An Interview With Neal Asher (Dark Intelligence)

Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher


You may not know but I’m a huge fan of Neal Asher’s work especially this Polity Universe. So much so his publisher in the UK, Tor, invited me to write an introduction to it. I wrote 1200 words and could have easily written 1200 more. If you’re interested in thought-provoking but fun space opera please go check out the link.

I was also lucky enough to score interview with the man himself to talk about his new book Dark Intelligence and the return of Penny Royal.

Gav: Could you describe Dark Intelligence in five words or less? 

Neal: Transformations, vengeance and super-science.

Gav: Penny Royal has appeared in the short story ‘Alien Archeology’ and The Technician what makes him a character you keep returning to? 

NeaI: have a bit of a fascination with powerful and morally questionable characters (that’s not a bit of an understatement of what Penny Royal is). But it also seems that I agree with my readers on this. A previous example is the Brass Man, Mr Crane – I liked him, the readers liked him, so I resurrected him and dedicated an entire book to him. Much the same has happened here.

Gav: Transformation is a theme which runs through your work in the Polity was there a reason behind putting in front and centre in this trilogy?

That came about during a back and forth with Bella Pagan. I was all set to call it the Penny Royal trilogy but, as she pointed out, only those who have read my previous stuff will have any idea what that is about. New readers might well be picking up editions of the Herb Garden. Initially the title of the first book was to be Isobel, then it became Transformation, but then thinking about overall themes I realized that transformation was it for the whole trilogy. Each book is very definitely a transformation. The title of Dark Intelligence came about during that exchange with Bella – not quite sure how, but it fits perfectly. Now, of course, there’ll be a similar discussion about the other books, which are provisionally titled Factory Station Room 101 & Spear and Spine.

Gav: You left the Polity for a trilogy of books in the The Owner Series and now you’ve returned to the Polity. How did it feel to come back? 

Neal: It’s a fact of life for a writer of serial books set in the same future (or set around the same town with the same cops if you’re writing a police procedural) that you can get stale. But try to do something different and you can get pilloried by your fans. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t. I took that risk with The Owner Series (wasn’t too much of a risk because most of the staples my readers like were there) and, afterwards, returning to the Polity, felt refreshed.

Gav: And I guess following on from that how do you balance writing about something familiar with keeping things new and exciting for you as you write?

Neal: In one respect, see the answer above. But it can be difficult when working with the constraints of everything you’ve written in previous books. When I wrote The Skinner there was only Gridlinked to reference so I let my imagination run riot – it’s probably the book I enjoyed writing the most. There’s also a point you reach when you realize that it has become the day job. Yes, it’s one of the best jobs in the world, but still the day job. New and exciting occurs when I push my imagination, when I twist and expand things and try to go outside expectation. For example, man shoots another man in the head, blowing his brains out. The victim falls to the floor dead. That’s nuts and bolts writing. When the victim sits up and goes, ‘Ouch, that smarts,’ and grins, then you’re getting more into the kind of territory I like. Even more so if his brain drops out of his skull and crawls off under a nearby table.

Gav: You started a lot of chapters in earlier books with extracts of ‘works’ which often had some bearing on the events which followed, something I really enjoyed, but you’ve not that done that this time, you also start Dark Intelligence with a first person narrator is there a reason behind the change of style or is it just an evolution of you as a writer?

I have used first person narrator before (Hilldiggers) so it’s not a major change. It’s a good way of getting right inside the skull of your character. However I find it stifling just to stick with that when I want to deal with other aspects of the story so I also use third person. As for the chapter starts – those little excerpts from ‘How It Is – by Gordon’ and the like – I just didn’t want to slow things down with them this time. It is also the case that having done so many of them I’m noticing a tendency towards repetition.

Gav: Following you on twitter, even if someone hasn’t read your work, it becomes pretty obvious you keep up with field of biology, which immediately evident in your novels. Is something you do for purely research purposes or it is a wider passion that feeds into your work?

It’s both. I’ve always been interested in what’s going on at the forefront of science. When I decided that writing was going to be what I would pursue properly it helped that it was inclusive of all my other interests. Now I try to make it part of the discipline by reading 5 or 10 science articles in the morning as a mental warm-up before I start writing. In these latest books you’ll see how that has impinged what with the use of meta-materials, matter printers and that all-time favorite of mine the grotesque parasite.

Gav: I think I’m right in saying you’ve finished the story, if not all the edits, for the next two books in The Transformation and that leads me to two questions; did it make it more relaxing to know you could go back and fiddle with earlier bits the closer you got to the end? And secondly, how does it feel getting to the end of a big project, does it get any easier knowing you’ve done it three times before? 

I started out aiming to write a trilogy and wrote all three books in one hit, to first draft, because that way it was easier to sort out the inconsistencies. I didn’t want to put myself in the position whereby something I’d written in book one made it impossible, difficult or overly complicated to resolve something in book three. I also wanted the option to add stuff to the first book to make the resolution at the end more logical, or natural. So yes, it did make it more relaxing to be able to go back and fiddle. Getting to the end of a big project like this is still hard because it has to have a satisfying ending to all plot threads and the overall story. However, it is easier having done it before because of simple experience. I’m now not afraid to make major alterations, to rip the thing apart and stick it back together in a different shape, because I know I can.

Gav: Finally, 2015 is the date travelled to in Back to the Future and it’s not what was expected in 1985. Do you think we’ll be brave enough to start transforming ourselves in the near future?

Yeah, I just saw a thing on Facebook about people’s predictions of what phones would look like by now, and only one of them got close. As for transforming ourselves, that’s already happening. We have bionic eyes and thought-controlled prosthetics now, we have brain implants like those used to kill the tremors in Parkinson’s sufferers. I would bet that within the next 10 years some of this stuff will have moved out of the realm of just medical science. Even I am about to transform myself into an SF writer cyborg by having refractive lens replacement. It’s happening.

Thanks Neal. 

PS: I’ll have a review of Dark Intelligence up in the next couple of weeks.

Mini-Review: Gridlinked by Neal Asher (2001)

gridlinked+fc[1]Gridlnked was the first Polity universe novel to be published but it is the 8th book in the series I’ve read, so I am coming to it from the ‘wrong’ angle, but to be honest, I love the way that Neal Asher interlinks his ideas and explores his creation from various angles so I wasn’t surprised to see Dragon’s appearance though it was curious to compare this appearance that in The Technician, but I’m getting ahead of myself. 

Ian Cormac is an Earth Central Security agent who have been connected to the grid longer than most humans should be, and because of that he agrees to be removed from the grid at the same time he’s given a mission to find out who blew-up a Runcible (a  stargate I’d guess you’d could call them), so he has to use old fashioned detective work ,like asking people for information,  at the same time as someone who is out to kill him for something he did on his pervious mission.

As with other novels in this series Asher’s passion for biology, physics and science in general shines. It doesn’t get in the way of Cormac’s investigation but it does create a concrete and fascinating world for him to live and breath in.

There are some great set-pieces, clever blending of AI and human interaction and, of course, Mr Crane. He gives each ‘person’ a proper personalities, which rightly extends to the AIs. It does make it easier to read as each character is in some way memorable.

I can’t think of a negative to be honest. All the ideas that come later are well-formed here and we end up with a thoughtful, fun and action-packed science fiction novel, which set up Asher to become one of the most enjoyable SF writers I’ve read. Oh, I have a negative – why did it take me so long to actually read it?

Audiobook Review: Orbus by Neal Asher (Tor UK)


Orbus is the third book in the Spatterjay series – I know this as William Gaminara reminded me when he started narrating Neal Asher’s return to Sniper and Vrell. This time we the switch in focus to Captain Orbus as he takes us away from the planet Spatterjay and out to the Graveyard, border between the Polity and the Prador Kingdom.

But before we continue I highly recommend reading The Skinner and The Voyage of The Sable Keech  first as Orbus is not a good jumping on point, being the last (so far) in this loosely connecting series. I guess you could read it in isolation but you’d miss a lot what makes Orbus a brilliantly imagined book. If you’re continuing to read I’m including spoilers form now on in. So with that in mind…

Spoiler Warning

Asher has been keeping secrets, the virus of Spatterjay isn’t all that it appears. It is so much more. And the evolution to its true nature is one part of what makes Orbus a crackling read.

At the end of the last book Vrell had entered Vrost’s ship but it’s what he does there which causes the viruses true nature to be revealed and causes the Prador King personally to arrive to finish the job that Vrost has so far failed to do. And you can see why a Prador who is infected with the Spatterjay virus shouldn’t be allowed to leave. Asher also introduces us to the Golgoloth, a myth and a story to scare young Prador, and a creature is that is very real.

Together they create a mix and a direction that I wasn’t expecting after the low level storytelling of the first two as this time the stakes could not be higher for King personally as well as the Kingdom and probably the Polity if the virus manages to get loose, which sounds dramatic, and it is.

Asher gets to stretch himself writing a grand space battle which he handles with fineness as he winds back time to see events from different views and plays out smaller dramas along with the big battle.

Orbus, being an old sea captain, infected with virus and very much mentally tainted by the Polity/Prador war on Spatterjay as explained in The Skinner and The Voyage of Sable Keech makes him a darker hero to follow. And his struggle with killing or saving Vrell at several points makes great reading.

Not that Orbus was expecting this mission when he signed up to Captain the trade ship Gurnard but Asher uses this book to demonstrate the the Polity AIs are quite manipulative and forward thinking.

End Spoiler Warning

The thing I like about Asher is that he’s always pushing and exploring his creation (the Polity). For example I’m going to read The Technician as soon as I can and that is supposed to feature a black (as in magician) AI. Now they might feature in his Agent Cormac series, which after The Technician will be the only books in the Polity I’ve not read, but I know it’s generated a sequel, Penny Royal, that he’s writing now.

But back to Orbus and a question: what should science fiction do? In Asher’s case his science fiction tells a great roller-coaster story and explores survival, genetics, societies, technology and other themes should be present in science-focused fiction. And he manages to show deep thinking without derailing the story he’s chosen to tell.

Though the voice telling this tale is that of William Gaminara who also lifted The Skinnerand The Voyage of Sable Keech off the page. It’s staggering to think that not only does Gaminara have to read for 14 hours plus but he also has to keep up with what voices he’s given to each character and it’s so smoothly done that when he slips (and he did only a handful of times) do you realise how effortless his narration feels.

For me Asher is a master craftsman and makes the Polity one of my favourite storytelling environments. It’s a universe that I’d urge any SF fan to explore right now.

Orbus is out now in paperbook, ebook and audiobook.

Review: Hilldiggers by Neal Asher (Tor)

New cover hilldiggers

I’ve already mentioned elsewhere that Neal Asher is one of my favourite authors but as with any well-loved writer (especially if you are me) then you can approach the next book of theirs that you pick up with a little trepidation.

Not that I worry about Asher over any other author, actually I worry about him less as the main body of work revolves around the Polity universe, which pretty much means that I know that I’m going to be in for a good ride as the Polity is a wonderful playground.

The Skinner was set on the fringes of the Polity’s reach. Hilldiggers has no Polity interaction at all until that is an ambassador is sent whose arrival restarts a conflict between two worlds that have recently been at peace after the death of millions.

One of Asher’s strengths is how he invests time and imagination into the biology of the worlds he creates and the two warring planets, whose inhabitants have their origins as humans (and Polity history) but have both adapted to individual unique environments. And it’s fascinating to read the evolutions of those races.

The other thing that Asher does is set different world views against each other. Like the insect Prador’s society vs the Polity humans in books like Prador Moon. And the conflict between the two planets and their races is fully exploited here.

Hilldiggers shares a connections with later books such as The Skinner as the ambassador they sent is infected by the splatterjay virus, which allows him to adapt to the extreme environments he surprisingly finds himself in.

Cleverly Asher finds a way to neuter the Polity agents both the obvious (the ambassador) and its hidden observer drone. This does make the story more interesting as a result. They still have influence but it means they don’t interfere with events in the way that stop the conflict reaching genocide.

But for all that this is a story of four children who as born following their mother’s pregancy near an alien artifact. One that one planet has put a lot of research into and gained scientific and military advantages from in the process.

We also follow the view points of several of the main characters, which rather than fragments makes it easier to see the whole jigsaw rather than trying to figure out why one piece won’t fit.

I did however have issues with one of the characters and their motivations, which is always the downside of a multi-view story. You want to get back to the characters you like and can’t see why some of the action can’t take place offstage. Though I didn’t mind seeing from their view. It’s hard to explain who it was or why it didn’t seem quite right without giving away some pivotal plot points.

Not that it spoiled the overall effect but it felt more like the story needs this than the need of the character. However that could just be me comparing threads and finding not as enjoyable as the others.

Hilldiggers is a stand-alone title in the Polity universe but I think reading something like Prador Moon or The Gabble would be better introduction to Neal’s work but for fans this is well worth reading.

Audiobook Review: The Voyage of The Sable Keech by Neal Asher Read by William Gaminara (UK Tor)

Voyage of the sable  298B5D  1

Following on from the events in The Skinner (see my review) we are back again on Splatterjay. Now the last book left a few loose ends and even though Splatterjay has moved on in the last ten years those ends are immediately obvious. But we are here to follow the construction and the inaugural voyage of the Sable Keech, which, unsurprisingly, brings together the cast of The Skinner as well as a few interesting additions.

Now Asher is kind and clever writer as you don’t need to have read The Skinner in order to understand or enjoy this, but I think you should, so I’m not going to spoil it for you by revealing too much of the background to The Voyage of the Sable Keech. Suffice to say Splatterjay is a very dangerous place to be in that book and it focuses on unfinished business.

This time we focus on Taylor Bloc, a reification, who sets sail on a voyage of resurrection for himself and his fellow Kladite followers. As this is happening Janer is working for a hornet hive mind to stop another hive mind agent from obtaining deadly sprine. And to top it off Erlin upsets a whelkus titanicus causing it to rise from the deep. And that’s not all as the prador, Vrell, turns up in the Prologue and sticks around becoming a target for a much bigger threat.

The wonder in Asher’s writing is how he lays down several threads, like the ones above (though there are more revealing ones), and starts twisting them all together. Even the seemingly superfluous but educationally insightful chapter openings on Splatterjay’s flora and fauna are important pieces in the puzzle.

And Splatterjay and the changes in biology caused by its virus to its evolution is very much an overriding personality in this connected series. On first sight it is a backwards place that doesn’t allow the technology of the Polity to have become widespread, which is why the Sable Keech has to rely on sails, both fabric and living, rather than turbines and grav-motors. But by having world that doesn’t have all the Polity’s technology it makes for a much more exciting and primal tale.

This is every much a tale of survival in a brutal and unforgiving environment. Most of the inhabitants are infected with the Splatterjay virus which bestows long-life and resilience on its host but it will also make dramatic mutations on them if they are injured or near death like morphing a tongue into that of a leaches or replacing a lost head with a leaches mouth.

The theme of life, death and survival are explored from several angles in individual stories that come together on the Sable Keech’s voyage. The hive mind agent that Janar is chasing mission is seemingly to obtain sprine, the only thing that can kill Hoopers, the name of Splatterjay’s humanoid inhabitants, outright. Sprine is also an important part of the world’s burgeoning economy. Erlin continues her struggle with having a long, and maybe immortal life. And the prador, Vrell’s, immediate survival is under-threat from a much bigger enemy.

You can tell that biology, its implications and evolutions, are a passion of Asher’s (and if they aren’t he does a great job of faking it) and what makes this stand out from a run-of-the-mill SF novel to one of mastery is that his characters are dense and weighty, his environment feels like a scientific possibilities and  his storytelling skills keeps everything tight, flowing and gripping.

I’m curious about where he’s going to take the next one, Orbus as I’ve got no idea what he has planned (and no I don’t want to read the blurb to find out ;))

Now, so far, I’ve not mentioned the audio side, which isn’t in anyway any comment on William Gaminara’s reading. In fact it should be seen as a ringing endorsement as he really brought everything to life. He gives all the characters their own voice and inflection. With my favourite the personalities of Sniper when played off against the Warden. Gaminara has in some ways spoiled this series as I’m fixated on listening to him read Orbus to me rather than read it myself. He has definitely added another dimension to Asher’s work and one I greatly enjoy.

The Voyage of Sable Keech is not all plain sailing by any means. You don’t need sickbags, unless you’ve got a weak stomach, just hold on tight and enjoy the ride.

Neal Asher’s new [non Polity]  novelThe Departure (Owner Novel 1) is out on 5 September 2011

Audiobook Review: The Skinner by Neal Asher (Tor UK)

Skinnerafc thumb

Review in a sentence:

Sci-fi on the high seas exploring long lives, betrayals and sentient sails.

The trouble with having a wide circle of tastes in reading can sometimes feel like working through that moving belt in sushi bar. It’s hard sometimes to resist the new foods right in front of you in order wait for what you’ve had before and loved to come around. Especially when you trust the chef to serve only foods that you’ll like.

Or at least that’s my current excuse for why I’ve been filling my time with new to me authors rather than working my way through author back catalogues. That and last year I got into the silly habit of reading more than one book at a time. It really doesn’t work.

And The Skinner became a victim of that failed multi tasking and in some ways it’s also the solution. This is the first audiobook review I’ve done. But The Skinner isn’t my first audiobook.

What got me into audiobooks was joining the gym last year and needing something to listen to. Music just doesn’t do it for me. But audiobooks fill my mind and keep my going on treadmills and weight machines. Or they did now I’m more likely to listen on breaks and whilst relaxing in the bath.

Anyway, after two goes at getting into The Skinner on paper and failing to get past 149 pages on the second go I found it on Audible a couple of months ago. Now I always have to listen to them and decide if the narrator is absorbing or annoying and William Gaminara is absorbing and perfect for this book.

Partly why he worked for me because of not only the voices he uses but he also gives them accents – the sea captains remind me of gruff Scotts, the mercenaries as Africans – which you may feel is stereotyping but it’s more about encompassing character and attitude. And it adds texture.

But an absorbing reader needs material is what Gaminara has to read at that really makes something worth listening to or not. And the story of The Skinner is multifaceted to say the list. To start with you have Erlin, searching for an ancient sea captain who can teach her a meaning to life, Janer, bringing hornets and their Hive mind to Spatterjay, and Sable Keech, on a vendetta to avenge the events of the past.

Each of these three character are distinct in their backgrounds and their reasons for being on Spatterjay and their connections to the Polity universe.  The Polity is an AI led technologically advanced society. Spatterjay is not part of the Polity but does fall under it’s protection and has it’s own warden AI, which is handy as the alien Prador are about to interfere in Spatterjay affairs.

I can’t decide my favourite thread but I’m torn between that of the warden and Sable Keech but only because the bits that contain the warden and his subminds were fun to listen to especially the fighting banter. Keech being the investigator of the tale is the most active and his explorations give the context to not only the origins of the skinner (as a character) but also the current state of Spatterjay that has remained the same for several hundred years.

Though this story is all about changing the status quo on this brutal world. Asher is clever how he shows this brutality from showing a character having his guts spilled out from a wound opening his stomach only to be walking around as if nothing happened a short time later as well and from de-fleshed fish that swims away quite happily afterwards.

Splatterjay contains a complex virus that not only repairs it’s hosts but also converts them into leech like creatures if they aren’t careful and all the creatures of Splatterjay are susceptible in some way with most carrying the virus.

Now a world filled with character that hard to kill and a character called the skinner you might be able to imagine what could happen. But whatever has happened is in the past but is part of the reaons for Sable Keech’s arrival.

This is very much a book of transformation and survival. And through each of the threads all the main and several of the secondary characters go through their own transformations as they try to survive.

Asher’s skill is not only in creation but using those ideas, even in a book that’s mostly about boats to look into the meaning of life and the potential for humanity as well as using some awesome weapons and technology.

Luckily this only the beginning as The Voyage of the Stable Keech (again read by William Gaminara) carries on from where this one finishes but I have no idea where that ship is sailing mostly because Erlin, Janer and Keech are internally and in some cases external changed by their journey so far and I think Asher has a few more secrets as well as tricks up his sleeve.

SSM Guest Collection Review: The Engineer Reconditioned by Neal Asher (from Mark Chitty)

When Gav said he was doing a short story month on NextRead I knew I had to contribute something. The question was – what to choose? I read a fair amount of author specific short story collections and was very close to choosing one by Eric Brown, but in the end my complete and utter love for three stories in Neal Asher’s The Engineer ReConditioned swayed my choice. Have a read on to find out why!

Collection: The Engineer Reconditioned
Author: Neal Asher
Publisher: Cosmos

Release Date: Out Now

The Engineer Reconditioned is a collection of short stories by sci-fi author Neal Asher, some in his popular Polity Universe, some not. One thing for sure is that it’s well worth reading. Here’s what’s contained in this great collection:

?The Engineer – 8/10
The Engineer is the title novella in this collection and is a story about the discovery of a stasis pod that turns out to hold a Jain, an ancient race that is been extinct for millions of years. The story follows the science ship as it discovers the pod, a Polity dreadnought as it attempts to reach the science ship, and a group of mercenaries totally against any alien life and want to destroy the Jain and anyone that has had contact with it.

If you’ve read any of Neal’s other novels you’ll know that the Jain are a highly advanced species, and one that has held quite a bit of interest for many within the human domain. The story itself is enjoyable, starting off at a slow pace when the discovery is made and follows through with an interesting and action packed finale. I think this is a story to read if you’re familiar with Neal’s previous novels set in the Polity, but not one for newcomers as it does throw you in at the deep end when it comes to prior knowledge of the setting, although some aspects have small explanations.

Snairls – 7/10
Another Polity story, and one focusing on a character we know from The Skinner: Janer. He’s still indentured to the hornet hive mind in this one and it’s a look at another weird alien creation from Neal. It’s not too long, but is Neal through and through, although it contains no action as such.

Spatterjay – 9/10
This is a short story that I really recommend as an intro to the Spatterjay series (The Skinner, Voyage of the Sable Keech, Orbus). It has Erlin, a character from The Skinner, in and we also get to encounter the Skinner himself. It’s a great little story and one of the highlights of the collection.

Jable Sharks – 7/10
Another weird one from Neal, but I couldn’t be sure if its Polity or not. It sounds like a Spatterjay based story, but clearly isn’t, although it is set on a boat and features a creature from the sea. A nice little ending rounds it off as a solid entry.

The Thrake – 7/10
This is one of Neal’s stories that has religion as one of the central themes, and I must admit that I do quite like it. It has that ‘I’m right because I’m religious’ feel to it and the central character always finds ways to justify what he sees as a sign of sentience and religion when the scientists actually know the truth, but he just refuses to believe them.

Proctors – 10/10
Here’s the first of three Owner stories in this collection, and probably my favourite stuff Neal has ever done. This one introduces the idea of the Owner and his Proctors which enforce his rules on his planets. The setting is not a high tech one, more like mid-20th century tech in a low population world. One of his rules is that the population of the planet is to not go above a certain amount and when it does the Proctors turn killers to bring the population back down to the required level – one of the reasons they are feared so much. The story follows a couple of groups of activists that go searching for a spaceship that has been seen to land near their town, the first group wanting it for themselves and the second in an attempt to stop them. I love this one!

The Owner – 10/10
The second Owner story and another gem in the collection. This one follows a widow and her daughter with her servant and son while they try to escape those that want to kill them. A code of honour on how they can be challenge is evident from the start and when they meet a new companion, the Daybreak Warrior, the story shifts a gear and more of the Owner’s history is revealed. Once again I loved this story and have no issues with it in any way, very, very highly recommended.

The Torbeast’s Prison 6/10
This story is related to Neal’s novel, Cowl. It’s a time travelling story following one man as he shifts from time to time trying to escape his inevitable destiny. There’s a nice twist to the tale, but ultimately I found it to be the weakest on offer here.

Tiger Tiger – 10/10
The third and final Owner story in the collection. This one is more focused on one of the Owner’s rules on the planet: ‘Man must not kill tiger and tiger will not kill man.’ However, a tiger is killed and many of the residents in the village are fearful of the retribution that will come. Again, Neal has developed a deeper history of the Owner and done so in a great and very interesting way. There are some nice little revelations about the characters and the twist in the tale is not overly unexpected, but brings about a very satisfying conclusion.

The Gurnard – 7/10
The final story in the collection is another looking at religion, but also bring in one of Neal’s staples to his writing – alien organism’s. There is also a character from Neal’s novels here – Erlin – who is studying the gurnard of the title and the religion that has grown around it. It’s an interesting story and gives a good look at what the less developed cultures of the Polity are like, especially those around religion. Erlin’s perspective is a good addition and made the story worthwhile, at least from the point of view of getting explanations to the central plot.

While The Engineer ReConditioned is a good collection, it’s because of three stories that I consider this to be a must-have for any sci-fi fan – The Owner stories. I can’t stress enough how amazing I find them and I rate them as my all time favourites. Really, they are that good. Don’t get me wrong, the rest of the stories present here will be great for anyone who is familiar to Neal’s writing, most of them very accessible to those new to Neal Asher, but it’s because of the Owner ones that this totally unmissable.


Mark Chitty runs the SF-focused book blog Walker of Worlds, which was recently host to a month long SF Appreciation event.

I’m a Neal Asher fan and this review was my final push into placing an order for this book, just so you know they work on me too!

Interview: Neal Asher – The Gabble and other stories (Tor UK)


To celebrate the paperback publication of a The Gabble and other stories Neal Asher was kind enough to answer some questions on Gabbleducks, short stories and SF, amongst other things. Neal Asher has this year has fast become one of my favourite writers. He’s an wonderfully talented science fiction writer who regularly amazes me.

I’m not sure what else to say so here we go:

Gav: It’s unusual for a short story collection to be centred on the same universe, so I’m curious what is it about the Polity that means you have so many stories to tell?

Neal: The simple answer to that is that it’s big. Starting out writing short SF stories I wanted a large canvas on which to tell them, and with each one that canvas expanded. To a certain extent I did this deliberately, but it also grew organically – in the telling. Really, Earth itself is large enough to contain just about any story you could think of, so inevitably a star spanning Polity is going to have a whole lot more room.

Gav: And this probably links In to the question above but at the start of my review I said:

“Neal Asher has an amazing imagination combined with a strong understanding of science and its potentials for evolution.”

As well as:

“I get the feeling that Neal Asher likes the idea of genetics and evolution and the possibilities that science has and enjoys how that knowledge and exploration feeds his stories. “

Does science fiction still have legs? Or is technology and science getting so advance that there is less and less to reveal and predict in SF? Or is it the case like in the books that humanity still has a long way to go its understanding itself and its knowledge?

Neal: Right now we are just entering a time in which some elements of past SF stories are becoming reality. We have laser weapons, we have Star Trek communicators, we have video telephones. But that doesn’t mean all these things are dead for the purpose of story telling. An old idea becoming reality, or the SF love of the new shiny idea, doesn’t necessarily make old ideas obselete, often it’s quite the reverse. Really, SF still has legs and a long way to run on them, it’s just that some of the signposts have changed and the legs are wearing new trousers.

Gav: The bad guys seems to be the insect-like Prador rather than the Polity AIs that run humanity. I’m curious as to which is more alien in your eyes? Both to me are scary, but somehow the AIs seem more compassionate?

Neal: Rather than grabbing up the new shiny thing in SF (singularity) I’ve gone a slightly different route with my AIs. They are a product of us, really only development of us. They are, using that favourite description used by the wannabe academics in SF, the post humans, and as such, they are much more like us, much more recogniseable than the alien and predatory Prador. Because of this they seem more compassionate, more human, but really they are colder even than the Prador, and would dump the human race in a second if that served their purpose. And, just like humans, there are also nasty Ais. But I also have to add that in my books the Prador are a nasty product of evolution; they are all the same and not bad guys through deliberate intent – effectively there are no Prador good guys. The real bad guys in my books (with the potential to be good) are usually human – aren’t they always?

Gav: You seem to have a soft spot for the Gabbleducks. Can you explain a little bit more about them and if they appear anywhere else in the books you’ve written?

Neal: I’ve always got a soft spot for my monsters, be they alien or human. Gabbleducks, which also appear in the Cormac series from The Line of Polity onwards, stem from me wanting to create something monstrous, mysterious, and even humorous. They are the kind of creature you’ll more likely find in a fairy tale than a zoology book: a troll, snark or, of course, a jabberwock. But just like Mr Crane – the big murderous android seemingly made out of brass in the first Cormac book, Gridlinked they grew in the telling. The result with Mr Crane was the third in the Cormac series, Brass Man. The result with the gabbleducks has been the short stories you’ve read in The Gabble stories acquainting us with the horrific idea that they were an intelligent race who, in an act of racial insanity, sacrificed civilization and intelligence – and further, the book I’m presently writing: Gabbleducks.

Gav: You’ve included some authors notes to place the stories. They read like fan treats. Are you a big fan of any other writers and if so can you think of any treats you’d like to see from them?

Neal: I like providing these treats. In my other books I usually start every chapter with a paragraph extracted from some fictional Polity work, like ‘How It Is’ by Gordon, ‘Quince Guide’ compiled by humans, Anonymous or ‘Modern Warfare’ lecture notes from EBS Heinlein (little hat-tip there). I enjoy writing them and they simultaneously enable me to step back from the story and fill in some background.

Am I a big fan of other writers? In the acknowledgements for The Skinner I wrote, ‘Thanks to all those excellent people whose names stretch through the alphabet from Aldiss to Zelazny, and who have kept me spell-bound for most of my life. All their names are too numerous to list here, but they have been a continuous source of pleasure to me and a huge influence on what you find between these covers.’ That quote generally covers most of the old greats, but my fannish attitude to SF hasn’t gone away now I’m writing it. As for treats I would like from writers still producing … I just want them to hold on to the sensawunda that got them reading SF in the first place, and give me that, in their books.

Gav: Short stories are seen by some as a dying market but lots of writers enjoy doing them. Most of the stories have appeared elsewhere before being collected. Did you have in mind at some point you’d be able to collect them or did you see them as individual pieces that could appeal to both fans of the books and those new to them?

Neal: Though it might have been at the back of my mind that my short stories could be published in a collection, that wasn’t the aim when I wrote them. I just carried on as I did at the start, writing for short story markets (magazines like Asimov’s,) when time permitted because I simply like writing short stories. It came as a pleasant surprise when publishers wanted them for various ‘Year’s Best’ collections but, later, not so much of a surprise when my previous editor at Macmillan, Peter Lavery, told me that we ought to do a collection. It was about the right time for me, being fairly well established. The short story market, I feel, is not a dying one, just a very limited one. They don’t sell that well unless there’s an established market for them.

Gav: Your work has several different strands to it now. If someone picked up The Gabble and want to explore more where could they go next?

Neal: Next go to the one-offs or those that, though starting off a series, do stand alone. The one-offs are: Cowl (time-travel and not set in the Polity), Hilldiggers, The Shadow of the Scorpion, Prador Moon and Africa Zero (two novellas).Those starting off a series but which are self-contained novels are: The Skinner and Gridlinked. It’s also worth adding that I’ve recently submitted a new novel to Macmillan called The Departure – double meaning here since the book is about the departure from Earth of the main character, and the book itself is a departure from the Polity.

Gav: And finally, I hope that you’re still writing short stories, where can we find some more? and do you think you’ll have enough for a second collection of Polity tales in the near future?

Neal: More of my short stories can be found in The Engineer ReConditioned, and a short chapbook called Runcible Tales. Time permitting I will write more short stories and submit them to various magazines and then, when I have enough, maybe collect them together in one book. But ‘time permitting’ is a movable feast. I’m writing Gabbleducks, want to write a book about Crete and also want to take another look at four fantasy books presently languishing in my hard drive. So yeah, sometime, though maybe not in the near future.

How cool was that? I’m now very excited to hear about The Departure and Gabbleducks and I have a bit more catching up to do. But if you haven’t read The Gabble and other stories, do, it’s amazing and if you need more convincing I’ve written a review to persuade you some more.

Thanks Neal for taking the time to do it.

And if you’re in the UK and are lucky you can win one of five copies of The Gabble and other stories by keeping your eye out for post to win a copy in the next couple of days.