Today we’ve got a very special roundtable with Alan Beatts (owner of Borderlands Books), Mark Chitty (reviewer and book blogger), and Chris Hsiang (bookseller at Compass Books). They got together to discuss Neal Asher’s body of work, in honor of his recent release, Dark Intelligence, and we’ve got the exclusive!
About Dark Intelligence:
One man will transcend death to seek vengeance. One woman will transform herself to gain power. And no one will emerge unscathed…
Thorvald Spear wakes in a hospital to find he’s been brought back from the dead. What’s more, he died in a human vs. alien war that ended a century ago. Spear had been trapped on a world surrounded by hostile Prador forces, but Penny Royal, the AI inside the rescue ship sent to provide backup, turned rogue, annihilating friendly forces in a frenzy of destruction and killing Spear. One hundred years later the AI is still on the loose, and Spear vows for revenge at any cost.
Isobel Satomi ran a successful crime syndicate, but after competitors attacked she needed power and protection. Negotiating with Penny Royal, she got more than she bargained for: Turning part-AI herself gave Isobel frightening power, but the upgrades hid a horrifying secret, and the dark AI triggered a transformation that has been turning her into something far from human…
Spear hires Isobel to track Penny Royal across worlds to its last known whereabouts. But he cheats her in the process and quickly finds himself in her crosshairs. As Isobel continues to evolve into a monstrous predator, it’s clear her rage will eventually win out over reason. Will Spear finish his hunt before he himself becomes the hunted?
Dark Intelligence is the explosive first novel in a brand new trilogy from military SF master Neal Asher and a new chapter in his epic Polity universe.
ALAN BEATTS: The first thing I read by Asher was his original story collection, The Engineer. Though those stories were the foundation of the Polity universe (and it was clear from the stories that there was a consistent universe), at the time there wasn’t anything else to read.
MARK CHITTY: That’s an easy one to remember – The Skinner. I knew Neal has written a few novels and, when I first picked up The Skinner, I think Prador Moon and Hilldiggers were just released in the UK. As is my habit, I looked into his books before I started reading so knew what I was getting into, and while it was a toss up between Gridlinked and The Skinner, it was the setting and synopsis for The Skinner that really hooked me in.
Like Alan, The Engineer was also another one I read early on, though I read the re-release – The Engineer ReConditioned – which, I believe, has another couple of stories. I loved the way the early Polity stories play out and tie into Neal’s later novels, while his Owner stories in this collection – “Proctors,” “The Owner,” and “Tiger, Tiger” – are amongst my favourite of all of Neal’s shorts.
CHRIS HSIANG: I’m no longer sure. I think it was Line of Polity. I do remember The Skinner and possibly Cowl being early on. I went on something of a binge when I discovered Asher. I am certain that I read Line of Polity before Gridlinked and was aware it was part of a series in progress.
MARK CHITTY: Prador Moon or Shadow of the Scorpion. Both of these are fairly short, both set early in the future history of the Polity, and both can lead on to other novels – Prador Moon into the Spatterjay books, Shadow of the Scorpion into the Cormac novels. Of course, I’d also say that the short story collection, The Gabble, would give a great taste of Neal’s writing and what can be expected from his novels.
CHRIS HSIANG: I have been handselling them Gridlinked, because that’s what has been most readily available in the States up until now. I thought Line of Polity was perfectly fine to jump into, but its big honkin’ thickness can seem daunting. Newbies often report that The Skinner was “just too damn weird” for them.
ALAN BEATTS: I suggest either Gridlinked or The Skinner. I think that they’re both excellent novels and a great introduction to his work (and the Polity). Which one I suggest depends on:
1) Whether the reader is looking for a “big” space opera, in which case I suggest Gridlinked.
2) If I think the reader is going to be alright with the gorey bits of The Skinner.
MARK CHITTY: Much like Chris and Alan, I think Gridlinked is also a good starting point, though it’s a novel that really begs for the reader to continue with the other Cormac books. And I can see the point regarding The Skinner – it is rather weird! But, importantly, it’s one of his best and shows just how well Neal can create worlds and eco-systems that make perfect sense in the setting.
MARK CHITTY: To be honest, I don’t see a massive difference between them. Prador Moon and Shadow of the Scorpion are both shorter novels and don’t contain as many points of view or plot elements, but that doesn’t make them any less of a Neal Asher story. There are also some elements that come up in Hilldiggers and The Technician that would benefit massively from reading some of the other novels, but it’s not necessarily required.
CHRIS HSIANG: Shadow of the Scorpion is nice, but maybe too small, in both page count and not as epic as the later Cormac stuff. Such a Goldilocks thing, I know (to try and find the Asher book that is Juuuusst right…).
ALAN BEATTS: The “stand alone” novels tend to have a smaller cast of characters and less variety of settings. That makes them quicker reads and, perhaps, a bit more accessible to readers.
MARK CHITTY: Accessibility is definitely one of those things that make Shadow of the Scorpion and Prador Moon stand out!
MARK CHITTY: Perhaps a little strangely, it’s not the heroes that stick in my mind, but rather than anti-heroes: Sniper (a war drone), Mr. Crane (a brass golem), Vrell (a prador). I’m sure I’m not alone!
ALAN BEATTS: It’s hard to choose just one, but I think I’d have to pick Sniper from The Skinner.
CHRIS HSIANG: To be honest, I don’t read Asher for his individual characters.
Whether they are human, posthuman, manufactured, or alien, they always just seem like Asher People to me …and that’s okay.
MARK CHITTY: I don’t think there is anyone out there that writes a novel like Neal can, and certainly nobody with the breadth and depth of his imagination. As I’ve not read a lot of older sci-fi I can’t say that any influences jumped out at me, and because I’ve not come across anything comparable to Neal’s work I simply take it as it is.
CHRIS HSIANG: I see more attention to low-intensity combat (as opposed to great fleets a-clashing) and monsters. Oh man, Asher does the best monsters, both designed and evolved on strange new worlds. He’s really big on body horror and themes of redemption. Is it just me or is redemption more of a thing with Brit authors than we shame-proof Yanks? Mieville, Abercrombie… But I digress (constantly). Monsters…
MARK CHITTY: Monsters Indeed! Spatterjay in itself contains more horrors than entire series written by other writers, and they all seem eerily realistic too!
ALAN BEATTS: I saw the relationship with Banks’ work from the outset but I didn’t see much of a relationship to Heinlein’s work (nor do I see one now). Or, at least no more of a relationship to Heinlein than much of modern SF. The other relationship that I see is not to any SF writers but to some contemporary British fantasy authors, specifically Joe Abercrombie. The connection is in their shared view of existence as being a difficult, violent place in which innocents often suffer as a result of greater powers at work. But, despite that, the better qualities of human nature prevail much of the time, to the benefit of the innocent.
MARK CHITTY: I’ve not read any Abercrombie, but Neal does show life not always going as planned. His books are, ultimately, positive in outlook despite the struggles the characters go through, and the alien creatures they encounter along the way.
MARK CHITTY: I know that Neal wrote plenty of short fiction prior to Gridlinked being published here in the UK in 2001, and despite that being before my time I tend to group him with that new wave of Space Opera writers that emerged in the 90’s.
CHRIS HSIANG: I dunno. He’s British, they’re British. They must have come from the same lineage as Banks. Either that or they all got a hold of the same bad batch of Marmite when they were kids.
ALAN BEATTS: I think that Asher’s work is part of that general movement but it stands as a bit of an outlier, both due to the elements I just mentioned and also because of the interest in biological systems and effects that pervades his work.
MARK CHITTY: Alan is right, despite coming through around the same time as many other British authors his work is different and stands out – in a good way. Some newer authors tend to embrace the weird, but more in the fantasy genre than SF.
MARK CHITTY: I think that his work has gone from strength to strength over the past 14 years since Gridlinked first came out here in the UK. I read Neal’s work out of publication order, starting with the Spatterjay books and then the stand alone novels and short story collections. By the time I came to read the Cormac novels and The Technician in 2011 it gave me a complete look at his novels from his first to his newest, and it showed how he’s grown as a writer and storyteller.
CHRIS HSIANG: Well, certainly his conservative, Libertarian, Whatevertheheckitism has grown more pronounced in his prose over the years. The Owner trilogy seemed like Arnold Schwarzenegger skiffy-thriller written by Ayn Rand. Not quite my cuppa, but I can heartily recommend it to many people.
ALAN BEATTS: I don’t think that his work has changed much at all over the years. His writing has become smoother and more confident but otherwise, I’m reading (and enjoying) pretty much the same author I read when he started. As for his career, it has not been as successful in the US as his peers, I suspect in part because his themes are much less comfortable than those of Hamilton or Reynolds.
MARK CHITTY: I think Alan is right in saying that his themes aren’t quite as comfortable as Hamilton’s or Reynolds’, but his style and stories are much more action orientated. I tend to describe Neal’s work as an action blockbuster movie in book form, though he is definitely and solidly in the space opera camp.
CHRIS HSIANG: I have found the later novels very dependent on previous knowledge of the Polity, and I am usually all for jumping into the middle of a series. I like to stock more/all of his oeuvre at my store, but I hesitate tossing the innocent headfirst into a Hooder.
MARK CHITTY: I agree with Chris – the further into Neal’s work you go, especially the newer books, it really does help to have prior knowledge. Thankfully his novels can be grouped fairly easily – at least to those familiar with his work. I’d essentially put his books into the following groups:
Stand-alone books that can be read without prior knowledge:
- The Engineer ReConditioned (short story collection with some stories providing good background on the Polity)
- The Gabble (another short story collection and provides more background to the Polity)
- Prador Moon
- Shadow of the Scorpion
- Hilldiggers (can be read fresh, but prior knowledge of the Spatterjay books may help)
- Cowl (non-Polity)
- The Line of Polity
- Brass Man
- Polity Agent
- Line War
And then, after this series:
- The Technician
- The Skinner
- The Voyage of the Sable Keech
The Owner Trilogy (non-Polity):
- The Departure
- Zero Point
- Jupiter War
And then you’ve got his upcoming Transformation series, another set in the Polity. I’d guess that some of his previous work would be beneficial to read before this, but Neal does have a knack to give newcomers a good grounding.