a five million year old, constructed, part of the virus comes to life in a few Prador soldiers & starts waging war on both Humans & Prador, & how various figures, including Orbus & his companions, the Prador Vrell, & finally the hugely mutated Prador King Oberon fight this powerful & technologically more advanced enemy. Suffice to say that Asher keeps all his balls in the air, & manages to keep a highly complex group of intertwined narratives running at full plotting power. For me, no book is truly un-put-downable, but Orbus is definitely a terrific example of contemporary SF & a finely tuned page turner.