Dark Intelligence book review

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Release Date: 29 January 2015
400 pages | Hardback/ebook
Neal Asher
Publisher: Tor

The Polity books have never been for the faint-hearted. Replete with über-violence, more gore than you’d find on a planet-sized abattoir and the nagging sense that something horrible might happen at any moment, these are SF novels that mix early cyberpunk’s insouciance with the widescreen baroque spectacle of space opera and the pacing of an airport action-thriller

But even by Neal Asher’s standards, there’s something particularly grisly about Dark Intelligence, the first book of his new Transformation series. That’s because, as the name suggests, grotesque transformations underpin the story. In particular, we get to look on as gangster Isobel Satomi - not a lady you’d willingly spend time with - is transformed into a Hooder, a vast predator. At which point it may help to quote Asher’s own blog: “Take a human spine and graft a horseshoe crab on the end of it, and you’re about there.” Lovely.

As to why she’s undergoing such a metamorphosis, this is rooted in her own greed, stupidity and lust for power – she’s someone who asks for help without thinking too deeply on what the price extracted for assistance might be – yet also in her encounters with a rogue AI, Penny Royal (of whom more later) and a former soldier, Thorvald Spear.

It’s Spear we meet first, as he’s reawakened when a “memcrystal” containing his personality is found after long years lost. As he comes back to life in a new body, even though he’s rich (what with salary having accrued while he’s been out of action), Spear isn’t in a good mood. Haunted by terrible memories of combat and the aftermath of capture, he wants revenge against Penny Royal, which he blames for turning on its own side when it was sent to rescue Spear and his colleagues from a showdown with Prador forces (this time think genocidal alien crabs bristling with weaponry).

Penny Royal (a name derived from a herb used to induce abortions, which at the very least suggests self-image issues), is thus set up as the baddie here, a crazy, scarily powerful intelligence that needs to be wiped from the universe for the sake of everyone else. And yet Dark Intelligence is a novel where things are rarely as they seem, where even memory itself, so easy to tinker with, can be unreliable. That’s not to say Penny Royal isn’t dangerous - it is - but who’s to say what its motivations might be?

It’s a book where there are far more ambiguities than the action-driven plot, which essentially charts Spear’s hunt for Penny Royal and Isobel’s hunt for them both, might initially suggest. All to the good… and yet this in itself also highlights the novel’s chief weakness. Bear with us here because this may initially seem churlish, but Asher is a novelist who dearly loves to entertain, to construct setpieces where things explode in spectacular and crowd-pleasing fashion. The trouble is that all this surface noise too often seems somehow to distract from the world he’s creating. Imagine visiting a theme park and spending literally every moment on the rides.

It’s a double shame because many of the underlying ideas here – that when people (using the word here to encompass all manner of clever creatures) change form, their perspective changes; that people’s perspective on the past shapes what they do in the present and the plans they make for the future – cry out for the more careful exploration that, say, Iain M Banks would have given them.

Perhaps this will be addressed in future books, but for now you’re left wondering whether Asher being so good at what he does might just be holding him back from doing other things better.

Jonathan Wright