If this was the future, and there existed a desolate, lawless area of space which was a contested no-man's-land between two implacably opposed galactic cultures and which was known colloquially as "the Graveyard", would you ever want to go there? Would you, in fact, want to venture within a hundred light years of the place? I certainly wouldn't, and neither would you if you're as pathetically cautious as I am. Luckily for readers of Orbus, however, the characters in Neal Asher's latest book are not averse to a little trouble now and then. And trouble - in spades - is exactly what they find in the Graveyard.
Ever since reading Neal Asher's The Skinner back in 2003, I have thought that the Prador (a race of enjoyably nasty and warlike crustacean-analogues from deep space) are among some of the best SF baddies to emerge since Terry Nation invented the Daleks. Furthermore I have believed it was high time that they had a whole novel to themselves, more or less, without any danger of the planet Spatterjay's entertainingly horrible and ruthless oceanic fauna stealing the show. Asher's 2006 novel Prador Moon came close to accomplishing this, the one caveat being that it was all too short, but at 438 pages, Orbus hits the bull's-eye.
So, what's to like? Plenty! As per usual in a Neal Asher book, there is no shortage of futuristic mayhem, as Prador engage in battle with one another, and with monstrosities even scarier than themselves, in a flurry of explosions, crashes, laser blasts, rail-gun duels and hand-to-hand (claw-to-claw) fisticuffs. Joining the fray is the eponymous Orbus (a Spatterjay native with superhuman strength and an attitude problem), his rather dim sidekick Drooble, the nautiloid-shaped war drone Sniper (who easily has to be my favourite Neal Asher character) and his own sidekick, the seahorse-shaped drone Thirteen. They find that even a boosted musculature and/or fiendishly advanced weaponry do not necessarily guarantee survival in an environment like this, where sudden death is usually only a fraction of a second away. It is, of course, all excellent, violent fun.
What impresses me in Orbus, and in Neal Asher novels generally (as it also does in the novels of Iain M Banks) is the ease with which the future technology is described, to the point where it becomes difficult to accept that rail-guns, fusion power plants, augs, chainglass and all the other accoutrements don't actually exist right now (although I'm sure DARPA is on the case) and this is a testament to the way Asher is able to make his fantastically and nightmarishly improbable scenarios seem absolutely solid and real.
What also delights is that along the way the reader is treated almost imperceptibly to some of the bigger themes and questions in both fiction and real life. Such as, what makes aliens alien? (Take a while to think about that one.) And if you take most of what defines a person away from him (by reanimating his corpse under the control of an uploaded digital snapshot of his own mind, let's say, or infecting him with a virus that causes him to undergo rapid and irreversible mutation) is what remains the same person? Happily, these thought experiments are not conveyed by long expository passages but occur as by-products of the relentless action-filled story, like a crop of interesting weeds found growing in a bomb crater.
Some reviewers have pointed to the rather lacklustre character of Orbus himself as a weakness in the novel, but my own impression is that, mad as this may sound, he is just about ideal for the role - physically superhuman enough to hold his own in an environment where mere humans wouldn't last more than a minute at most, and at the same time able to act as a perfect foil to the more exuberant or dramatically interesting characters. In my opinion, it works.
As you have probably realised by now, I had a lot of fun reading this novel; and yes, I'm rather a fan of Neal Asher's books, generally. Orbus isn't The Catcher in the Rye, or Anna Karenina, but then it never sets out to be. There are indeed days when I prefer to read something like Anna Karenina. And there are other days, mostly after having done my level best to help prop up this country's ailing economy for another twenty-four hours, when what I really, really want to read about - and nothing else will do - is aliens trying to murder one another with absurdly powerful military hardware.