Tor UK / Pan Macmillan
UK Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 04-15-2005
432 Pages; £17.99
Date Reviewed: 04-14-05
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005
A salvage ship roaming beyond the boundaries of Polity encounters an asteroid rich in titanium and platinum, and finds the wreckage of a dreadnought splattered across the surface. Ian Cormac, the polity agent responsible for destroying the dreadnought is visited by his mysterious superior, Horace Blegg, a survivor of Hiroshima, and sent in pursuit. On Cull, a world outside the Polity, a cranky old man named Anderson has taken under his wing Tergal, a young thief and con man on the run. Anderson is a knight-errant of Rondua on a mission to kill a dragon. Monsters, machines, mutants, mysteries and every possible combination multiply as the pages turn. This untidy universe must have some connective tissue, some thread that ties it together. A reader might feel lost in the vast, chaotic jumble presented here.
And what a pleasant feeling that is. Neal Asher is back and he makes 'Brass Man' far more fun than reading has any right to be. 'Brass Man' is the third novel featuring Ian Cormac, Polity Agent, and it's a grand science fiction adventure, bristling with ideas, action, excitement and wit. Following hot on the heels of 'Gridlinked' and 'The Line of Polity', 'Brass Man' brings back a favorite character from the first novel, the subverted, damaged killer android, Mr. Crane as well as a host of other characters. Readers who have not yet read Asher but who think they might enjoy this sort of thing are directed to read 'Gridlinked' and 'The Line of Polity' first, with the understanding that those of us who have read them are envious. But 'Brass Man' goes a long way towards compensating for that envious feeling. It offers all the pleasures of discovery of the first two novels even as it uses them as a launch point. It's rich with great characters, great prose, and a great sense of humor. So rich, in fact, that reading 'Brass Man' is like tucking into a wonderful chocolate cake, only to discover halfway through that it's a chocolate lava cake. But don’t swoon, because one of Asher's deadly monsters may take you out in a heartbeat.
One of the pleasures of science fiction is being immersed in a universe, a story that is bigger than you think you can understand. There's a pleasant cloud of confusion that's a joy to clear away by reading the book. Asher has that down and down. He unfurls so many threads at the start of 'Brass Man' that the reader can't help but feel lost in an alien and rather hostile universe. And that's in fact the case. The characters are lost in an alien and rather hostile universe, and as they discover what they can of their place so does the reader. Asher's technique for dislocating the readers then drawing them into a very complex world is to build up layer after layer. Here, we have Anderson and Tergal, struggling across the surface of a planet in search of a dragon. Here, we have Ian Cormac, in pursuit of a criminal resurrected by the unknowable alien technology that made him an outlaw in the first place. And here we have intelligent starships who interact with one another on a level that is incomprehensible to their human occupants but readily apparent to the enthralled reader.
Those familiar with Asher's work know that he heads each chapter with a quote in the style of Frank Herbert. Furthermore, these quotes form an important thread in the novel itself. This time around, Asher is focusing on the AIs, the artificial, machine intelligences that run his universe. The starships that ferry the humans around, including Ian Cormac, are far more intelligent than their occupants. In 'Brass Man', they're major characters, as is Mr. Crane. Asher allows himself the luxury of quite a bit of entertaining speculation and character development with his AI's in all their forms, minds, sub-minds, golems, ships and even planetary runcible controllers. 'Brass Man' is a cyberspace opera, effective on both the virtual and actual levels of reality.
But Asher's human characters are equally enjoyable. Ian Cormac finds himself seriously challenged in 'Brass Man'. A man unaccustomed to serious challenges, Cormac's character arc offers some shockingly entertaining moments of revelation. But as any great writer of serial fiction knows, each new novel must feature not only the continuing characters, but effectively drawn new characters. In 'Brass Man', Anderson and Tergal are remarkable, complex and even endearing, if indeed men who slay huge, insectile monsters for most of the narrative can be said to embody such a trait. But Asher pulls off this feat almost effortlessly. I'd love to see a novella or two devoted to these guys. They're noble and they're a hoot.
Asher achieves this success by virtue of his skills as a writer. He writes with a low-key, mordant sense of humor, never really going for over-the-top, laugh-out-loud moments. He creates a sort of dissonance with his remarkable imagination and clear prose. He'll describe something so patently weird and oversized, something so incredible, so complex, so insanely bloody or vicious with an utter clarity and aplomb that is seemingly at odds with what we're seeing. He charges into the absurd with a gusto that is courageous and outrageous.
Don't think for a moment that because he's writing a novel based in large part around the relationship between humans and their smarter offspring, the AIs, that Asher stints on the monsters in 'Brass Man'. He offers some of his best creations since 'The Skinner'. There are great scenes of bone-chilling horror in 'Brass Man'. The Brass Man himself, one of Asher's best monsters, gets the full Frankenstein treatment here. Readers get to experience Asher's hostile universe as Mr. Crane does. And while 'Brass Man' will certainly beget a sequel, it does not leave readers hanging. It's more a state of happily dazed readiness. As the novel closes, we understand everything that was unclear, we've connected the threads and the tapestry is unfurled before us. It's not a pretty picture by any means, nor is it ugly. It's the universe, alien and hostile, but filled with a mind-stretching potential. Ready to explore.