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Friday, April 4, 2008

"Line War" by Neal Asher w/Bonus Q&A

Order “Line WarHERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s Reviews of Brass Man + Hilldiggers
Read FantasyBookSpot’s INTERVIEW with Neal Asher

One of the best things about reading speculative fiction in my opinion is finding your self transported to this whole other world that feels as real as our own like Tolkien’s Middle Earth, George R. R. Martin’s Westeros, Jacqueline Carey’s Kushiel series and Steven Erikson’s Malazan novels which are some of my favorites :) Another world that has quickly become a favorite of mine is the Polity universe by Neal Asher, a futuristic setting where mankind has expanded throughout a galaxy of planets and is governed by artificial intelligences. What’s fascinating about this universe is how much effort and detail has been put towards its construction from developing several technological concepts—runcibles, U-space (underspace) travel, augs, gridlinks, chainglass, haimans (a human partially combined with an AI), golems, war drones, chameleonware, CTD imploders, DIGRAWs (directed gravity weapon)—complete with their own argot, to establishing a rich backstory and ensuring that each individual planet has its own distinctive ecosystem. Of course the author doesn’t accomplish all of this in one book and even after several novels, short stories and novellas set in the Polity milieu, Neal is still elaborating on and exploring many different aspects of this universe. However in his latest book “Line War”, Neal Asher brings one of his storylines to an end, specifically the Ian Cormac sequence that began in 2001’s “Gridlinked”…

An ECS (Earth Central Security) agent, Ian Cormac first burst onto the scene in “Gridlinked” as a character who had lost touch with humanity and over the next three books—The Line of Polity, Brass Man and Polity Agent—readers got to see this character evolve emotionally and physically while Ian was engaged in one Polity-threatening mission after another including confrontations with psychopathic golems, rogue AIs, monstrous fauna, and a species-eradicating alien technology created by the Jain. Building from these events, “Line War” finds the Polity facing extermination at the hands of Erebus—a group of renegade AIs melded with Jain technology—and amidst this crisis Cormac finally finds the answers he’s been desperately seeking aided by his terrifying and godlike U-space sense. Like the previous Cormac novels though, Ian is really only one piece of the puzzle, so in typical Asher fashion “Line War” features several other storylines and point-of-views the most important of which involve the Jain-infected Haiman Orlandine who is recruited by Fiddler Randal—a ghost in the machine—to destroy Erebus; Mr. Crane & Vulture who are key components in ensuring Orlandine’s success; Mika who travels with the alien entity Dragon to the source of the Jain technology in search of answers and a way to defeat Erebus; and Erebus himself. The end result is an exciting conclusion to the Ian Cormac chapter that rewards readers with answers to questions that date back to “Gridlinked”—How Cormac gained his U-space abilities in the first place, the origins of the Jain technology, the gabbleducks’ secret, etc—intelligent plotting and incredible epic-scale action sequences involving Erebus’ deadly biomech wormships, the Dragon spheres versus ‘wild’ Jain technology, the massive warship Cable Hogue and a war runcible capable of flinging asteroids or moons at its enemies…

Sounds good right? Well it is, but as enjoyable and as satisfying as I found “Line War” to be, I also have to admit that I was a little disappointed in the novel. First off, the characters—which have been an ongoing issue with the author’s books—continue to be a sore spot. I mean compared to his earlier works Neal’s characterization has improved by leaps & bounds and in “Line War” he does explore some interesting points about what it means to be human, the risks of technological advancements, vengeance, absolution and assorted other moral dilemmas, but for all that the main characters—specifically Cormac, Mika and Orlandine—lack any truly distinguishing personality traits resulting in narratives that all feel the same. In fact, it’s the non-humans like Vulture, Mr. Crane, Arach, Fiddler Randal, Dragon, King of Hearts and the war drones inhabiting the war runcible that possess the most personality. Secondly, for as much action as Neal packs in “Line War”, the story’s pacing is surprisingly drawn out. This is not so much of an issue since Neal does such a wonderful job of setting up events, but at times I just wish he would have ramped up the intensity :) Finally, there was the book’s finale. From various interviews and comments, Neal expressly stated that he wanted the Ian Cormac series to end on a high note—and with a surprise twist—so I was expecting something jaw-dropping, but instead the ending was underwhelming and not really that surprising if you were paying attention. Plus, I was a little disappointed that my two favorite creations in Mr. Crane and Dragon weren’t more involved in the fighting ;)

Still, for all my complaints “Line War” remains a highly engaging, smart and fulfilling close to the Ian Cormac series and is strongly recommended to Neal Asher fans. Even readers new to the author should be able to enjoy the novel since Neal does a solid job of explaining past events—after all I’ve only read “Gridlinked” and “Brass Man” from the series myself—but to get the fullest experience it would probably be better to read the other Polity novels first. In the end, “Line War” may have some issues, but it’s still some of the best science fiction being produced today by one of the most talented—and underappreciated—authors in the genre, and it’s never too late to discover for yourself all the marvelous wonders & horrors that the Polity universe has to offer…

BONUS FEATURE — Neal Asher Author Q&A:

Q: For UK readers, your new book “Line War” comes out April 4, 2008 and is supposedly the concluding chapter in the Ian Cormac sequence. In our last chat you expressed why it was time to end the series and how you wanted it to go out with a bang. Were you able to accomplish everything that you wanted to in “Line War”?

Neal: I think I have managed to finish it both with a bang and a satisfying twist, but I’ll let the readers judge that one. The book is a million plus words on from “Gridlinked” so either my writing has improved or filled with waffle – take your pick. I of course plump for the first of these and, anyway, my editor tends to come down hard on waffle and he didn’t need to with “Line War”. I feel I’ve hit on everything my readers require from me: excitement, plot convolutions, serious weaponry and the bang, definitely the bang.

Q: As far as other projects, you have “Shadow of the Scorpion: A Novel of the Polity” (May 2008-
Nightshade Books) and “The Gabble and Other Stories” collection (November 2008-UK) coming out later this year, while two of your short stories—Mason’s Rats: Black Rats + Mason’s Rats: Autotractor—were included in The Solaris Book of New Science Fiction: Volume II edited by George Mann, and you recently completed a story for Gardner Dozois’sNew Space Opera II”. Can you tell us more about these four different projects and what you’re currently working on now (Orbus) or hope to be working on in the future?

Neal: After “Prador Moon” did so well for
Night Shade Books they wanted something else from me, set in the Polity, and for it to be a bit longer. I chose again to fill in some back story and wrote about Cormac’s early years in the military, serving in the ruins left by Prador wartime genocides and planetary bombardment. It also involves his childhood memories of a scorpion drone, memory editing and future betrayal. Initially it was called Scorpion Memory, but it seems this title is too ‘difficult’ so it was changed to “Shadow of the Scorpion”. The short story collection from Macmillan is a compilation of Polity stories that have appeared in Asimov’s, Interzone and many other magazines, some of which were rather short-lived. As such it didn’t require a lot of work from me; just a bit of editing and writing a few notes.

I wrote the Mason’s Rats stories some while back so ‘new SF’ is a bit misleading in that case. There were three stories that have had a long convoluted history. The first two were published in a magazine called Orion in ’92 & ’94, all three were released as a booklet by a magazine called Kimota some years later, then the first was published in the April/May 2005 issue of
Asimov’s and subsequently went on to appear Hartwell & Cramer’s Year’s Best SF 11. The reaction to these stories has been quite odd. I once found a review on the Internet that was longer than the three stories, waffling on about the deep political and philosophical implications. I read it thinking, “Damn, I didn’t know I was that clever.” When the first appeared in Asimov’s I also got a rabid review on Tangent Online in which I was accused of being a sophomore, left-wing PETA animal activist. A very strange label for me as anyone who knows me, or reads by blog, would guess. So, when George Mann gave me this opportunity to have the following two stories published I grabbed it (My story Bioship also appeared in Solaris I), mainly because I’ve had numerous fans asking me where they can obtain them.

Damn, I’m losing track of all these myself.
Gardner Dozois emailed me first concerning his collection “Galactic Empires”. Someone had dropped out and he wondered if I had anything to submit. I’d just written two longish stories, “Alien Archaeology” & “Owner Space”, the first of which had been taken by Asimov’s so I sent him the second, which he took. Shortly afterwards he emailed me again asking if I could submit something to “New Space Opera II” and since I really ought to appear in a collection of that title, I agreed, later sitting down to write a 10,000 word story called “Shell Game”. Polity again, but with some very different aliens…hostile aliens of course.

Currently I’m about 80,000 words into “Orbus” and enjoying myself immensely. This is a follow-up to “The Voyage of the Sable Keech” tracing the journey of an Old Captain to a planetary wasteland lying between the Polity and the Prador Kingdom (appeared in Alien Archaeology). An ancient war drone by the name of Sniper has stowed away aboard his spaceship, and the purpose of the journey is not entirely what the captain expected. Also heading in the same direction is the Prador king, who is turning himself monstrous, and awaiting there is a thousand-year-old Prador called the Golgoloth who keeps himself alive by harvesting transplants from his own children.

Orbus” is the first of a three-book contract for
Macmillan. Next will be a book covering the history of the ‘Owner’ who has appeared in my collection “The Engineer ReConditioned”, then after that I’m going to do something more extensive about gabbleducks. If I get time in between I’m guessing Jason Williams at Night Shade will be on my tail, there’ll be short stories to do, and various other projects in the works (some film stuff about which I’m only allowed to say ‘I’ve been working on some ideas for a Heavy Metal film’) so the fantasy (trilogy) is once again pushed further into the future.

Q: With entertainment becoming more technology-based, which in turn is becoming more and more advanced, is the print format in danger of becoming extinct, and what can publishers & authors do to adjust to the changing times? Additionally, what are your thoughts on ePublishing?

Neal: People have been writing up the obituary for print publications for ages, yet still those publications fail to let anyone nail down the coffin lid. Despite these predictions of demise, book sales continue to rise, though admittedly some magazine sales have taken a hit as people turn to the Internet for news and shorter forms of reading matter. Adjusting to changing times for authors and publishers involves grabbing hold of and using this wonderful publicity engine called the Internet. ePublishing is certainly on the rise, but the experience of many, including
Charles Stross, is that putting your stuff out there in electronic form seems to result in increased sales of the paper version. In fact there’s going to be an electronic version of “The Gabble and Other Stories” from Macmillan, with all sorts of tasty extras. For me one of the great things about all this is that a fan, in Australia, will in future be able to enjoy more of my stuff. He’s blind and with current technology still manages to use the Internet and have his computer read stuff out to him, which was how he discovered the few of my stories out there.

Q: Back in January,
SF Signal asked a bunch of science fiction authors to define what science fiction means to them in their Mind Meld series. Their answers can be found HERE (Part I) + HERE (Part II). How would you respond to this question?

Neal: There was a recent discussion on the
Asimov’s board in which the ‘singularity’ was being discussed. Some said “SF is about preparing for the future” whilst someone else said it’s about “predicting the future”. My reply to the first of these was “SF is about giving intelligent science-oriented people an entertaining escape from the present. Damn but some people take this genre too seriously.” New Guard or Old Guard, it’s the same beast.

Q: Recently you and your wife purchased a home in Crete where you lived for four months, hence the little disappearing act ;) Personally, I think it’s pretty cool, but why Crete and how was the experience?

Neal: We both like the Greek islands but most of them are small, mainly tourist-oriented and so lack facilities. Crete is the biggest of them, the furthest south so hotter, has some large urban areas so usually you can find the luxuries us soft British require, and you can buy a decent house there for less than the cost of a bedsit in Essex. I also like the fact that the Greeks have yet to succumb to the health-and-safety, politically correct, compensation culture bullshit that is turning Britain into an expensive nightmare. No council tax of £1000+ a year, no enviro-twits checking through your rubbish, a lack of huge taxes on booze and cigarettes, the police would rather sit drinking lattes and watching football than go out harassing people, bars stay open until the last customer leaves and you can smoke in them. Sandy beaches, 300 days of sunshine a year and a beautiful mountain location are pretty cool too. Of course, the reality doesn’t completely match up to the dream i.e. its bloody cold in the winter, especially if your house lacks insulation, central heating and leaks. The Greeks view every foreigner as a tourist i.e. they’ll be gone in two weeks so it’s okay to rip them off. But now, with most of the house problems sorted out and us getting over the ‘alienation’, which also can be a big problem, we intend to enjoy a long hot summer there. And I can do this because I can do my job anywhere.

Q: Lastly, since you weren’t able to participate in the 2007 Review/2008 Preview
HERE, I thought I would take this opportunity to ask you again J Basically, what were your favorite books that you read in 2007, and what titles are you most looking forward to (or have already read) in 2008?

Neal: Since I had a hell of a lot going on in 2007 I didn’t really get a lot of reading done. I enjoyed “Death’s Head” by
David Gunn for its unpretentious all action SF, “Stealing Light” by Gary Gibson was an excellent space opera as was “Old Man’s War” by John Scalzi. For 2008 I’m looking forwards to “Iron Angel” by Alan Campbell since to me his “Scar Night”, which I read in 2006, is the best fantasy I’ve read in years. If Peter Watts comes up with something more after his superb “Blindsight”, I’ll certainly get hold of that. I also want to read Scalzi’sThe Ghost Brigades” and “Stealing Fire” and “Stealing Time” in Gibson’s series.


Chris, The Book Swede said...

Neal Asher is one of those writers that I really need to read, having heard little but good about him, and I liked the Q&A you did with him. In fact, I really like the reviews with bonus Q&A, in general.

The Polity "world" does sound really good.


Anonymous said...

Neal Asher is great. I like his books and his blog makes for interesting and provocative reading. He talks an awful lot of bollocks on it, but life wouldn't be much fun if we all agreed.

Anonymous said...

Great interview; I have not read the review yet since Line War will be here early next week most likely.

Actually I will go on a N. Asher reading binge since I expect both Shadow of the Scorpion and Galactic Empires next week too, and so I am doing a reread of Prador Moon and Polity Agent in between other books to get back in the feel...


Robert said...

Chris, I'm glad you like the short interviews. Hopefully I can do more of them :) And yes, the Polity universe is a great place to hang out, so hopefully you'll visit it soon!

Steve, Neal's blog is definitely a lot of fun :)

LIviu, can't wait to see what you think of "Line War"! I still have a lot of Neal Asher's books to catch up on so I should be entertained for quite a while yet :)

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