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Cowl
Neal Asher
Tor hardcover £17.99

review by Christopher Geary

Polly is a young junkie and whore caught up in assassination and industrial espionage. Tack is a U-Gov hitman programmed to murder without hesitation or remorse. They are among thousands of innocent, and initially helpless, victims snatched from their own century and dragged back through history to the Nodus, where the sinister mutant-human Cowl lurks, apparently plotting the downfall of mankind.

Opposing Cowl's plan, the fourth millennial Heliothane Dominion are keen to follow the gruelling journeys of those involuntary time-travellers with a view to attacking the prehistoric stronghold of their enemy. Heliothane agent Saphothere arrests Tack's progress back through time, and recruits the perturbed killer into the ongoing temporal conflict against Cowl and his accomplices, while Polly is unexpectedly accompanied on her erratic travels by the AI-salvaged mind of mercenary Nandru.

Meanwhile, the Heliothant leaders are preparing a final desperate assault on Cowl's base, with the future of the Solar system and the very existence of humanity at stake...

Yes, this is science fiction about time-travel. But it's not limited to modern history and the near future like those Back To The Future movies. In the author's own words, this is 'big-time travel', and its vast scope cannot usefully be measured with calendars or even millennial cycles. We are talking planetary epochs, and geological periods against which a glacier is as fleeting as an overnight frost.

Most of these settings are described here with impressive detail, and explored by the protagonists to demonstrate how even the seeming permanence of a regional landscape is subject to constant revision by the ages.

Another intriguing thing about Cowl is the invention of organic time machines called 'tors', which form a parasitic bond upon the bodies of their hosts. These devices are deployed like baited traps from the gigantic bulk of the all-devouring Torbeast (the name of the publisher is simply an odd coincidence!), used by Cowl as an invincible weapon against the Heliothane troops.

But that's not all, because Neal Asher tackles more than enough disparate genre themes here for an entire trilogy by a lesser writer. The visceral action-adventure is supported by a variety of imaginative and speculative ideas, from the space opera of interplanetary engineering projects and the demolition of Jovian moons, to more immediate concerns about erroneous practices in today's medical sciences.

We may not like or even understand everything about the many supporting characters, or always be able to follow some of their ambiguous motives, but the central viewpoint characters maintain our interest throughout. The rehabilitation of Polly from hooker to heroine, and the transformation of Tack from conscienceless assassin to the potential saviour of mankind, is reminiscent of character developments in Asher's earlier books.

The concept of cybernetic augmentation or advanced genetic engineering being used to actually enhance an individual's psyche, and impart an ethical sense of decency - or at least improve their disposition, is one of the few recurring themes in literary SF that's rarely been explored in media sci-fi, where such changes frequently drive any 'normal' personality over the edge into psychosis or megalomania.

Although I don't think Asher has quite got the hang of creating wholly believable female characters yet (admittedly, only a very few male SF authors do have that creditable talent), he successfully charts Tack's emotional growth and steady psychological advancement towards morality as an unlikely hero climbing the learning curve to social maturity, while Polly's sometimes-inexplicable survival of her potentially lethal ordeals is, thankfully, more entertaining than the sort of commonplace decent into insensate madness we might have expected.

Enlightenment aside, what is there here that's fun to learn? That time-travellers may have no sense of humour (they already know all the punchlines), dinosaurs taste like chicken, and you can't tap into the Sun's energy output without risk of blowing up the Earth? Well, all of that, certainly...

However, in his first departure from the saga of the 'Runcible' universe, Asher proves he is one of the least pretentious and most inventive British SF authors of the decade, and his latest novel is unquestionably worth your time and attention.
Cowl by Neal Asher

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other Asher books:
Gridlinked
The Line Of Polity
The Skinner

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