The Voyage of the Sable Keech review

Imagine a violent, virus-infested, aquatic planet. Neal Asher already has…

506 PAGES · £17.99

Author:
Neal Asher

Publisher:
Tor

ISBN:
1-4050-0140-2

Rating: 3.5/5

“Water, water everywhere.” Yep, this is most definitely the case on Spatterjay, Neal Asher’s decidedly aquatic planet, which first appeared in his 2002 novel, The Skinner. And on such a watery world lifeforms have inevitably evolved along very different lines from our own.

Leeches are the dominant creature, and they come in all sorts of sizes – from the minuscule to those the size of whales. These are accompanied by flocks of whelks with eyes on stalks, packet worms and 47 species of “Ocean Heirodonts” – former land creatures who have returned to the sea. Not to mention fish, crustaceans and “sails”: none-too-bright bat-like creatures who act as sentient sails on Spatterjay’s sailing ships. There’s clearly no shortage of imagination at work in Asher’s writing.

The Sable Keech of the title is a kilometre-long, nine-masted sailing ship (the use of much sophisticated technology is banned on Spatterjay), named after the long-dead Agent Keech, who first featured in The Skinner. And it’s the adventures of this ship’s very odd crew, their mysterious journey and the havoc-wreaking Spatterjay virus that form the heart of this idea-filled novel. The Sable Keech is being built by reifs. These are humans – murder victims brought back to life with the use of artificial intelligences, but still bearing the marks of their often vicious endings, so they might be missing eyes, skull parts or various other bits and bobs. Nice. There’s also something of a cultlike doctrine building up around these reanimated creatures.

Also in the mix – in fact he’s the first character we’re introduced to – is Vrell, a Prador. And you don’t want to mess with this multi-limbed, many-clawed, heavily carapaced crustacean. He’s much, much worse than catching a case of crabs. When he awakes from a virus-induced coma, he thinks nothing of indulging in a bit of cannibalism, and if his next meal just happens to be a younger, weaker sibling, well, so be it. A Vrell’s got to eat, after all…

There are numerous elements at play in Asher’s book. There are familiar science fiction themes, generally given an unfamiliar – often violent, sometimes ironic – twist. Take the hive mind, for instance, an SF staple. Here, it’s literally a “hive”, with hornets grafted on to a host for that extra buzz. There are artificial intelligences, resurrections, zombie-like races. At times it feels like cyberpunk, at others The Voyage has more of the feel of low-tech steampunk, though Asher manages the two strands successfully.

Asher certainly isn’t afraid of aggression and a bit of ultra-violence, which happens frequently and without warning on Spatterjay, a bit like a Saturday night in the West End, albeit with a higher bodycount and without the alcohol and pools of drying vomit.

The greatest difficulty in reading The Voyage is keeping track of the numerous races and characters that crop up. Though Asher does at least make this a little more straightforward by introducing each chapter with an encyclopedia-like entry on each of the planet’s races – so you can always dip back for a refresher course on Spatterjay fauna. This also demonstrates that the planet of Spatterjay itself is a well thought out, beautifully-realised creation, with a three-dimensional ecology and history.

If you’re not already familiar with Asher’s watery world, though this is not a sequel, it still might be worth delving into Asher’s earlier Spatterjay works first. That said, The Voyage of the Sable Keech is still an accessible piece of gritty, hard-edged sci-fi.

Simon Withers

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