by Neal Asher.
Paperback - 400 pages (23 March, 2001)
Macmillan; ISBN: 0333903633
Review by John Berlyne
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In recent years Macmillan have given the genre two of the most exciting
writers to be currently found in print. Both Peter F. Hamilton and the superb
China Miéville have made huge impressions with their wonderfully creative
fiction and it is more than possible that Macmillan have just found another name
to add to the list.
Neal Asher's debut novel Gridlinked will be published in March in large
format trade paperback and it will most certainly be noticed by the
establishment. Asher has been very active for some time on the fringes of the UK
genre scene having had a number of his short stories published in various small
press magazines and collections. Gridlinked is his big break though and
it couldn't be more thoroughly deserved.
This is a brilliant and audacious work, chock-full of (often literally!)
cutting-edge ideas. At first it seems reminiscent of Iain Banks' Culture novels,
but this is only a fleeting similarity between The Culture and the structure of
Asher's Polity - a technologically advanced and imperially minded society
intent on colonizing other worlds for no other reason than the belief that it
would do them some good. Though being compared to Banks is certainly no bad
thing, I feel that reviewers too often use him as the benchmark by which they
judge most new home-grown hard SF talent. On the strength of Gridlinked,
it is very clear that we'll all soon be seeing how future authors compare to
Gridlinked opens in a departure lounge. A technician is waiting to go
through the runcible gate to be instantaneously transported to the planet
Samerkand. This transport system (the idea of which put me very much in mind of
the farcaster portals in Simmons's Hyperion Cantos) is run by
super-intelligent AI's yet for this poor chap something goes wrong and his
arrival causes a huge nuclear explosion and the deaths of about 10,000 people.
The body count of Gridlinked starts high and goes on from there!
Ian Cormac is an agent in the employ of Earth Central Security and he is gridlinked.
This basically means that through cybernetic implants (or augs) he is
directly in contact with the massive AI's that run much of show. It takes us a
little time to key into all this high-tech stuff - Asher crams his novel full of
ingeniously conceived gadgetry. Cormac is one of the most senior and experienced
agents and he is instructed to go and investigate the Samerkand explosion. This
order comes from one Horace Blegg, a mythic figure in the ECS believed to be
over five hundred years old and to have a finger in every pie. Blegg also
informs Cormac that his gridlink, having been in place for thirty years,
is now doing his brain irreparable damage and that if it is not removed
immediately he will die. With his reliance on his link so central to his very
being, this is grave news indeed but there is no alternative. The link is
severed and Cormac must now rely on nothing more than his instincts.
Meantime there is trouble brewing for Cormac. Much of his recent work has
involved infiltrating groups of separatists intent on disrupting Polity
business. Responsible for the killing of a young separatist woman, Cormac finds
himself the target of her brother, Arian Pelter, intent on vengeance and with a
group of mercenaries in tow. Pelter is a wonderfully drawn villain. In order to
gain advantage over Cormac, he invests in an aug of his own and Asher
juxtaposes his protagonist and antagonist beautifully. Without his link Cormac
becomes a stiff and uncomfortable individual, unsure and uncertain. Pelter with
his grotesque new hardware gains a confidence that steps beyond madness. This
role-reversal is gripping stuff indeed.
This is a story of betrayal and treachery and it moves along at break-neck
speed. Cormac pursues his investigation of the Samerkand incident uncovering a
link with his past that gives him just cause to suspect it was no accident. At
the same time we watch with mounting horror the cold and detached Pelter on the
hunt for his quarry. This is often gruesome and shocking but it is always
engrossing and never once does Asher drop the ball.
There are many ingredients of Gridlinked worthy of a mention; the
terrifying android, Mr. Crane, a two meter tall brass killing machine; Dragon,
the huge unfathomable alien entity that sees Cormac as it's nemesis; the various
examples of future tech that function as integral plot devices rather than mere
cosmetic set dressing. All these and more help to make Gridlinked an
accomplished piece of work.
There are moments when the pace dips or when Asher chooses a phrase that seems a
little clumsy but these are few and far between and only stand out because 99.9%
of the time he has everything just right. The author's web site (http://website.lineone.net/~nealasher/)
mentions that another of his novels is due from Macmillan next year and a
projected follow-up to Gridlinked some time after that. I look forward to them
enormously and to seeing Asher receive the success he is clearly destined for.
© 2001 Ernest
Lilley / SFRevu