Shadow of the Scorpion (Novel of the Polity) by Neal Asher

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Shadow of the Scorpion (Novel of the Polity) by Neal Asher

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Category: Science Fiction
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Becky Hazlett
Reviewed by Becky Hazlett
Summary: A better than average futuristic thriller full of action, suspense, and intrigue. The novel is a prequel to Neal Asher's Polity novels featuring Ian Cormac and provides some much-needed background information on this character.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 304 Date: April 2009
Publisher: Tor
ISBN: 978-0230738591

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Shadow of the Scorpion is a better book than either the title or the cover (a cartoon-ish mechanical scorpion) might at first suggest. It's an engaging espionage-type thriller of course, but the emotional repercussions are sensitively dealt with.

The body of the novel is set during the aftermath of an interplanetary war between the Polity, humans as governed by benign AIs, and a vicious alien race named the Prador. Cormac, the protagonist, is a 22 year old recruit for Earth Central Security (ECS), the military arm of the Polity. He is assigned to guard a crash-landed Prador spaceship on a remote planet and prevent some alien weaponry from falling into the wrong hands. Due to circumstances outside of his Control, Cormac is required to infiltrate an underground network of Separatists, the Terrorists of the future, who rebel against the AI rule: a perfect set-up for some gripping interrogation and torture scenes of the technologically advanced type. But, there is more to the novel than that.

Each chapter begins with a flashback to his Cormac's childhood on Earth. At this time, he is only peripherally aware of a war going on until the reality of this is forcibly and literally brought home to him when his brother, Dax, an ECS medical officer, returns from the frontline. Dax is suffering from post traumatic stress syndrome and has come back to have his mind edited. The flashback technique lends the novel a certain depth which it might not otherwise have; we gain a greater insight into Cormac's psychology and it serves as a good contrast to the action sequences. Asher also uses the opportunity to provide fascinating little glimpses of the Earth of the future such as the underwater city of Tritonia, which lies on the bed of The English Channel, or the AI-controlled education system.

The scorpion of the title is a slightly deranged war drone that mysteriously and rather ominously appears to Cormac at certain points in his life. Asher keeps you guessing right until the end as to the significance of this character.

Of all Asher's novels, this one is notable for the absence of a constantly switching perspective or a bewildering number of characters; the focus stays with Cormac. Clearly some character development is going on here! The action is on a much smaller scale and the body count is certainly lower. People do die, but in more manageable amounts and on the whole, their deaths are given their emotional weight. A certain restraint is employed. If you have read any books by Neal Asher, you may already be familiar with Ian Cormac, but how well do you really know him? In Shadow of the Scorpion we see a vulnerable side of him before he becomes the enigmatic hero of the Polity. Young Cormac is a likeable character with a sense of honesty and morality which help him swiftly come to terms with that job requirement of killing the bad guys.

The novel manages to raise some interesting points about what it means to be human in a society where the lines between man and machine have blurred: robots are capable of emulating emotions and humans may be technologically augmented and live indefinitely. When it is possible to have traumatic memories erased from the human brain, the novel questions the wisdom of doing so and suggests that memories and pain shape our psyche…Hmmm, perhaps I am reading too much into it; it's not a novel that will stay with you after you've read it but it is enjoyable and rather compelling in its own way. Cormac is a believable character and Asher clearly has a sense of humour.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

The obvious suggestions for further reading are Neal Asher's other books which feature Cormac such as Polity Agent and Line War. For a more centred exploration of what it means to be human as opposed to robot though, you might try Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K Dick.

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