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.

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.

Review: Empire of Light by Gary Gibson (Tor UK)

Empire of light

Empire of Light concludes events started in Stealing Light and continued in Nova War. I say concludes but more it draws an arc to a definitive end but leaving the door open for more stories in this world.

I’ve given high praise to the series so far with phrases  like, ‘clever, intelligent, thoughtful, and gripping’ and ‘Gibson has a devious imagination, a sense of bigger picture and a more twists than a corkscrew’. So not a lot to live up to there then.

And does Empire of Light continue that tradition. Yes and no. It’s gripping and I really felt for Dakota in places; I really wanted her to succeed. But we are drawing to the end and all the preparation that has taken place up to now has been leading to this point. So we don’t get a meander through more of Gibson’s mind. Instead we have a gripping race to the finish.

The double-crossing and scheming Trader is shown in a new light, as is Corso and so are the human-piloted Magi ships.

It’s a case of if you’ve read enjoyed Stealing Light and Nova War you’re going to enjoy 
Empire of Light. It’s still filled with some nice twists and turns but it’s more focused and narrowed than I remember the earlier books being with less exposure to new things.

Not sure what to add beyond that. If you enjoy a SF series with a lot of energy the Shoal Sequence is one for you.

Gary Gibson’s latest novel is Final Days is out now in hardback/kindle and Empire of Light is out now in paperback/kindle

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

Review: Iron Angel by Alan Campbell (Tor UK)


This is going to be a struggle this review. Not because I don’t want to write it or that I didn’t like the book instead it’s going to be purely down to how hard it’s going to be make sense of what I’ve just read  and make it into a coherent review.

Lets start at the beginning. Iron Angel is the second book of a trilogy. The first book, Scar Night, introduced us to Deepgate, and the the battle-archon Dill. By the end of Scar Night all hell had broken loose, literally and Dill was safe enough and in hiding with his rescuer, Rachel. I loved Scar Night for its focus on the relationship between Dill and Rachel and the whole world of Deepgate.

In Iron Angel Campbell is really unleashed. He no longer needs to rely on Dill and Rachel to lead us gently into his imagination, instead he gives us his own unique form of Armageddon. Hell is flowing up into the world and its master is determined to shape it in his own (un)godly image. But he isn’t the only god and they don’t seem to share the same vision. At the start they agree they need to stop Menoa from escaping the red mist to be free in the world. So the gods send in the Cospinol, god of brine and fog to stop him.

Dill and Rachel do appear at the start but are then split up and if you enjoyed seeing their relationship develop then you’ll be disappointed. They still have a central part in events of Iron Angel but they have completely different roles. And it’s Dill that you continue to feel sorry for.

Not that there is much time to reflect.

From a slow start Campbell really ramps up the assault keeping the ideas and action flowing. It does become disorientating. Not so much because of Campbell’s ideas but through uneven storytelling.

I can understand why he pulls focus and misses out intervening scenes but sometimes after spending so long building the scenes before it feels odd to just land again with so much happening in between. And there are a couple of examples where what went on in-between is likely to have been more interesting than the details building up to it.

As odd and occasionally frustrating experience this is it doesn’t diminish from the overall effect.

Instead what you get is two different perspectives. One from thief and liar Caulker,  who accompanies John Anchor herald of Cospinol, as they quest to find Dill and Rachel across the world. The other view is from Haper, and engineer who can reshape souls, who who shows us hell and Menoa’s unbending will.

It feels fresh and unlike a lot of generic fantasy – it’s almost gothic steampunk in places. And for all those overflowing ideas and rounded characters that are neither good or bad but shaped from experience as well as abandoning the confines of Scar Night, Iron Angel is a brilliant achievement.

There is a sense that it should have been more even and well paced and focused but it’s hard to untangle and reshape this creation but you’ll be happy if you stick with it. I’m more than happy to get stuck in to God of Clocks.

Review: Nova War by Gary Gibson (Tor UK)



The cover says it all, ‘Continuing from Stealing Light’ (well it does on the final cover copy), so I’m going to have be careful what I say. About the first book I said,

I have a feeling that Gibson is going to be a quick rising star in sci-fi. He has the level of knowledge and skill to construct a story, he can twists these ideas around a cast of well conceptualised and constructed characters – human and non-human. And anyone who makes me want to find out what happens next is always going to get my vote.

I know what you’re thinking, does he manage it?

We start from almost exactly where the last book finished and Gibson notches up the pressure on Dakota and Corso straight away and in the process we get to meet a new race, the Bandati, who I can only think of as humanoid flies.

As the ending of Stealing Light opens up the possibilities and expands the Universe it’s good to see that Gibson has plan in mind and the two warring factions that make up two Bandati Hives have a vital role in how Nova War plays out. He keeps up the tension by keeping Dakota and Corso apart and in some ways opposing each other when they each end up working with the opposite Hives.

What I did find amazing was the Emissaries, the race that are equal to the Shoal in terms of advancement though they challenging them for control of the Universe.

And it’s this control that the Nova War hinges on and Dakota’s abilities that are central to how events could unfold. But for all this big picture stuff humanity again shows that it is only interested in guarding its own small pieces of power. Though that comes later and in a surprising way.

In fact the whole book is packed with surprises. Take the Trader and the measures which he will take in order to follow the Dreamers, what he does for self-preservation and how far his influence extends is almost religious devotion.

I did have a slight niggle with humanities involvement and their connection to events but this is a continuation of the ideas that came from Stealing Light and that was something that didn’t fit right for me then either. That though could be to do with my own thoughts about what they would or wouldn’t do rather than any real problems with the events themselves.

Dakota has the biggest journey of all, and it’s fascinating how she changes and how Gibson is able to keep it in realms that are understandable and also daring in scope.

If you haven’t read Stealing Light and enjoy science fiction your missing out big time. And Nova War only cements the fact that Gibson has a devious imagination, a sense of bigger picture and a more twists than a corkscrew.

I can’t wait to see what he’s going to do to Dakota next and what he’s going to make her suffer next.