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“The Line of Polity” is the second in Neal Asher's series of novels concerning Earth Central Security Agent Ian Cormac and the human Polity. It also follows his sublime novel, The Skinner, which should have won a prize or two. Having said that, I did inwardly groan when Neal Asher told me that The Line of Polity would be full of very big guns, as these are not the most potent weapons in Neal Asher's armoury, and besides, railguns are liable to go on strike at a moment's notice...
Like “The Skinner”, The Line of Polity culls various details from Neal Asher's earlier and excellent collection of stories: The Engineer, and also from his Runcible Tales (for more about these, see our Neal Asher page). Most important of these is the reintroduction of Jain technology into the Polity universe. Rogue scientist Skellor has had a piece of Jain technology presented to him on a plate many years earlier: a small coralline structure that he has studied so intensively as to make himself far ahead of anyone else working in this field, and even then, he only really understands about one percent of it. Working with the Separatists, the enemy of the Polity, has given Skellor the necessary freedom from moral restraints to take his work further. Not that Separatists, with their implacable hatred of AI sentience, would have anything to celebrate about a more sophisticated brand of nanotechnology than that currently enjoyed by the human Polity. As far as the Separatists are concerned, Skellor's skills are merely to be employed in advancing the potency of their own weapons against the human Polity. Ian Cormac has been dispatched by Earth Central Security to find out if Skellor was taken by the Separatists, or went of his own free will. In the ensuing bloody confrontation, Skellor somehow escapes (I couldn't help thinking of 'Skeletor' from The Adventures of He-Man when I saw his name.
Meanwhile, the Outlinker station Miranda has been destroyed, and it would appear that the mysterious godlike-being Dragon, now divided into three remaining spheres, may have been involved. Given Ian Cormac's previous contact with Dragon, he is immediately summoned to investigate. Along with him on the ECS dreadnought Occam Razor is a motley crew gathered from those who previously accompanied him in Gridlinked: Mika is picked up from Elysium, Gant (whose mind is now uploaded into a Golem android after his death), and Scar, the enigmatic creation of the previous Dragon sphere destroyed by Cormac. Along the way, they pick up an Outlinker survivor from Miranda called Apis Coolant, and the Dragon sphere itself, that has become injured in its destruction of the Theocracy battleship, the General Patten. Dragon accuses the Theocracy of having betrayed it, by using the nanomycelium that it supplied them several decades earlier to destroy the Miranda station. Unfortunately, the Occam Razor has also picked up a quite belligerent stowaway: Skellor. Meanwhile, upon the surface of Masada, the Theocracy homeworld, the pond worker Eldene has escaped from the Proctors with the help of a Polity Golem called Fethan, and they struggle across the inhospitable landscape to reach Lellan Stanton's underground resistance. 68% of Masada's population have voted for Polity intervention on Masada, but 80% is needed before the Polity can draw its line across the planet. Unfortunately, the 80% ballot seems unattainable, unless Polity agents, such as one Ian Cormac, intervene to destabilise the Theocracy. Trooper Thorn, now an undercover agent, has more than a little thorn in his side (or pelvis), when he believes that he has been spotted by Separatist mercenary John Stanton on his latest, and maybe last, mission...
Although The Line of Polity has been getting better notices elsewhere than “The Skinner”, I would assert that Neal Asher's previous novel is the greater book. Having said that, The Line of Polity is still pretty darn good. The events of this novel evidently precede those of “The Engineer”, where the Polity science vessel Schrodinger's Box encountered a real member of the Jain species, and it's good to see that Neal Asher has pretty much stuck to the same mythology that he used in this earlier story: that the Jain died out five million years ago, leaving only their artefacts behind, and that they were solar engineers, as well as genetic engineers. Such is the advancement of their technology, and the way that Skellor misuses it, that everyone agrees that it would be a good idea that they are still not around (although Jain technology is not purely used for evil in this book). On page 38, the Cable Hogue, the Polity dreadnought that featured in “The Engineer”, is mentioned. On page 138, blade beetles, previously utilised in a murderous way in Neal Asher's short story 'Proctors', also reappear, although they have been wiped out by the Occam Razor's drones on this occasion. However, the Theocracy Proctors are a wee bit more human than those employed by the legendary Owner in the short stories 'Proctors' and 'The Owner'. The Theocracy would appear to be more like the amoral priestly soldiers in 'The Owner', rather than eight foot tall law enforcers. The Theocracy also sound a lot more like the Separatists employed in 'The Engineer': as General Conard says, "Humans are chosen of God and are the only ones with the right to sentience!"
And here we come to a potential problem with The Line of Polity. When Deacon Aberil Dorth exclaims "Son of Satan!" in the Separatist Brom's company, Brom is embarrassed. Neal Asher tells us that the Separatists "only really wanted power and wealth" (p. 16), and this goes to diminish the Separatist cause like nothing else. Okay, so General Conard in “The Engineer” was a really unpleasant person, but at least he had beliefs and convictions (although he had not been caught yet - ha ha). It follows then that anyone who does not want Polity control, like Donnegal Dreyden, then just looks completely irrational and paranoid, whereas there are many valid reasons why Polity control could be seen as undesirable. As “The Engineer” perhaps makes a little clearer, Polity AIs do not have a huge regard for human life, and will dispense with you if they think necessary. Just like the current set-to between the United States and France, there could be very good reasons why a populace would want their indigenous Culture to be preserved and protected. Although, by naming a Theocracy ship the General Patten, Neal Asher would seem to be suggesting that the Theocracy admire the right-wing Christian fundamentalism of the United States of our age (without admiring their technology so much), but their attitude to governance would appear to reflect Saddam's Iraq more. Neal Asher's view of organised religion seems best summed up by this quote from 'The Owner' in The Engineer: "I just don't like the ignorance of faith".
Neal Asher's antipathy to organised religion is a weakness in this novel, I feel. The Theocracy here are not quite as convincing as that created by Adam Roberts in his own admittedly flawed novel, Salt, but Neal Asher has a more famous competitor in the form of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale, whose depiction of a theocracy in action has never been bettered, in my opinion (Atwood has said that Iran and Afghanistan were the models she used). Masada's Theocracy are just a bunch of thugs paying lip-service to god (Anita Diamant's The Red Tent also has a more effective demolition of this jealous god). "There has never been any proof that a god exists, and if such proof was found why the hell should we worship him?", says Fethan when discussing the patriarchal god of yore on page 215. Eldene finds it hard to shrug off all that has been drummed into her since birth on page 217: "Life... it's so complex - someone must have made it", yet tthe Jain in “The Engineer”, whilst not worshipped as a god, is suggested to have contributed somewhat to the creation of humanity, and may also have a future role in our evolution... Fethan dismisses Creationism out of hand, and then Dragon, a being that also has genetic engineering skills, goes off and creates a whole new race... Neal Asher's theology is therefore a tad confused and contradictory. Whether you believe or not in an omnipotent old man with a white beard, the monotheism that has enveloped humanity for the past two millennia cannot just be dismissed out of hand, even if, like Communism and Psychoanalysis, it is a concept that is deeply flawed. For better or worse, it happened and it has affected our culture. Take, for instance, the actions of the godlike Dragon - seemingly dying, then rising again practically on the third day - where have we heard that one before? Dragon again says "I am Legion", and that sounds like a Biblical quote - it is Mark Chapter 5 Verse 9 (it has to be observed that the characterisation of Dragon has been very consistent, right from Dragon in the Flower, despite the differing motivations of the various Dragon spheres). And Dragon, as mentioned above, also creates his own race of people and even has a kind of Adam in the form of Scar. Then again, Dragon has always been consistently conveyed in terms relating to human sexuality: "The head swung back towards Cormac, spraying milky saliva across the row of seats behind him" (Chapter 10, p. 248), and most pointedly in the birth of the first dracoman in “Dragon in the Flower” (these depictions of the human genitalia in the aspects of extraterrestrial creatures - such as Ridley Scott's Alien - always tend to be couched in terms of horror and fear - perhaps there is another reason why Playboy is always on the top shelf?!) . Although Dragon has godlike powers, he still has the relatively base need and instinct to reproduce. To perhaps show his own Biblical indoctrination, Neal Asher unconsciously quotes "Physician heal thyself" from the King James Bible (page 421). To be fair though, Neal Asher never presented the Separatists as a single homogenous group in the Runcible Tales, and there would appear to be diverse reasons for their not wanting to be part of the Polity. General Conard's religious fervour is certainly not shared by any of the Separatists in the Runcible Tales.
There are other quirks in the novel that I did not quite like. I was not a huge fan of the Mortal Fables. Okay, so this interactive book looks as though it has been quite cleverly subverted from Theocracy propaganda by the Masadan underground, but it still remains propaganda for all its subversion (an outlinker observes that propaganda first reared its head under organised religion, page 56). I don't think that John Stanton needed to be ingrained by such tales from birth to hate the Theocracy - although the reason why Stanton hates the Theocracy doesn't make much sense: Dorth was the lover of Stanton's mother, he had her accuse John's father of heresy so that she could get a divorce, he then murders Stanton's father, and his mother dies under questioning over the incident? The Mortal Fables would appear to be padding, and I've never really come across that in a Neal Asher novel before (the various knightly Proctors setting off to do battle with leviathans reminds me of this much more subtle passage from “Dragon in the Flower”:"Myths rewritten. I'm a knight in shining armour only my hardware's on the inside"). We could also have gone without Proctor Molat's various near-death experiences (but Aberil's thought that he cannot die because he has "far too much to do" (Chapter 19 p. 488) is superb - much the same goes through my mind when I'm on a grueling long distance flight). Perhaps this could be Macmillan's fault - they do like their science fiction novels to be of a certain bulky length, and I think that the characterisation of Ian Cormac has suffered as a result of this. In “Gridlinked”, Cormac was explicitly compared to James Bond, but I think that you can only really get away with having such a passionless and direct protagonist within a more compact plot. This is why Cormac needs such a large entourage: Thorn, Gant, and John Stanton are almost alter egos, and are necessary tools to support the complex plot strands. It is really difficult to see how Ian Cormac could inspire so much devotion in John Stanton that he would name his child after the ECS agent (that scene on page 526 is truly yucky). Unlike Bond, Cormac does not have a libido, although, with someone as unlucky in love as John Stanton, who could blame him? - (not only is Stanton an orphan, he only assisted Cormac in “Gridlinked” when he thought that his lover Jarvellis had been killed). Having said that, I am reminded that Cormac did make love with Chaline in “Gridlinked”, and slept with Maria for his own ends in “Dragon in the Flower”. Having relinquished his gridlinked status in the novel of the same title, he does seem to be less confident and more vulnerable when it comes to matters of the flesh, and he has some way to go before he regains his 'humanity'.
A more ghastly scene is when Hierarch Loman (who's not exactly Willie Loman), uses a sculping tool to gouge out the memory crystals/eyes of the First Friar (page 385). Although this is suitably horrific, this is not why it's ghastly - this sculping tool is shaped like a spoon (I think that the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves - Alan Rickman - got it more right when he suggested killing Robin with a blunt spoon because that would hurt more). Despite the presence of neurotoxin, this form of death just seems ghastly and fixed (that spoon comes to hand quite readily). Mika's inability to ask questions seems to be a curious one for a scientist to have, and her gradual ability of how to ask a question competently is a rather silly plotline, when there is far more happening internally within Mika to develop her character further. Although the plot of The Line of Polity is quite complex, the resolution is, unfortunately, quite guessable (we are told rather early on that The Occam Razor has a surprising vulnerability). On page 447, Jarvellis criticises the AI of Lyric II for its use of metaphors, but it's Asher himself who writes this excruciating simile: "The five days ground past like cripples at a funeral" (page 262), and this is more unfortunate since Neal Asher dedicates the novel to "all those people who will in years to come be putting wheelchair manufacturers out of business...". I hope that there is no backlash against Neal Asher because of this, since he has overall produced a most entertaining novel, and one that does invite and reward a couple of re-reads. I might have perhaps edited a few things out myself, to restore the tightness that Neal Asher's fiction usually has. But there are more positive portents for the future. Horace Blegg hints at imminent encounters with more powerful sentient alien life forms (possibly at the intergalactic level), and Blegg himself may well be on a level with the Owner in “The Engineer”, such are his own godlike powers (could he be on the verge of bringing Cormac up to his level?). Thorn's observation that Brom, the Separatist leader, has painted his toenails lavender, seems typical of a Bond villain, and depictions of masculinity in the cinema, such as David Lynch's Dune. At the end of the day, Neal Asher, unlike say Margaret Atwood, is not aiming for the Booker Prize (although “The Skinner” should have won an award). Next stop - An Android called Mr Crane calls. But hopefully, we'll get to see more fascinating flora and fauna, which is really what Neal Asher is best at (the various nasty fauna of Masada aren't quite exotic enough to have got a look in here). To draw a line on what has turned into more of an essay rather than a review (itself a reflection of how stimulating Neal Asher's work can be), I will leave with the belief that most readers will devour The Line of Polity with the appetite of a Hooder, and unlike a Hooder consuming human prey, I am quite sure that their stomach will not be upset - unless, of course, they have a particularly graphic imagination. Neal Asher has deserved the success that will undoubtedly accrue to him from this novel.
Authortrek Rating: 8/10
Visit our Neal Asher page, for a Neal Asher biography, Neal Asher bibliography, Neal Asher short stories, and interviews
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