Prador Moon (book, Neal Asher, 2007)


This review was originally published in Death Ray 07.

THREE AND A HALF STARS

Neal Asher/ Tor

The supposedly all-powerful Polity gets a rude shock from a band of murderous space crabs.

Forming the backdrop to the majority of Asher’s books, the Polity is a vast human empire run by (mostly) beneficent Artificial Intelligences. It is the home of luxury, tolerance and generally fulfilling lives for its billions of citizens. In a galaxy studded with the archeological remains of long-dead races, there’s been no contact with an extant space-faring civilisation. Until now.

Prador Moon details the Polity’s First Contact, and as you might expect from Asher, it’s a bloody affair. After a disastrous meeting with the crab-like Prador at Avalon Station, human space is invaded by this bunch of ravenous, stereotypical space monsters, monsters who are intent on eating the Polity’s citizens alive. This is Asher having B-movie fun. Prador Moon is, we shall say right here, not a sophisticated book.

The story’s told from the point of view of three characters. Jebel Krong, Polity agent, is present on Avalon station where the Prador first attack, losing his arm and his lover to their aggression. Predictably, this transforms him into a rage-filled crab killer whose preferred form of attack is attaching mines to the carapaces of his foes, earning him the nom de guerre of “U-cap” – “Up close and personal”. In parallel to his story runs that of Moria, a woman who is part of a research project at the planet of Trajeen where they’re trying to build a spaceship-sized “Runcible” (Asher’s instantaneous, stargate-type travel device). She’s rapidly being sidelined by her younger colleagues, who are all implanted with augs, interfaces that link them directly to the AI network of the Polity. Moria decides to have one put in herself, only to find it is not the standard model, having been fitted by genius on the run, Sylac. The Polity AIs have taken issue with Sylac’s work, as his augs could potentially put humans on an equal mental footing with the machines. But the fleetingly present Sylac might have just saved a billion lives as his illegal augmentation allows Moria to take control of the experimental Runcible gate when its governing AI is destroyed by human Separatists. It’s perhaps necessary to point out here that the gates can also make potent weapons, which is why the ancient and extremely ruthless Prador Immanence is on his way to try and capture the Trajeen gate in his nigh-on indestructible warship. The third strand of the book details Immanence’s quest, giving us a view from both sides of the conflict – the Polity’s only major war to date.

Prador Moon is not as imaginative as some of Asher’s other works – there are none of his trademark bizarre eco-systems, for instance. The Prador’s social system is entertainingly gruesome but, for all their crustacean murderousness, they think in less alien a manner than the humans’ own AIs. There are no twists in this short book, aside from the peculiar desire of the Separatists to work with a bunch of man-eating fiends, and it feels in places that the entire novel has been built to get us as quickly as possible to the pretty obvious denouement. The story leaps forward in time rapidly, sometimes making you wish for more episodes of adventure. Though perhaps Asher is right in not giving us just more of the same, the result is the literary equivalent of a TV episode, not a blockbuster movie.

Still, better a great TV shot than a crap film –  The unashamed straightforwardness of the plot is echoed in most elements of the story, but the result is a fast-paced, exciting slice of SF with a goodly squirt of military derring-do. As usual, Asher delivers a book of high enjoyment, dollops of gore and the occasional wry line. His Polity remains an engaging future setting, while Asher fans will be pleased to see cameos from characters and certain details from his other books fleshed out, notably those from The Skinner, the plot of which makes reference to the Prador war. It’s worth noting that, unlike a lot of other authors with oft-visited personal universes, you don’t have to have read any other Polity books to get a thrill out of this.

You can’t fault Asher’s verve either. Even all these years after the publication of The Engineer, Asher’s first book, there’s still a slightly raw quality to his writing. But though this manifests itself sometimes as pockets of difficult to read technobabble, mostly it emphasises rather than detracts from his storytelling panache. Though well written in the main, it’s a book of energy rather than polish, and that is a good thing.

Not big, not clever, but certainly a lot of fun.

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