Neal Asher – The Soldier

By Markus Thierstein

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Splitting his time between the UK and Crete, and being back in the groove of writing regularly after a bit of a gap triggered by personal issues, Neal Asher is best known for his larger-than-life Space Opera series set in his ‘Polity’ universe where humanity have spread to the stars, only to be usurped by their own AIs. Which, surprisingly, are benign in their outlook concerning humanity and human-ness (as well as towards most other kinds of races and beings, to), at least the ones in charge.
The body of work here is large – Neal has written 19 novels (set in a number of only loosely inter-connected series) and 2 collections of short stories set in the Polity, plus he’s been writing stories outside that setting, too. And, as a general rule, what he writes is interesting and entertaining, and so far free from displaying his (for me) less palatable political views, despite some of the settings being a rather obvious candidates for this.

The Soldier, as the book at hand, is the first in a new series (planned as a trilogy) titled Raise of the Jain. It is worth noting that Jain has nothing to do with the religion, but is the name of an ancient, extinct spacefaring race which has left behind rather dangerous remains and artefact. And I don’t think I give away too much if I mention that the ‘extinct’ part is questionable, given the series title…
The 2nd book in the series, called The Warship, is due out in May or June (depending on source) 2019, whilst the third is tentatively called The Human (interesting in the light of the first one) and has no official schedule yet.

The story told in the Soldier is essentially a follow-up on the events and some of the characters from Infinity Engine. You don’t need to have read this book/series (Transformation) or the rest of his work, but having done so obviously helps with characters, settings, and preceding events.
For those who do not have this background, and have chosen not to acquire it first (your loss!) he provides a Cast of Characters and a Glossary explaining terms and concepts before kicking off – it will get you going without feeling too lost, but you will not get the same embedding in the larger history of this universe, obviously. Still, this is clearly set up as a jumping-on point for those who have not been reading along; and it should work as such I would think.

So, what’s the book about, then? Except Jain, as the series title clearly states (and the book delivers, we learn a lot about that apparently extinct race)?
Most of it centres, in one form or another, around the Accretion Disc, a swirling mass circling a star, which is heaving with Jain tech and Jain nodes. Around this disc is arranged a large number of AI watch stations, with even more attack pods enforcing the quarantine, all overseen by the Haiman (human/AI meld, as close as you can get without sacrificing the human part) Orlandine, whom we’ve met before, overseeing a different very-long-term project.
But Orlandine has a second, secret (so she thinks) project – she is not content with containing the Jain tech, but is building an extra-large Runcible (instant matter transporter) to move a black hole into the middle of the disc, and get rid of all the Jain tech it contains.

There are other threads – one follows Angel, one of Erebus’ legates who, including his worm ship, has miraculously survived his former master’s destruction, and who is now being driven by The Wheel, a new mystery player with its own agenda. Another one follows Dragon (or at least one of its spheres), who still has his own agenda, too, in trying to communicate with Jain AIs hiding in Underspace (there is a weak spot in realspace where the Accretion Disc is). And we see Earth Central’s dealings with the new King of the Prador, and his always-hidden King’s Guard; as well as the Hooper Cog who secretly works for ECS.

The book starts off on a Human value vs AI capabilities riff, mostly coming down on the AI side as the logical choice, with being Human, even partially, being portrayed as a weakness. Haimen like Orlandine are a cop-out, in that case, the logical thing would be to load the brain to crystal, and turn into a Golem. Overall we get a lot less mega-tech than usual (don’t worry, though, you still get your space battles, plenty of bang for your buck here!) and more ruminations on being human (do Hoopers count? :-), human foibles, even in AIs. Made in its creator’s image, eh? A number of these (nominally) super-intelligences sometimes come across properly stupid and impulsive…

We get the intricate plotting, with shells of influence and motivations – self, controllers, and people (very loosely used term) pulling strings. The reader frequently knows more than the actors.
Subterfuge is the name of the game; if that’s Dragon initiating the smuggling of contrabrand onto weapons platforms for its own ends, Orlandine’s extracurricular projects, ECS pulling tricks in the background with the Prador, or the Wheel setting up havoc.

There were a few technicalities where I felt that Asher was playing loose with the canon, and despite all the ruminations on the benefits (or not) of being human there were still stretches where the bigger/more destructive/blow-by-blow battles got out of hand I felt, but overall this is clever Asher storytelling, evidently going somewhere over the course of the trilogy.

Recommended, if large-scale Space Opera is your thing!

More Neal Asher

Title: The Soldier
Author: Neal Asher
Series: Raise of the Jain
Series Number: 1
Reviewer: Markus
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher: Tor Book
Publisher URL: http://www.panmacmillan.com
Publication Date: 2018
Review Date: 190315
ISBN: 9781509862412
Price: UKP 9.99
Pages: 448
Format: Trade PB
Topic: Space Opera
Topic: Interstallar War

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