Hi! Remember me? I’m that guy who drops into one of your favourite series without reading the first book, writes a lukewarm review, and then leaves! Because why should I have any sense of continuity or context before I go on about how the book was “confusing” or “didn’t explain any of its basic concepts??
Actually, I’m not that guy. It’s true I didn’t read Gridlinked, and while I’m wishing I had, it’s not because I found The Line of Polity hard to grok. Rather, I enjoyed this book so much I’m thinking I’ll become a good fan of Neal Asher’s Polity series. Over six years ago, I read Shadow of the Scorpion, but to be honest, I remember exactly nothing of it. My review indicates I thought it was a decent enough but (obviously) forgettable book. So when I found The Line of Polity in a used bookstore for $2 (yes, 2 whole Canadian dollars for a 600 page paperback in good condition!), I took the plunge. I was a little worried, it being the second book in a fairly intricate space opera series, that I would have some trouble. Although the beginning was fairly confusing, as the plot sprawled out into its many facets and Asher flitted between the viewpoints of his ensemble cast, I found myself coming to like the layers of storytelling he provides.
The Polity is a fascinating universe. The obvious comparison is Iain Banks’ Culture: both are posthuman societies where AIs take the role of benevolent dictators not because they conquered us but because they’re just better at it. With AIs running things more efficiently than humans ever could, we’re free to get on with the business of doing more interesting things. It doesn’t eliminate crime, hatred, jealousy, etc.—but it makes for a far more unified and stable government. I find this subtle shift in the role of AI in science fiction very interesting. Robots originated, of course, as slaves and workers who would help automate the boring or dangerous parts of human labour. As they became metaphors for slaves, and as computers became more and more capable, they took on more morally complex and, often, sinister roles in our stories. Now that pendulum is swinging back around: we already use very limited forms of AI to assist us in many areas of life; it’s much easier now to conceive of a future in which beneficent AI and humans work together.
Much of The Line of Polity focuses on what separates artificial intelligence from human intelligence. In addition to straightforward AIs like Earth Central or Cereb, there are straightforward, unaugmented humans like Ian Cormac. In between there is a dazzling array of entities that are not quite human, not quite AI: the AI/human pair Occam/Tomalon; the dead but memory-resurrected Gant within the chassis of a Golem; the cyborg Fethan; and various augmented humans, or humans like Apis Coolant, whose genome has been altered to help them survive in zero G and vacuum. Beyond that spectrum lies the realm of alien intelligences: Dragon, of course, and its progeny, Scar and the dracomen; the Maker (mentioned but unseen in this book); and the Jain (whoever or whatever they are). Through each of these characters, Asher can interrogate the various effects of technology and augmentation on their thoughts, actions, and beliefs.
Despite his sanguine disposition towards AIs, Asher often seems to come down harder on augmented humans. Cormac, our hero, having once been linked too closely to an AI, now prides himself in being totally unaugmented. Indeed, it’s both satisfying and ironic that Cormac, unaugmented and running on zero sleep, still manages to take down Skellor. Granted, he does this by appealing to that last inkling of humanity within the Skellor being—if Skellor had gone full-on alien, then perhaps he would no longer have the need for vengeance that Cormac exploits. Nevertheless, it’s an effective reminder that objective power is seldom the determining factor in these confrontations.
Any time humans start augmenting themselves, the results are questionable at best, disastrous at worst. In particular I’m talking about mental augmentation (Apis, Fethan, and Mika all seem fine so far). Skellor is the obvious example, as the Jain technology (or just the Jain?) corrupts him very quickly. He goes from absorbing the technology and using it to give himself new abilities to absorbing and integrating himself into a subverted Polity ship. Eventually even he becomes aware of the pitfalls of succumbing to its insatiable need for growth. By the end, though, Skellor creates the conditions for his own downfall: he tries to retain his human sensibilities, and his original human goals, even though he is no longer human.
I was intrigued when this seemed to happen on a smaller scale on Masada. Towards the end, just before Skellor approaches, it seems like the Hierarch has delusions of apotheosis. His ability to connect to the Dracocorp augs worn by his troops and issue direct commands gives him a rush; he starts imagining the Theocracy as a single mind—his—acting as one. Well, if that isn’t just the creepiest thing!
And all this reminds me of a recurring idea expressed throughout science fiction (and occasionally fantasy). I encountered it in The Magicians, when Penny explains why the gods are not what we might expect, and where magic comes from. Basically, the more power anyone has, the more obvious the next step becomes. We see that with Skellor: as an ordinary biophysicist with Separatist leanings, he has these grand plans but no way of realizing them. As the Jain corrupts him, Skellor becomes more capable … but increasingly he focuses on one goal, one outcome. He makes decisions almost automatically, because each action seems obvious at the time. Contrast this with Cormac, who has almost no power aside from what allies he brings to the table, and who must scramble to form plan after plan as the previous plan falls by the wayside. There is something about having power or ability, about being able to see on such a grand scale, that begins to compromise one’s sense of self and free will.
When the book is not ruminating on such heady philosophical ideas, it is a strong action story. I’m not sure it needed to be as long as it did—not that I’m complaining I get to spend so much time in Asher’s universe. While I enjoyed all the various perspectives, including a look through the eyes of the antagonists, there were moments during the ground battle on Masada that I had to wonder why we were following some of the minor characters. These quibbles aside, I really can’t fault Asher’s plotting here. There’s some masterful foreshadowing and a very balanced use of coincidence, humour, and twists to keep us entertained.