I’ve got a complicated relationship with Neal Asher, which basically boils down to the fact that I keep reading his books although I don’t necessarily like them all that much. (So this is one of those reading relationships, not a personal relationship or anything. I don’t know the man or even that much about him, but after perusing his website at one point I doubt that we’d have all that much in common.) Asher’s got a lot of talent and he’s ridiculously prolific, but sometimes I wish he’d maybe slow it down and do a little more editing. Nonetheless, I remembered liking The Skinner, recently discovered that there were a couple of sequels, and decided to pick up The Voyage of the Sable Keech.
Having done so, I almost immediately put it back down and got a copy of The Skinner to refresh my memory, since it literally picks up as soon as The Skinner ends and it’s been a few years since I read it, and I’ve slept a few times and have a toddler now and don’t necessarily remember absolutely everything I’ve read in the past half decade. You know how it is.
Perhaps I should lead off by noting that Asher’s works are sort of a throwback to an earlier SF era, and are really in the pulp tradition (in the best sense of that word), where men were real men, women were exactly like the men, and horrible alien critters were hostile, befanged, and inexplicably immune to puny human weapons. Many of his novels and short stories are set place in the universe of the Polity, which is a group of human worlds run by mostly-benevolent AIs. The planet Spatterjay, where most of the action of the first two volumes of this trilogy occurs, is not a member of the Polity as such, but there’s a Polity presence and the strong hand of Earth Central is felt even this far out.
Asher likes to write about horrific ecosystems, and the planet Spatterjay is somewhere that you probably wouldn’t want to take the kids for a vacation unless you didn’t like them all that much. The oceans are filled with a series of increasingly large predators so if you fall in then the most positive thing that will happen is that you get eaten whole. If you just get attacked by the smaller carnivorous leeches then you’ll get infected with a virus too, which will make you gradually stronger and basically immortal, but will also have the side effect of transmogrifying you into a grotesque monster if you go too long without eating good old fashioned Earth food.
This of course is basically impossible, that a “virus” could not only infect all these different species on one world, but on completely alien species such as humans, and also on a completely other alien species altogether, the nightmarish Prador. So scientific plausibility is taking a hit here. Also, you've got to take some pretty large grains of salt with everything. The humans infected with the Spatterjay virus call themselves Hoopers, after Jay Hoop, the original human discoverer/colonizer of the place. They also hate Hoop, who was a genocidal pirate who presided over tens of millions of deaths at the behest of evil aliens. Since all the humans who survived his extermination camps hate him and all his associates, it's unclear why they've chosen to honor his name in this way. There are a lot of "huh"? moments like this if you apply three or four brain cells to the narrative.
Nonetheless, The Skinner was pretty much as good as I remembered it. There are a couple of outsiders, Janer and Erlin, each on the planet for different reasons, so they get to have a lot of things explained to them. There’s also a police officer, Sable Keech, who is relentless running down the last of a series of human war criminals from the interstellar conflict with the Prador. He’s single minded in this determination, in fact so single minded that he didn’t let the fact that he got killed seven hundred years before the main events of the novel slow him down much – he’s got a zombie body and keeps what’s left of his brain on a memory crystal. And Janer is actually working as the agent for an intelligent hornet nest. There’s a bunch of Old Captains, humans who have been virally infected for centuries and practically unkillable as a result, a black marketeering war drone, and a prissy artificial intelligence monitoring the planet. And then there’s a Prador who may be losing his mind and has returned to Spatterjay to clean up some loose ends. Chaos ensues.
With all that stuff going on, there’s minimal time for people to talk to each other, which I’m sorry, but is generally a good thing. In The Voyage of the Sable Keech, there’s a lot more conversation going on and it is painful in parts. Asher is very strong when writing action scenes, but all of his characters tend to have very flat affect and talk very strangely. At one point in this book a demagogue is telling a bunch of rowdy people on a boat to go to their quarters because “this is a vessel upon which a crew has to work”, which may look good on paper – although I’d dispute that – but imagining it as something a native English speaker would say in conversation is a little questionable. Also, the various characters rarely “say” anything, although they do leer, sneer, interject, speak ironically, and so forth.
Most of the characters who didn’t die in the first book are back for the second, doing very similar stuff, but mostly spinning their wheels and not accomplishing very much. The main actor is actually a Prador, Vrell, who was given up for dead toward the end of the first novel but actually makes it in this one. In fact, he spends most of the book trying to fix his dead father’s spaceship and there are quite long passages of him doing mechanical repairs and wiring work on fictional spaceship systems. I’m not going to say that this couldn’t be exciting, but here it’s not exciting. And the dialogue is just truly bad.
There were many similar textual issues I had with that second book in the trilogy, almost to the point where I didn’t even bother to read the third one, Orbus, at all. Nonetheless, it was probably a good idea to finish it because the series actually ends up pretty strong, assuming you aren’t looking for thermodynamic plausibility. Pretty much all the characters from the first two novels stay on Spatterjay, and the ones that do come are some of the more distinctive ones (such as the snarky, homicidal war drone). Asher ventures into the present tense for what I believe may be the first time as well, and abandons the clunky conversations of the second novel for what he is best at, a knock down, drag out space battle between a force of giant monsters and some other, smaller monsters. I think that the events somewhat contradict his other Polity novels, but they were fun and that’s what I was looking for by that point anyway.
In short, I’m not 100% sure I’d recommend the entire trilogy, mostly because I didn’t like the second one very much at all, but the first one is actually okay as a stand-alone and it’s some good rollicking pulp SF if you’re into that sort of thing.