Friday, February 1, 2013

The Technician by Neal Asher

Once again I'm trying to review a book I read a while ago.  I really need to get to posting reviews sooner.

The Technician is set in Asher's Polity universe.  It takes place on the planet Masada, which we visited in The Line of Polity, the second Ian Cormac novel.  Masada is an interesting place, so I'm happy enough to revisit it.

Masada is not a very human-friendly planet.  The atmosphere is not breathable to unaltered humans, and there is a lot of very dangerous wildlife that makes it very unwise for people to be wandering out in the wilderness.  The planet was settled and run by a theocracy, and the wealthy and powerful religious leaders lived above the planet on artificial habitats, while many of the regular people were slave labor on the surface, raising native animals to convert into an exportable resource.  The lives of those people was brutal and short.  There were also rebels living in caves where they could maintain a breathable atmosphere, just waiting for their chance to take down the Theocracy.  The Line of Polity is a novel about how that happened.

The Technician is mostly set twenty years after The Line of Polity.  Masada is in the process of being integrated into the Polity, much to the benefit of the populace.  The Polity is learning more about Masada, and they begin to realize that the planet was once the homeworld of an intelligent spacefaring race that is long gone.  There is almost no sign of them any more, but attention turns to a creature they call The Technician.  The Technician is a hooder, an incredibly dangerous native animal that kills its prey in a lengthy and very painful way, but it's different than all the others.  It's bigger, and older, vastly more dangerous than the normal ones.  And at the end of the rebellion, The Technician attacked but did not kill a Theocracy guard, and the Polity suspects that it has implanted important information in his brain.  Unfortunately the guard, Jeremiah Tombs, was driven insane by the encounter.

Now, however, the Polity has decided it's time to jar loose the information in Tombs's mind. They send him on a voyage of discovery, with an old rebel commander and two killer AIs to protect him, and terrorists on his trail.  And it leads to much, much bigger problems than they expected.

I was concerned, at first, that the novel was going to end up as an anti-religion screed.  And I'm an atheist, I have a very low opinion of religion, indeed--but I didn't want to read a screed about the evils of organized religion.  However we fortunately got past that phase, and Tombs got to be a much more interesting character as his journey went on.  There's lots of good stuff in this book, like war drones and gabbleducks, and it retroactively made Dragon's actions in The Line of Polity make more sense, which was good.

On the other hand, reading this was reminiscent of reading Brass Man before I'd read The Line of Polity -- I felt like I was missing a big chunk of the backstory.  There are many references to an AI called Penny Royal and how it had tried to instill intelligence in a gabbleduck, and was nearly destroyed, but I have not encountered this story before.  That was a little weird.  Also, I thought the terrorists were written a bit too heavy-handedly, Asher's villains are always over the top.

Overall, I liked this.  It was a good, solid, entertaining story.  On the other hand, I didn't like it quite as well as Orbus.  I'm okay with this, though, as it's still better than most of the science fiction I've picked up lately.  This is good, but it really shouldn't be attempted without having read The Line of Polity first.