Polity Agent by Neal Asher

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Polity Agent by Neal Asher

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: This post cyberpunk space-opera with lots of bangs but somehow less real excitement will provide entertainment for fans of the genre but ultimately fails to deliver on its promise due to too much of technical detail and lack of social background. The ideas and the complex plot are there, but execution disappoints and the result is pretty average. Buy or borrow only if you are a fan of SAS-type space opera.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 496 Date: October 2006
Publisher: Tor
ISBN: 1405054980

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This is a fourth book set in the Polity and it features Agent Cormac and some other characters known from previous instalments. It's not part of a saga, though, and it's perfectly readable as a stand alone, as enough explanation (in fact, perhaps even bit too much, as it often is the case with s-f books) is provided.

Jain nodes, a lethal nanotechnology designed to destroy civilisations is rearing its ugly head again in the Polity. Who is distributing the nodes? What do they have to do with the giant biotechnology construct called Dragon produced by the Makers' civilisation, itself destroyed by Jain tech 800 years in the future? And what exactly is the mysterious entity calling itself the Legate representative of? Agent Cormac, Sparkind special forces members and various researchers and AIs combine forces to find answers to these questions and possibly save the Polity from destruction. Meanwhile, a haiman (a human highly augmented with AI) Orlandine engages in careful research of the Jain node she has in her possession - will she manage to control and harness its power or will it, inevitably, subsume and destroy her?

Even from this brief plot teaser you can see that with Polity Agent we are firmly in the realm of high-tech space opera: interstellar travel through U-space, anti-gravity transport, spaceship battles, anti-matter guns, violent annihilation of whole planets. On top of this we have a good dose of post cyber-punk motifs including benign ruling AIs, humans augmented with electronics, Virtual Reality, a mighty information grid (presumably descendant of The Net) and memcrystals. Add genetic modification, bio-machines and a powerful nanotechnology that breeds like a combination of biological and information virus and you have an author that clearly knows his stuff and confidently uses the whole science-fiction toolkit.

All of this is combined quite well into a consistent and believable world which to me strongly resembles Banks's Culture though Polity is of somehow more obviously harsh and warlike, masculine character. There is an acknowledgement of Asher's debt to Banks though it only mentions drones; but the book also owes a lot to the cyberpunk tradition - in fact the cover of Polity Agent reminded me instantly of the cover of my copy of Neuromancer.

It's all there, and by all accounts Polity Agent should be, if not exactly inspiring, then at least fun. However, this novel fails on the main criterion of genre fiction. It is, despite all those plot strands and characters and fireworks of undoubted technical inventiveness, bit boring. I could put it down pretty easily and I felt no compulsion to take it everywhere with me, as a true page-turner would induce. In fact I stopped reading Polity Agent for a day to devote it to a short but extremely interesting (and funny) book about origins of English language.

It's not that I don't like science-fiction, or even space-opera as such. But there was something unsatisfying about Polity Agent: it had a rich and complex plot, a decent world, mean warships , and all those little gizmos, widgets and creatures that make for a fresh s-f setting (I liked the haimen and their ultimate aim of attaining an AI/human synergy and Horace Blegg the immortal survivor of Hiroshima). It even, in passing, asks some important questions: what it is to be human (and what would be an improvement on human without losing essential humanity), for example.

But ultimately, it's a SAS-style novel, with secret agents, super-fighter dracomen and war drones, Earth Central Security AIs and terrorist rebels taking central stage. A lot happens: in fact, the multiple strands of the plot take a little working out at first, though they became clear fairly quickly and eventually all converge as they should.

The writing itself is not that bad. There is certain clunkiness (people don things all the time instead of putting them on, frigid is overused in its meaning of very, very cold) and occasional anachronism (glare of an arc welder is not exactly fitting with this 25th century world) but it's not worse, in fact it's probably slightly above average across so called genre fiction.

The psychology is either very shallow or non-existent, with female characters being perhaps bit more developed, but generally Polity Agent doesn't excel in depicting the emotional or intellectual life of its characters. It's not a big problem, but it adds to a vaguely plastic feel the whole novel has.

The biggest obstacle on my way to truly enjoy Polity Agent was probably the fact that it had both too much (of semi-comprehensible futuristic technical description of hardware and not particularly memorable rendering of battle and fight sequences) and too little (of anything that mentions social aspects of the world Asher is writing about, which for me are the main attraction of science-fiction). Combined with characters I don't particularly care about (apart from maybe the haiman murderess Orlandine) this makes for a rather underwhelming read.

I don't particularly regret reading Polity Agent, and I could possibly imagine reading another Polity novel some time in the future, but I don't think my life would have been any poorer if I missed it completely. I would leave this one for library borrowing by s-f readers, unless you are a confirmed Asher fan or really like SAS-type space opera. Others, read Iain M. Banks instead.

The book was kindly forwarded to us by the publisher.

Buy Polity Agent by Neal Asher at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Polity Agent by Neal Asher at Amazon.co.uk


Buy Polity Agent by Neal Asher at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Polity Agent by Neal Asher at Amazon.com.

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