Guest post from Gav Reads
Five-Ish Things I love about the Polity.
As a master of massive space battles, fantastical biology and page-turning plots Neal Asher is one of my favourite SF authors. The Polity Universe is a place where artificial intelligence rule over humans and the masses can travel between worlds as easy as stepping through a doorway, but for such a big universe there are still dangers lurking close by.
To celebrate this series here are five-ish things I love about the universe Neal Asher has spent the last 23 years* exploring.
The Polity Itself
The phrase ‘world-building’ brings immediately to mind fantasy especially places like the Middle Earth of Tolkien but we don’t hear ‘universe-building’ nearly enough. SF authors not only have to create the history and society for one place, which isn’t usually even a planet in fantasy, but for an almost unimaginable universe, which needs to be filled with a multitude of races and planets with their own technology and vast history.
In the universe of the Polity Neal Asher has created ancient, but no longer completely active, races who remain a threat to the existence of humanity [see the Agent Cormac novels ]. He tells in passing of how a ‘Quiet War’ replaced humans with the artificial intelligence and in doing so allowed humans more freedom than if they’d remained under their own governance. We get to see a world pre-Polity in The Line of the Polity and post-Polity twenty years later in The Technician, though the comparison is an aside to the storytelling.
In The Line of the Polity, Agent Cormac has to find out how an outlink station was destroyed and the consequences of that novel are revisited in The Technician where secrets have literally been buried. Even though The Technician is a stand-alone novel knowing the events of other book causes fanish chills run down your spine. That applies to any work in the Polity especially the short stories as reading all the different tales is like a discovery adventure there is always something breath-taking around the next corner. Though it could also be your last breath. See below.
The first alien contact between the Polity and another intelligent race is with the crab-like carnivores race named Prador, who first appear in Prador Moon. This signals the start of the official start of the devastating war between both races. The Prador not only consider rotting human flesh a delicacy, they also slave them by coring out brains and thralling them with spider like units linked to a controlling Prador adult thus making humans into mindless blanks and easy for them to control.
Don’t worry the Polity wins, kind of, they end up with a Graveyard marking the buffer-zone between the Polity of the Third-Kingdom. Even though the war with the Prador has ended they have their own secrets to reveal. They are slowly exposed as you read from The Skinner to The Voyage of Sable Keech to Orbus and the latter takes us into the Graveyard itself. During that series you get to see more of their society and learn the Prador King himself has a secret which is dangerous even for him to venture far from home.
My introduction to the Polity was in the form of the stories collected in The Gabble and other stories. I urge you all to read it, not only does it contain a first appearance of Dark Intelligence’s Penny Royal in ‘Ancient Artefacts’ but it also contains stories like ‘Choudapt’ where the buildings are alive, ‘Softly Spoke the Gabbleduck’ hints that they are more intelligence than originally thought, a question answered in The Technician, and ‘Adaptogenic’ would bring a new twist to The Antiques Roadshow. Each story has their own take on the Polity while at the same time as enhancing and informing each other, They are really microcosmic versions of the effect of his macroscopic novels.
There are various forms of artificial intelligences in the Polity from the ruling Earth Central to ships of all shapes and size with names like ‘Jack Ketch’ and ‘Jerusalem’ to war drones like Sniper whose attitude has to be experienced to golems like the Brass Man aka Mr Cane, who is at the same time creepy and curious.
The view Neal takes of the evolution of human created AI is that despite their vast intelligence and access to information they retain very human traits. This makes space battles fun to read as the various ships can comment and communicate in a believable and often human way.
Speaking of humans the Polity contains humans called haimans (a human highly augmented with AI), whose existence really do beg the question the about where a human stops and a programme begin. Mr Crane’s strange and psychotic personality is the result of a human mind being introduced into a AI’s. The Polity AIs are a lot of fun.
The Prador aren’t the only danger the Polity. There is an alien technology from a species called ‘Jain’ which seems not to contain any AI of its own but once it connects to intelligent life it seeds own agenda into the mind of its host. Does that make it an AI or just a program which rewrites its own agenda?
Not content with exploring the potentials of technology, particularly AI, Neal Asher’s passion for biology, especially parasites, and the potential especially on the more gross end the spectrum, is easily event. The creature Dragon is a giant space-ship-sized alien originally made up of four connected spheres, is an exotic amalgam of technology and biology, who creates creatures like the dracomen and gives humans biological augs to communicate and process information, which may not be as generous a gift as they first appear.
The world of Splatterjay and the Splatterjay virus shows how much enjoyable alien biology can be. The virus keeps its victims alive, mostly so they can be eaten by other creatures. Each chapter of The Skinner tells the life cycle of one of the aquatic inhabitants of that world, which enhances their appearances in the story itself. Before reading it the life-cycle of various sea-life would be exhilarating to read.
What happens when humans aren’t ready to leave their dead bodies and upload themselves thus becoming a form of AI, well the become reifications who use cybernetics to keep their body in motion. Though Sable Keech manages to stay alive for over a thousand-years so it can’t be such a bad strategy, can it?
I could easy go on for another thousand words telling you more about the characters (human and non-human) behind the stories, explaining about the page-turning space-battles and telling you that it doesn’t matter if you start at the short stories, The Skinner or the first novel Gridlinked because where ever you start you’ll want to read everything sooner rather than later.
To catch the books in chronological order, the Polity Universe includes the Transformation Series, with Dark Intelligence, War Factory and Infinity Engine, the Agent Cormac series, made up of Gridlinked, The Line of Polity, Brass Man, Polity Agent and The Line of War, and finally the Spatterjay Series, with The Skinner, The Voyage of the Sable Keech and Orbus, alongside the stand alone novel The Technician.
PLUS, find out more about the new series from Neal Asher, returning to the Polity Universe in 2018!
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*The first Polity story (sort of) was one called "The Gire & The Bibrat" published in the first issue of Tony Lee's Premonitions in 1992 and the first novel, Gridlinked
was published by Tor in 2001.