Neal Asher, Polity Agent (Tor UK, 2006)

"It is a notable paradox that some augmented humans do lose their humanity -- becoming what they, at an unconscious level, perceive AIs to be -- while AIs, through age, experience, and their own expansion of processing power, come to understand humanity better and therefore become more humane."

I've mentioned previously that I enjoy Asher's characterization, which is not limited by species lines. His third-person omniscient narrative takes us into the organic brains of Separatist (human AI-protestors) terrorists, the crystal-matrices of attack ships, and the augmented organic/inorganic mental synergy of haimans (humans who are part-AI), just for a start. He avoids stock characters who act as foils without any apparent motivation of their own, and it makes for a complicated, but highly engaging story. If you're not previously familiar with Asher's work, or my reviews, scroll down to the end of this review and click one or more of the links there to get yourself caught up. I don't want to repeat myself too much here.

The penultimate science fiction question is "what does it mean to be human?" What is that essential, elusive something? It's interesting to see this question approached from both ends: through human characters trying to keep from losing that particular something, as augmentations incrementally push them towards something else; and through AI characters, contemplating their own burgeoning humanity. In previous Polity books, there have been many brief but interesting philosophical discussions on the nature of humanity, usually a human using an AI as a sounding board, the latter providing useful leading questions, much as a professor who has contemplated all these things before, but is this merely called-up data? Does an AI really contemplate these things?

Yes, they do. And it's a bit of a twist now to see the AIs discuss together some of these same questions, not merely for the benefit of some human pupil. It seems that Asher is fleshing out his non-human characters even more in this latest adventure. The planetary and runcible AIs, often seeming as gods in this future mythology of his, wonder about meaning and purpose? They quake with emotion at loss of life? They face hard decisions? Though this latest novel is as action-packed as any, and characterization still arrives in short bursts, and usually through actions rather than narrative exposition, I still find these characters, their world, and the questions they face the most compelling.

That said, don't let me give you the wrong idea about this novel. Like the others in the Polity series, there's a lot going on, and the philosophizing is, in fact, at a minimum. Multiple story threads weave a complicated tapestry as at least half a dozen parties pursue their own particular ends. A haiman, Orlandine, has been provided with a Jain node, that ancient, alien nanotechnology that gives its posessor incredible powers, while also turning them, ultimately, into a puppet, a disease vector for a civilization-destroying weapon. She's more wary than the previous book's villain, the biophysicist Skellor, who was only stopped in his tracks after being plunged into the gravity well of a brown dwarf star. But when she finally decides to unlock its power, she could be even more dangerous.

Meanwhile, who is it that is spreading these catastrophic Jain nodes all over the place, or rather, parcelling them carefully to those individuals who could do the most damage with them? What about Dragon, that massive and cryptic bioconstruct from the mysterious Maker civilization, captured at the close of the previous novel, and currently being interrogated as to his intentions?

Ian Cormac has been dissected and pieced back together after having his mind and body infected by the Jain node, and isn't entirely sure he's still himself, but he has a job to do. Thorn leads the dracomen in a separate investigation as to Skellor's Jain node's origins, and Jack is back, but hopelessly psychically tangled with the memcording of erstwhile Separatist, Aphran. His new ship body he dubs appropriately, "the Not Entirely Jack." All of them are trying to sort out who's behind all this mess, but meanwhile, a delegate from that mysterious party has passed on a Jain node to a power-hungry Separatist leader residing in a densely-populated planetary Arcology, and as he uses its power to infect other humans, creating an army of near-unkillable Jain-zombies, the planetary AI, along with Earth Central ground forces and an orbiting fleet, is trying to contain the infection before they lose the entire planet.

A lot of previous threads are tied up or explored more fully in this book, including the true nature of Horace Blegg, Earth Central's plan for Cormac, the mastermind(s) behind the incident with Skellor, and some further light on both the Makers and Jain technology itself, but this book also has a more obvious cliffhanger ending than previous novels. That's not a bad thing. If you're like me, finishing one of Asher's Polity works just makes you want to start another. Though it does make this novel somewhat less effective as a stand-alone compared to his previous titles. It may be that Asher is near to wrapping up Ian Cormac's story in the next couple entries to the series, but then again, maybe not.

Fans will love this novel, and eagerly await the next installment. Newcomers to the Polity should start with one of his earlier works. For the Cormac series specifically, Gridlinked is the first, but the immediate predecessor to Polity Agent, Brass Man, also does well as an introduction to the series. If you like good hard sci-fi, and you're not familiar with Asher's work yet, you should probably remedy that.

[Other Polity novels reviewed at Green Man are Brass Man; The Voyage of the Sable Keech; and Prador Moon. You can check out Neal Asher's official site for more info on him and his books.]

[J.J.S. Boyce]