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The Skinner
Neal Asher
Pan Macmillan paperback £6.99

review by Duncan Lawie

In The Skinner Neal Asher returns to the Polity, which was the setting for Gridlinked. It is a future he has been exploring for several years, and the time Asher has spent thinking about this universe really pays off in this book. The Polity now has a deep history, which can reveal itself in unexpected - but internally consistent - ways through the course of the book, while Asher's writing skills are now developing a style and strength to match the originality of the ideas presented.
   This novel has some brilliant ideas, including one so simple that it seems incredible that it is so fresh. Another, the ecology of Spatterjay, the world on which the book is set, shows a careful thoroughness. Life here is nasty and brutish but definitely not short. The dominant form of life on Spatterjay are leeches, which infect their victims with a virus which strengthens them, thereby allowing the leech's food source to survive and be eaten again. In humans, this virus gradually builds up to provide protection from almost anything which nature, even on such a planet, can throw at them. Meanwhile, the Polity provides more technological forms of life extension. One example of this is Keech, a dead man walking, held together by cyber muscles and AI links to the remnants of his organic brain.
   The kernel of The Skinner is a meditation on the dissonance between longevity and boredom. Few, if any, of the characters here are under a century old, and many were participants in the war between the human Polity and the alien Prador seven centuries before. Some have scores to settle, others are seeking stimulation; some hope for peace while others are seeking death. The planet itself seems to be seeking resolution after the horrifying slave trade it was home to during the Prador war, drawing slavers, slave hunters and former slaves into the Skinner's plot alongside the innocent and the spectators.
   Asher's writing continues to improve. Spatterjay is an ocean world on the edge of the Polity and the gradual infiltration of high tech into a culture centred on wooden ships is neatly portrayed. A love of ships and sailing is also present, moderating the pace of events. Though Asher's cyberpunk violence may now be subservient to plot rather than driving it, the book has its fair share of fireworks, from hand to hand combat to the use of 'contra-terrene devices'. He has also managed to largely dispense with the painful habit of introducing viewpoint characters only to kill them off within a couple of pages. As a result, he invests more spirit in the minor players, making the book better rounded. The actions of the proponents develop from their nature, giving the streamlined plot a powerful, organic complexity rather than the more mechanical definition present in Gridlinked. The book does hit lumps of unpolished prose and Asher still seems keen on the passive voice, but in general his writing now feels as if it flows from his own style and is unforced. The result is strong; vicious but disciplined and intelligent, melding cyberpunk with space opera and carrying both forward. The Skinner pushes Neal Asher into the first rank of British SF.
The Skinner

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