on 31 August 2009
In Orbus Neal Asher again takes up the story of the characters he last addressed in The Voyage of the Sable Keech (2006): the cantankerous war-drone Sniper and his sidekick, sub-mind Thirteen, escaping from likely reprogramming by Polity AIs; the Prador Vrell, mutated by the Spatterjay virus into something alien to his own kind and under sentence of death; and the eponymous Captain Orbus himself, seeking redemption for, and recovery from, centuries of madness on the Spatterjay seas by taking a job as the human captain of the off-world cargo ship Gunnard.
All of this motley group end up in the aptly named Graveyard, the demilitarised buffer zone between Polity and Prador space, where both races conduct a cold war of espionage and covert operations. Not surprisingly, they find themselves in the midst of much larger, and more dangerous, events than any had anticipated, as both the Prador King and Earth Central move battle fleets into place along their borders, the Golgoloth, a being long believed by most Prador to be myth, reveals its presence, and a secret long-concealed in the genetic code of the Spatterjay virus threatens to open the door to an apocalypse for Human, Prador and AI alike.
All of the ingredients fans have come to expect from a Neal Asher novel are present in Orbus: chapter introductions from How it is by Gordon, Artificial Intelligences who seem more human than the real thing, lovingly described and detailed aliens and technology, fearsome space-battles and a swift-moving plot. As usual, these all fit together seamlessly to provide an enjoyable and engrossing reading experience, and the new details provided about the universe of the Polity and its history are a welcome addition.
Asher's writing is as good and taut as ever, managing to get done in just over 400 pages what one suspects Peter F. Hamilton, or Iain M. Banks might have taken 600 to do, although for some reason he has chosen to write this work in the historic present, rather than narrative past, tense, as is normal. This takes a little bit of getting used to, but is not overly irritating, although I don't feel that it adds that much to the book. A more serious gripe is the choice of Orbus as a central character - he never really seems to come alive in the way that Sniper, Vrell, or even the Golgoloth, do and this leaves a hole at the heart of the novel and makes it less involving than some of Asher's other works.
Nevertheless, even at less than absolutely top-form, Asher is still far better, and more entertaining, than most science fiction writers, and those who like his work will certainly not be disappointed - I can heartily recommend Orbus to you. If, on the other hand, you haven't come across Asher before, then wait until you've read Gridlinked,The Skinner, and their various sequels, as you'll enjoy it more knowing the background and back story.
on 10 December 2009
Neal Asher doesn't mess about, he's not quirky, abstract and sophisticated like Ian M Banks, he doesn't inject Tolkieneske fantasy like Peter F Hamilton and he's not got that clinical brutal cold sci fi feel that some of the books Alastair Reynolds has written. I like the work of all of these writers and Asher brings something different. Balls out action, gore, a sense of humour, proper monsterous aliens and gigantic planet destroying battle sequences all written with a pace and zip that makes most of his books impossible to put down. In some ways he manages to get that old school wiz bang sci but creates a totally contemporary and very british feel.
For new comers to Asher, please oh please do not read his books out of order which some reviewers seem to have done. I cannot for the life of me understand why as
this book in a line of three Spatterjay novels and if you aint read the first (The Skinner) how could you possibily hope to get the punch of the book. In fact, read all of the preceding polity novels before this one to get the fully rounded expereince.
It's a top read.
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.
on 7 August 2010
The third book in the Spatterjay series and therefore not the ideal stepping on point for neophytes to the visceral space opera of Neal Asher's universe.
Our 'hero' is the sadomasochistic old captain Orbus, and already you'll probably be going 'eh?' unless you know exactly what is going on, though our point of view is mostly taken from members of that race of psychotic cannabalistic sentient crabs, the Prador, and a war drone with a penchant for swearing. Naturally, charecterisation suffers a touch.
But, forgive me for saying this, if you want characters, hit your Tolstoy. If you want xenography, hit Asher. I think he must have been attacked by a langoustine in his youth, because he definitely has an obsession with mad seafood, and if you can get through a chapter without finding at least one reference to 'chitinous exoskeleton', you're just not looking. He's usually first class at this sort of descriptive writing, but I think limiting himself to a bare handful of races starts to tell on his style - you can only write 'mandibles' so many times before you start to lose it.
It also suffers from a touch of the EE Doc Smiths - everyone just happens to be practically unkillable, so the weapons just keep getting continously more ludicrous - one character only manages to get killed when he is hit by a five-ton rail gun munition - which is entertaining, but does get you to the point of 'oh come on!', like when you were playing imaginary war in the playground and there'd always be some kid who pulled out the nuclear hand grenade.
The pay off is just about worth it though - a good couple of chapters that are solid space battle with all sides lobbing in against 'an ancient foe' and ships the size of cities going off like cheap firecrackers. Yes, Neal Asher does space warfare 'til the EM radiation sleets across your ass and everyithing reeks of boiled plasma and burnt out fusion cores - see, some of the lingo has rubbed off.
Not quite a hoopy hooper tale, it being so thin on personalities and xenomorphs, but okay. Bring back Sable Keech!
on 11 November 2009
Orbus is part of Asher's Spatterjay series of books but, although linked to the previous 2 books, it can be read as a standalone novel. Every chapter in Orbus has a brief synopsis at the beginning that 'fills in the gaps' so new readers will be up and running with this new story very quickly.
Once again Asher's imagination runs riot and is a delight to behold, spanning multiple genres such as space opera, hard sci-fi and cyberpunk, plus his usual dose of horror. It's good to see Asher return to the Spatterjay story arc as the whole concept of the Spatterjay virus merits a return visit. This is a 'sentient' virus that, instead of attacking its host, positively enhances it and does everything it can to keep the host alive, resulting in the carrier having both phenomenal strength and amazing powers of self-repair. Obviously there is a flip side to this and that is that the virus can interfere so much with the host's physiology that they can literally mutate into something unrecognisable to what they were, often to monstrous effects.
The story features the Prador, the highly intelligent but very aggressive crab-like aliens who previously fought, and lost to, the Polity. A truce now exists between the Polity and Prador, with their territories separated by a buffer zone known as The Graveyard. Although this zone is strictly de-militarised, it is a haven for pirates and all kinds of criminal activity. The Polity generally turns a blind eye to the criminal goings on but this time there have been some developments that have aroused the suspicion of the Polity and they decide to send the old cargo captain from Spatterjay, Captain Orbus, to weed out what's going on.
Needless to say a great many surprises await Orbus, not least the re-appearance of his old adversary, the wardrone Sniper and his AI sidekick Thirteen, as well as another enemy from the past, the Prador Vrell. But not only does Orbus come face to face with demons from the past, but also has to deal with these demons fighting each other, with him caught in the crossfire. The King of the Prador is intent on killing Vrell, as well as trying to harness the awesome biological power of the Spatterjay virus to his own ends. Added to the mix is the Golgoloth, a horrific Frankenstein's monster of a Prador who has discovered immortality through gruesome 'body harvesting'.
There are no lulls whatsoever in this story, it is full of intense action encompassing an array of the most imaginative weapons that Asher can conjure up. But what adds depth to the proceedings is the fact that it all takes place under the gaze of the omni-present Polity. No matter how chaotic and out of control the fighting gets, it always seems that the Polity is somehow orchestrating it all, and it's this added political intrigue that gives the story an extra edge. Yet, ironically, an astonishing revelation made about the Spatterjay virus threatens even the all powerful Polity and has serious repercussions for the current balance of power.
This book is a fantastic addition to the Spatterjay series and genuinely takes the Spatterjay story arc a big step forward, definitely recommended.
Many might think that Neal Asher spends way too much time in the same universe alongside creating and expanding it for future projects, yet the question has to be asked, what about the uninitiated. How do they get into it? What happens if they pick up the new novel having seen it displayed prominently and then get annoyed that is part of a series?
Well that worry is always a concern for any reader, yet here, in Neal's latest offering the new as well as established readers can get a fair crack of the whip and enjoy the adventure presented within. Its as you'd expect from Neal, fun, fast paced and above all well developed. (Although that said the principle protagonist doesn't stand out as much as he perhaps should do against the myriad of other cast members even though he originally appeared in the Voyage of Sable Keech.) Add to the mix a light romp in Asher's universe and a chance to stop for tea and it's a book that doesn't require deep seated scientific understandings. Doing what it says on the tin, which to be honest is what I need at times, a book to relax and take comfort from instead of something that needs a PHD to understand as a number of more Hard Sci-Fi people seem to think you need.
Synopsis: Captain Orbus is over 700 years old, and has now broken with his recent, sadistic, past - at least most of the time. He is recruited to fly a freighter into a no-man's land to recover an ancient war machine; but discovers more is at stake - a lot more.
Opinion: Interesting aliens, assured writing; neat tech. His universe is internally consistent; and there are cool takes on microbiology and alien reproductive engineering. Iain M Banks Mk II, I'd say, which is a compliment; but for the lack of appealing personalities. A rounded SF novel needs interesting characters, for me, and I never really got into these. And that makes the book a 3-star one rather than a good one. The storyline flicks from four main personalities to 2-3 minor ones, so you have to keep track of 6 substories of the whole. I can do this in some books; in this one, I found it hard to be bothered, some of the time. But it is very clever, and very inventive, even if it gets a bit too much: "USERS?" "Underspace interference emitters," the drone explains. "We do it by rattling a singularity in and out of a runcible gate."
Imagination appeal: high; personality appeal: very medium.
on 13 October 2009
This book is the latest in the 'Spatterjay' series of books. It picks up the stories of the prador Vrell (from the point where he sneaks aboard Vrost's ship), the wardrone Sniper (and his sidekick thirteen) and, of course, the hooper Orbus.
Although the book is part of the Spatterjay series, the action does not take place on Spatterjay, but mainly in the graveyard zone between Polity (human) and Prador space.
The action starts with Orbus taking a job as captain of a merchant ship and setting out to go to the Graveyard with Sniper and thirteen as stowaways.
It is well written and plotted and well worth a read. However if this is your first Neal Asher book you may wish to read the others in the 'Spatterjay' series first, but it is not essential.
If you've enjoyed Asher's other offerings, you'll like this one too.
on 5 September 2009
so: here we are. third in the series of spatterjay. It is very good. The point made by an earlier reviewer is good. Orbus dosen't come alive, and the use of the present is a little jarring at first (but Asher isn't the only author who does this. Perhaps there was a symposium somewhere about the use of the present). It does not matter. His universe hurtles around the place, with cold, calculating AIs, evolving Prador, and redeemed Captains. I am looking foward to the next Asher. So Neal, get that stress test, keep taking the Lipitor, and keep alive. Can't do much about the other ways middle aged men get taken out.
on 4 September 2009
Orbus is the new book from Neal Asher, one of the most inventive and imaginative authors on the market today, and is the third book in the Spatterjay series (preceded by The Skinner and Voyage of the Sable Keech). I love Neal's work - let me get that out of the way first - and think that the Polity universe of his books is one of the best settings in the sci-fi genre, and with Neal's infinite imagination he's populated it with everything you could possibly think of - and then some. The only question that I had before starting Orbus was how Neal could take the story forward and give us another breathtaking novel. I shouldn't have questioned even that, he has delivered an excellent story, great characters and some very interesting and unique twists and mutations that are a staple of his writings, not to mention that this could very well be his best book to date...
The first thing I noticed when reading Orbus was the writing style. Neal has always been very much an action-centred writer that sometimes gives rough edges to his novels, but Orbus is so well polished and the style so smooth I did a quick double take just to make sure I was reading the right book. I enjoy the way Neal tells a story, but this refinement in his writing has elevated him to the top tiers of science fiction writing today. The most important thing about this growth is that it hasn't negatively affected the way he tells a story at all - all the action, description and weirdness is still as present as ever, but this time everything was even more enjoyable and the words created such a vivid picture in my mind I was constantly putting the book down to just enjoy these huge scenes playing about inside my head. Truly impressive stuff.
As for the story and characters, let me tell you one thing: this is the most fun I've had reading a book for a long time. Orbus, the recovering sadistic Old Captain of the title, is going through mental changes after the conclusion of Voyage of the Sable Keech and while we are with him on the journey we get some interesting and thoughtful looks into his personality. We also have Vrell, the Spatterjay virus mutated Prador, who, with his growing intellect, is capable of increasingly complex things. Seeing his character growth is staggering and the times we follow him are some of the most interesting in the novel. We also have the viewpoint of Golgoloth, a Prador legend that is hiding out in the Graveyard, which is another extremely interesting aspect, as are the times we follow King Oberon himself, ruler of the Prador Third Kingdom. I can't forget to mention Sniper of course, your friendly neighbourhood war drone, who brings both humour and tactics (of the not-so-subtle variety) to the table and is easily the most down-right enjoyable character.
The story is set at a good pace and although there are scene-setting sections, it never feels that anything is put on hold to accommodate these. Even at the start when Orbus first arrives in the Graveyard we have some nice action orientated scenes where we not only get to see an Old Captain in action, but also war drone, a cored and thralled human and a vicious Prador. We also get a good set up from Vrell's point of view while he is taking over the dreadnought he is on which allows us to see his growing capabilities and the workings of his mind to formulate a plan. The narrative doesn't let up for most of the novel and although this could have led to too much of a good thing, it really doesn't.
If I had to pick at one thing it would not actually be about the novel itself, rather the fact that is the third book in a series. Neal is one of the better writers when it comes to writing a loose series and makes it easier to pick up any of his novels and have a fair grasp, thanks to his explanations, of what is going on and what the background is. However, I would say that reading the first two novels in this series - The Skinner and Voyage of the Sable Keech - is recommended, especially if you unfamiliar with the world of Spatterjay, simply because I believe the events of those two novels (and the world-building) are tied very closely to the story told in Orbus. Plus you'll get to read another two great books!
To be honest I'd be hard pushed to name a character that didn't work or a section of story that was blander than others. Orbus hits every nail on the head, every time. Neal has not only delivered an excellent, enthralling and action-packed story, but probably his most accomplished and enjoyable novel to date. I honestly can't recommend this one highly enough.