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Monday, August 30, 2010

"The Technician" by Neal Asher (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

Official Neal Asher Website
Order The Technician HERE or Ebook HERE
Read FBC Review of Brass Man
Read FBC Review of Hilldiggers
Read FBC Review of Line War with Bonus Q/A
Read FBC Interview of Neal Asher

INTRODUCTION: I have not reviewed any Polity novels so far so I will present a little guide to the complex series since it is one of the cornerstones of modern space opera. With twelve novels and lots of short stories divided into two main arcs and several standalones and taking place in a span of some 600+ years from the 2400's to the 3000's+, the Polity is an organic work that essentially grew with its success with the public.

The main series arc dealing with Polity Agent Ian Cormac consists of five novels and I would say Gridlinked is the perfect point to start since it is both the series debut, a standalone and offers an excellent overview of what the Polity is about. Then I would follow with the two Cormac duologies - the Jain technology one comprised by The Line of Polity and Brass Man - and the rogue AI one comprised by Polity Agent and Line War; the pair of novels in each duology comprise more or less the first/second half of a huge novel so they should be read together and both duologies have complete endings of their main threads, while Line War ends the whole Cormac sequence very well.

After that I would read Prador Moon and the Cormac prequel Shadow of the Scorpion of which the title character Amistad reappears in a lead role in the The Technician; these two are linked but less tightly and segue into the Cormac main series; they are better read after you become a fan rather than as an introduction since only little about the Polity universe is explained.

Then I would read The Skinner and its immediate sequel The Voyage of the Sable Keech that take place some hundreds of years later and to a large extent on a single planet, followed by their sort of sequel and concluding story arc Orbus.

Hilddigers is a Polity standalone centuries ahead in time and far away in space, so it can be read at any time, but again I would not suggest it as an introduction.

As for the stories, they are a nice addition and some of the early ones illuminate a little the novels - Cormac's first meeting with Dragon for example - while some of the later stories contained in the Gabbleducks collection are quite important for The Technician though they are summarized in the novel.

While I still think Cormac's 5-novel main arc is the best part of the Polity series to date and the last duology Polity Agent/Line War forms the best one huge volume of the author's work, I was very pleasantly surprised by The Technician which is as good as anything the author has written so far. While a partial standalone and with mostly different characters than the rest of the series, The Technician is based on the events of The Line of Polity and of several short stories as above.

FORMAT/CLASSIFICATION: "The Technician" stands at about 500 pages divided into 20 chapters, a Prologue and an Epilogue. As usual in the author's work, each chapter starts with quotes from various Polity sources that add a lot of depth to its universe. The Technician's main action takes place on Masada in 2457, so about 20 years after the events of The Line of Polity, though there are flashbacks to crucial events in the past including some during the tumultuous events that led to the fall of the Theocracy.

The Technician is adventure sf in a space opera context at its best.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: There are several main characters and POV's. Jeremiah Tombs is a former Proctor and the only known human to survive an encounter with a hooder, namely with the albino, sculpture making one of the title. Still more or less insane after 20 years since the Polity did not want to damage whatever the Technician is believed to have inserted in his head, Jem is the only patient of the high security Heretic's Isle asylum under the care of Dr. Sanders, a former Masadan worker who was smuggled to the Polity by the underground and returned as a trained physician after the liberation.

Dr. Sanders is also a former lover of rebel commander Grant who had saved Tombs after the Technician ate most of him but kept him alive for unknown purposes. Grant is working today for the Polity and undertakes to protect Tombs, once the AI's in charge prepare an aggressive program for Tombs to recover his memory and accept the Theocracy's downfall, program that involve staging an escape, visiting important places and directly confronting reality.

Despite the post-liberation amnesty offered by the Polity, local Tidy Squads operate with impunity under the unofficial cleansing policy of the AI's and they have been eliminating most surviving former officials of the Theocracy, so despite his relative junior status Tombs is one of the few known remaining hit targets. Of course he is untouchable on Heretic's Isle but once in the open, Tidy Squads fanatics are determined to kill him at any cost and their secret commander Shree Enkara, another former lover of Grant and currently posing as an Earth accredited reporter is the most dangerous of all.

On the Polity side, the main operator is our old acquaintance the Iron Scorpion drone Amistad who somewhat by chance has become the main specialist on the Atheter and is ready to transcend from veteran drone to first level AI a la Jerusalem the Jain specialist. Amistad leads a diverse group including another old acquaintance, "black AI" Penny Royal, seemingly purged of its eighth murderous conscious state, somewhat loony researcher Chanter who has been studying the Technician for decades and famous scientists Jonas Clyde and Shardelle Garadon who have discovered the link between the Atheter - extinct sentients, Gabbleducks - their mindless descendants, Hooders - their biomechanical war machines that are tasked to consume the remains of dead gabbleducks and Tricones - engineered bio-organisms that consumed all remnants of Atheter technology on Masada.

As a series book "The Technician" is a bit of an oddity since it is the concluding chapter of a Polity sub-arc that was introduced in The Line of Polity as part of the author's fascination with weird monsters and strange ecologies, though it played only a marginal role to the main story dealing with Dragon, Jain technology and the Theocracy of Masada. The popularity of the creatures introduced there - especially Gabbleducks and Hooders - led to a bunch of stories dealing with their origins and relationship, all forming what one could call the Atheter sub-arc of the series that The Technician ends with brio.

As in all Neal Asher novels the main attractions of The Technician are great world building with both technological marvels and weird creatures, fast paced, no-nonsense action and here as in the superb Cormac sequence we also have the outstanding cast of characters described above.

While the scathing attacks on fanaticism and the "I know what's best for you" mindset for which the author is well known for are an integral part of the novel, here the villains are not the theocrats, but the subset of the former freedom fighters that cannot let go of their hatreds or of their desire to impose their will on the rest of the Masadans.

Separatists, fanatics, super drones - most notably the Iron Scorpion Amistad and the Black AI Penny Royal, dracomans, one sort of madman with a deeply buried secret, Jain tech, powerful alien war machines on a mission that puts the Polity in their way, high tech and a look at both insanity and fanaticism that occasionally is quite chilling combine to offer a Polity novel that reads fresh despite being the twelfth one in the series.

After last year's Orbus which was the first Neal Asher novel that did not connect that well with me, I thought that the Polity series was starting to lose some luster by too much familiarity and I was looking forward to the author's first Owner novel. The Technician (A++) showed that with a great cast of characters - what Orbus missed imho - a new Polity novel can be as enjoyable as ever and now I want more of this series too!!


Katherine Roberts said...

I first came across Neal Asher's stories in the little magazines back in the 90's, so it's great to see this review and to catch up with all his books. He's overtaken me now with number of published words, damn it...

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words; I first read Gridlinked close to publication - ordered it from the UK based on a review in Emerald City and from then on any N. Asher book was an automatic get on publication and read on receive.

I liked Cowl too - the one standalone non-Polity novel so far - while I hunted his early short stories in an obscure compilation of 'new authors' in a weird format and even the first Tanjen (?) edition of Engineer, though that one I sold to a collector for the price of the new reissue Engineer Reconditioned when the latter appeared

For me only Orbus was so-so mostly because I did not like that much the characters except for the drones of course

Blodeuedd said...

Never heard of this author before (I am still so clueless) but there is something about the book hat interest me

Liviu said...

If you like no-nonsense action and a combination of technological marvels and weird animals/ecologies, Neal Asher is the author to go.

The Technician is almost a standalone so you can start there, Gridlinked and The Skinner are other good starting parts

Anonymous said...

Like you, I was waiting to see how Technician turned out after the disappointment of Orbus (and very pleased with the outcome). You should, perhaps, mention that Orbus was written in the present tense, while Technician returns to normal past-tense writing.

Liviu said...

You are right about the tense, though I do not think that's the issue; Orbus just did not have compelling characters beyond the drones which we saw already

GardenGuy said...

I too buy anything from Neal, sight unseen as I have never been disappointed with anything he has written. (But I would too put Orbus and Cowl towards the bottom of the stack - which still isn't bad considering the awesome stack of reading he's come out with) I enjoy these side stories of the Polity but still wonder whether the Cormac series is done for good or will we be surprised with a continuation to that series (albeit several years/centuries after the last book) I just don't want to give up those characters and story line. Thanks for the great review, with the book in hand I'm excited about starting it

bottleHeD said...

Hilldiggers was the first Asher novel I read, when I hadn't heard of the author. It was interesting enough for me to pick up and start reading The Technician. I now realise I should have read the other novels first, but hopefully it should be too much of an issue.


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