Agony Column Home
Agony Column Review Archive

The Line of Polity

Neal Asher

Tor UK / MacMillan

UK Trade Paperback

ISBN 0-333-90365-X

Publication Date: 03-21-2003

560 Pages; £10.99

Date Reviewed: 01-28-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel (c) 2003



Science Fiction, Horror

03-21-02, 04-09-02, 4-15-02, Interview, 06-11-02, 11-13-02, 01-07-03, 01-27-03, 02-25-03, 04-30-03, 06-14-04

It might seem that in an era of ever-improving photo-realistic special effects, science fiction novels would have a hard time competing. The receptions of recent big-budget extravaganzas shows that story still matters. But more importantly, even in the effects department, books can still easily outdo motion pictures. No special effect can overpower the imagination of any individual reader. The problem for writers is capturing the wildest visions that they can imagine in prose that enables the readers to enter and exist in worlds of the writer's imagination.

Some writers approach this with quiet insinuation, using subtle, slow techniques that start the reader off in a familiar world then slowly unveil a world of the imagination. Other writers go for complete immersion, hurling the reader into neologistic nightmares that risk confusion but reward with richness. Some writers whisper; others shout. Neal Asher attacks. In 'The Line of Polity', Asher brings back agent Ian Cormac from 'Gridlinked' and drops him on a world controlled by a space-based Theocracy. The enslaved surface dwellers have an underground revolt brewing. Asher's novel is a blow-up bonanza of wild creatures, extravagantly self-engineered humans and every shade in between the two. But while delivering a very charming entertainment, Asher increases the charm and the intellect by injecting his imagined world with anger and joy from this world. The subtle afterglow is as powerful as the atomic blast.

As 'The Line of Polity' begins, Eldene is a pond worker on the hostile-to-humans planet, Masada. Attached to her chest is a scole, a genetically engineered critter that enables her to breathe Masada's oxygen-low atmosphere. Her work involves netting dead creatures not unlike the chest-bursting Alien out of ponds in which they are raised for their flesh, which is a delicacy that can be economically shipped off-planet. Apis Coolant is an adolescent boy genetically engineered to survive in low-gravity. He's a part of the Coolant clan, who work the cooling systems for spaceships on both sides of the Line of Polity, the borders of the civilized Universe under beneficent control from Earth AIs. In 'The Line of Polity', boy meets girl.

Of course there are plenty of other characters to flesh out Asher's story, and they're all every bit as enjoyable as Eldene and Apis. Ian Cormac is still pursuing part of the Dragon, a huge, almost god-like entity that worked against humanity in 'Gridlinked'. With him are Stanton and Jarvellis, and a resurrected-with-AI agent named Gant. The Theocracy is thoroughly and very enjoyably evil -- imagine a cross between the Christian Coalition and al Quaeda living in orbital space stations armed with burrowing nukes and orbital lasers. And don't forget Skellor, a Mengele-style physician who has weapons of mass destruction of a very inventive sort. Now: Fire!

Asher's rocket ride is every bit as enjoyable as it sounds, a summer movie 500-plus pages long that reads more like 200. But rounding it all out is Asher's ability to easily manage all these seemingly simple parts in a very complex but satisfyingly-resolved whole. The reader has so much fun experiencing Asher's wild visions that their intriguing complexity comes as a very pleasant surprise. Asher is obviously having too much fun when he writes his novels, and the reader can't help but enjoy his creation with him. He uses prose that is filled with both well-conceived neologisms and science-fictional-sounding vocabulary from the present to create a world that's very immediate and easy to visualize.

Asher also has a lot of plot to get around and he does so at a breakneck pace. But he does this in a way that makes it very easy to assimilate and comprehend a rather complex situation. In this way, it's reminiscent of some of the modern fantasy we've seen of late, where multiple forces with many motivations gather into battle. But the flavor is all science fiction, with more mutants, cyborgs, monsters and aliens than you can shake a stick at. Asher uses these characters, and they are all flashed out enough to become characters, to explore a number of fascinating science fictional issues. You'll get some meditation on the ambiguous benefits of AI, the self-doubt of the resurrected-from-backups, the keen loneliness of the once-connected, and a very personal invasion by an alien. Each little diversion is a nicely-balanced grace note in a blaring symphony of manic creation.

But Asher's universe, though far in our future and remote from our everyday experience, is nonetheless nicely tied to ours by Asher's emotional outpouring as a writer. He's mad as hell and he's not going to take it anymore. As atomic blasts are once again a distinct possibility in our world, so they are in 'The Line of Polity', and just as abhorrent. He literally skewers third world slave labor practices, then drops them in a pool full of piranhas. You'll laugh as the blood boils to the surface. Religious intolerance and corruption are making headlines in our world, and probably always will. So they play a fire-breathing part in Asher's explosion as well. A palpable rage fuels all the fires in 'The Line of Polity'. It makes for some really fun reading.

For some readers, the torrent of battle may be a bit overwhelming. But Asher does an excellent job of interweaving combat that is practically medieval with sophisticated cyber-invasions and "nuclear, biological and chemical warfare." Most importantly, he peoples his battlefields with characters that the readers will absolutely love. Apis Coolant is bound to become a reader favorite -- how could anyone resist that name? Moreover, Asher does a nice job of humanizing his nearly-alien humans and demonizing his human monsters. Everybody loves a nasty religious hypocrite, and Aberil of the Theocracy is only one of many that readers will slaver to see get their comeuppance.

Asher's created a very entertaining and well-drawn universe, where he can play at will and entertain readers enough that they'll want more almost immediately. The novels will work as standalone reads, but chronological order is always best for this sort of thing. The texture of his creation is significantly different from other universe-creators. Where other writers trend towards an almost polite immigration from planet to planet, Asher's universe seems much more modeled on the Wild West. Any tall tale will be believable. This time around, Asher's given us a lovely series of fairy tales to proceed each chapter, and they're a wonderful wind-up with an excellent pay-off. This is smart, sophisticated writing that seems to fun to be true. It's not true -- it's all a big, bold, glorious lie. Asher's Ian Cormac may prove to be the Paul Bunyan of the twenty-first century.