Author: Neal Asher
496 pages • £17.99
Life in Neal Asher’s hard-edged SF universe isn’t easy – and it’s often brought quickly to a halt by insane firepower, galactic-scale catastrophes, or grotesque monstrosities that redefine the phrase “messy eating”. The world of the AI-run Polity civilisation has been building to a ferocious level of complexity over Asher’s past seven books, but Hilldiggers is an ideal jumping-on point, being relatively self-contained, packed full of intrigue, and – most importantly – one of his most ambitious and gripping novels yet.
Set in a system that’s yet to be fully integrated with the Polity, it’s the story of two worlds: Brumal and Sudoria, both inhabited by opposing races of humans who’ve transformed themselves to survive in harsh environments, and who’ve recently finished a lengthy war. The conflict ended thanks to the arrival of a bizarre alien life-form known as the Worm, and now an emissary has been sent from the Polity – David McCrooger, a “Hooper” infected with a virus that makes him virtually immortal. Unfortunately, McCrooger’s visit also coincides with a grab for power by certain members of the Sudorian Fleet, meaning the system is soon exploding into conflict, with the Hilldiggers – massive craft whose weapons can create mountain ranges – at the centre of the battle.
Some of Asher’s novels have seen him cramming too much into his stories, but Hilldiggers is both inventive and expertly paced, navigating an incredibly complex story without losing any clarity or momentum. As you’d expect from Asher, the book also features some brilliantly conceived technology and creatures, particularly in the surreal, hive-mind society of Brumal, and doesn’t simply throw in action for its own sake, instead using the story to explore intelligent political ideas and ask difficult questions. It might not quite trump his barnstorming epic The Line of Polity, but if there’s a more enjoyable and provocative sci-fi action saga this year, we’ll be seriously surprised…