Fresh from the worldbuilding present in Perdido Street Station, it's not surprising that Shadow of the Scorpion's worldbuilding does not impress me much. This is straight genre fiction—and that is not a bad thing. It appeals to the ardent science fiction fan in me by using standard tropes or settings like artificial intelligences running the society; a "space army" composed of infantry, marine troops, etc.; an alien enemy that is distinctly non-human in both form and thought; and a lone protagonist influenced to lead his life in a certain way by events during his childhood. There's very little unique or original about the mythology of Shadow of the Scorpion. Hence, it's Neal Asher's writing, and what he does with this standard-fare mythology, that makes this book appealing.
Asher takes the concept of memory editing and applies it to the psychological aftermath of war. It makes sense that some soldiers, and even civilians, would choose to remove memories of painful events. Ian Cormac's mother, however, goes further and edits his childhood memories. Asher attempts to deal with the moral consequences of these issues—not always successfully, as we're usually interrupted by the relentless call of the main plot, and not with any degree of subtlety. Even so, and maybe just because I'm fascinated by the concept of memory in general, I still find this part of the book enduring and interesting. Since the editing of Cormac's memories happened when he was a child, it has contributed to the person he has become today, the person who must now decide how to react to the memories that were removed. It's the sort of uber-complicated situation that tends to crop up in sci-fi.
Beyond psychological issues, however, there's plenty of action. In fact, the main plot consists of a manhunt for Cormac's former squad-mate, Carl Thrace. Asher writes action scenes like they're going out of style, which has both advantages and drawbacks. On one hand, they're both detailed and intense. One of the difficulties of writing action scenes for a science fiction story is balancing the technology (and technobabble) with the . . . well, action. It's easy, especially with the level of advanced technology available to Asher in his Polity universe, to succumb to the temptation to press a button and kill all the bad guys. (We see this a lot in Star Trek.) At the same time, an author can't always discard technology altogether so his or her protagonist is forced to use wholly primitive means of survival. Striking the balance is tough, but Asher manages to do so consistently, delivering fresh action filled with firefights, superpowered soldiers, gruesome injuries, and plenty of explosions.
In fact, sometimes it seems like action is the only good part of Shadow of the Scorpion. The more mellow scenes are, by comparison, just so slow and expository. The scenes alone are not bad, but they don't compare in quality to the action wrapped around them. It's as if there are two different stories at war in Shadow of the Scorpion: the intense manhunt for Carl, and Cormac's exploration of his personal history and destiny. Despite being strong individually, the two stories never come together to form a completely whole narrative.
At the end, the former story doesn't deliver the resolution I was expecting. Cormac's confrontation with Carl lacks much in the way of suspense or even creative conflict. And Carl, of course, commits the classic faux pas of talking when he should be shooting. A threatening villain this book does not have.
There's a lot to recommend about Shadow of the Scorpion. This was my first Asher book, and I'll read more of his Polity/Agent Cormac novels now, because this one wasn't bad. It lacks the spark of something more, something sublime enough to make it a great book instead of just a good one. Yet if you're interested in this type of action-oriented science fiction, you can't go wrong here.