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Prador Moon: A Novel Of The Polity
Neal Asher
Night Shade paperback £9.99

review by Jonathan McCalmont

Since his humble beginnings writing short stories for small press magazines, Asher has published nearly a dozen novels and short story collections mostly set in a far-future AI-dominated human society known as the Polity. Despite frequently being critically overshadowed by the more literary elements of the British sci-fi scene, Asher has nonetheless built himself up quite a following with his blend of action-packed space opera and gritty cyberpunk. However, while sticking closely to the formula that has made his Polity novels such a success, Prador Moon also marks an attempt by Asher to move out of the action and espionage field into the growing military sci-fi field. Given Asher's focus on action and plot as well as his depictions of graphic violence, the match seems made in heaven.

Set early in the Polity timeline, Prador Moon tells of the disastrous first encounter between humanity and the vicious race of giant crabs known as the Prador, a race introduced to the Polity books in The Skinner and The Voyage Of The Sable Keech. Switching between the viewpoints of a number of different characters, Asher walks us through a number of brutal battles and fire-fights as well as some harrowing set pieces but also finds the time to dwell on some proper sci-fi ideas before treating us to an epic conclusion.

Asher has a nice, uncomplicated writing style. Peppered with jargon, his prose crackles with verisimilitude and he shows great ease at reducing huge action scenes to simple, easy to follow narratives that nonetheless maintain all the excitement of a huge set piece. Indeed, the book is so easy and fun to read that I read it practically in one sitting. Aside from balls-out action, Asher is also able to slow the pace considerably and he takes great pleasure in describing the flippant curiosity of a Prador who appears in front of a load of human captives while munching on a severed arm, prompting him to wonder what evolutionary advantage there is in humans emptying their bowels when they're frightened. Whether at full speed or in moments of quiet, Asher is the consummate action writer, easily on a par with the unjustly better-known Richard Morgan (Altered Carbon, Market Forces) and Matthew Reilly (Ice Station, Scarecrow).

The book is devoted to exploring the idea of freedom in an alien society and how what looks like freedom can in fact be slavery and what looks like tyranny can in fact be liberty. From early in the book, Asher mentions human events such as the 'Quiet War', during which AIs took over the running of the Polity from their human masters. Indeed, clearly the Polity is a society where humans are free to excel and work in any area they deem fit as long as it meets with the approval of the AIs first. Stray out of line and an AI will block your net connection or even knock you out. Compare this to the Prador society and you find a world in which from birth, people have to kill or be killed in order to even reach adulthood, let alone succeed. However, the Prador do not have AI and are reliant entirely upon their own strength and intelligence to maintain control over their hundreds of children who would just as easily kill and eat their parents as profess blind obedience and devotion to them. This idea is subtly hidden from us at first glance by the obvious sympathy we have for the humans and the obvious hatred we have for the Prador by virtue of their monstrous appearance and habits. The fact that this view is also quite rightwing (comparing a nanny state with a Hobbesian state of anarchy) will come as no surprise to anyone who happens to look in on Asher's blog. Nonetheless, it is cleverly conceived and ably communicated.

Given that I like his writing and am impressed by his ideas, one might well wonder why I have marked Asher's book as merely average. The truth is that despite being quite a good read, this is a deeply flawed novel.

Firstly, there is a real sense in which this has all been seen before. Indeed, the issue of freedom within an AI governed society has cropped up more than once over the years in Iain M. Banks' Culture series. In fact, that same issue forms much of the moral centre of Banks' first sci-fi novel Consider Phlebas, a novel that also saw AI-controlled ships engaging in epic battles with the ships of a more primitive and brutal non-human species. While easier to read than Banks' book, Prador Moon feels familiar and derivative because of its undeniable similarities with a book that arguably reinvigorated the whole space opera genre when it appeared nearly 20 years ago.

Secondly, at 220 pages, Prador Moon is the shortest book Asher has yet written. It is also the most expensive paperback he has ever released. Despite being less than half as long as Asher's other books, it retails �9.99 rather than the more traditional �6.99 price point of paperbacks in the UK. At less than half the length of your usual Asher novel and 142% of the price, his fans will justly feel as if they are being ripped off, especially seeing as Asher had a whole interstellar war to work with.

Short and lacking in originality, Prador Moon feels rushed and anaemic compared to your average Asher novel. However, with lots of action and some nice ideas, I'm sure that those of his fans who can see past the inflated price tag will find something in Prador Moon to enjoy.
Prador Moon by Neal Asher

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