UK Trade Paperback First
474 Pages ; £9.99
Date Reviewed: 04-15-02
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel
Novels of planetary ecology are part and parcel of the science fiction genre. They can range from the classic 'Dune' by Frank Herbert to the obscure 'Planet of Chaos' by John Shirley. A great recent example is Robert Charles Wilson's 'Bios'. Neal Asher has entered the fray with a blunderbuss and enormous flesh-eating leeches in 'The Skinner'. The novel is set on Spatterjay, a world introduced in a short story collected in 'The Engineer'. One of the characters in the novel first showed up in another story in 'The Engineer' as well. But 'The Skinner' is no fix-up novel. It's a fantastically assured, wildly imaginative ass-kicking. If that was all it did, it would be worth ten times the price. But Asher is much more talented than he lets on. 'The Skinner' is something of a sucker-punch, luring you in with easy-reading mindless fun that layers up to something considerably more interesting.
Spatterjay is a remote world, on the edge of Asher's 'Polity Universe'. It's mostly covered with water, but for one large artificial settlement. Arriving in the settlement at the onset of the novel are three travelers . Janer is a human who fronts for the Hive Mind of Earth's other intelligent species, which happens to be wasps. He's something of a tourist, the eyes for their remote mind. Erlin is a researcher who discovered the secret of Spatterjay. Her paper on the subject made her famous, and now she has returned to find Captain Ambel, a resident of Spatterjay who helped her make her discovery. Keech is a reif, a human resurrected, dead-alive for more than seven hundred years, pursuing war criminals who may have found a home on Spatterjay. They arrive simultaneously, and book a ship commanded by Ron, one of Spatterjay's nearly immortal, nearly indestructible Captains. They leave the security of the Polity dome and enter the seafaring world of Spatterjay, where every form of life is dangerous.
Each chapter is headed by a description of some hazardous and horrific life form eating another. Asher clearly relishes his viscous, violent world, and the headings are certainly something to look forward to. Don't read them ahead however -- they're there for more than sheer entertainment value. This is true for most of the novel. It's important to remember that this novel is set on an oceanic world. The surfaces of the novel and the oceanic world barely conceal unexpected depths. Though it might seem that Asher's characters are about to embark on little more than a sightseeing voyage, that's quite far from what he cleverly develops. The plot rapidly grows to encompass refugee war criminals, an horrific alien foe, and the unexpected properties of Spatterjay itself. One of the great delights of this novel for readers is the ease with which Asher layers his story, building up characters and events that might at first seem to be outside the scope of the novel.
The same can be said of the characters, from the three travelers to the huge supporting cast of planetary inhabitants. Even characters who at first seem to have 'walk-on' parts get an excellent build up, growing into reassuring presences on the pages. The aliens are truly alien, and they don't show up until much later than you might expect. When they do, they'll go beyond the mere -- but complicated ecology that Asher has created. And though they are truly alien, they still have individual characters.
As you read this review, you might come to suspect that Asher's extreme world is like a non-stop-all-aliens monster movie, and to a certain extent, you'd be right. But Asher tempers his no-slow-parts express train with enjoyable humor and a rather wistful outlook that keeps it from being simply a non-stop slime-and-bloodbath. There's much more to this novel than meets the eye, and that's saying a lot because it's one of the most visual novels you'll read. 'The Skinner' is ably assisted by a great printing presentation -- large font size, generous pages and Steve Rawlings' cover art all add to an enjoyable reading experience. Wild imagination, rigorous extrapolation, great characters , well-placed humor, clever plotting and a boatload of monsters make this novel a must-buy for any serious science fiction reader.