Maybe it's overstating matters to say to say that this is something the World has been waiting for with baited breath, but I think I can safely state that the fans of broad-stroke, far-future Space Opera with a solid amount of action have definitely been looking forward to Neil Asher's new series, now called Transformation, of which Dark Intelligence is the first installment. And, I'm happy to report, without the pitfalls which turned me off his Owner series.
It is, as The Technician hinted at (that book links previous events in the Cormac series into the new one, but is apparently not counted as part of it) centered around Penny Royal, an AI which went 'dark' ('mad' does not really cover it, but gives you an idea of what this entails) during the Prador war. And it is, if I need to mention this after the above, set in Asher's Polity universe, again in contrast to the Owner series.
If the previous paragraph does not make any sense to you then let me just tell you that Neil Asher writes Space Opera in a universe where humanity has spread across space (aka The Polity), is governed by AIs (the core ones are called ECS, for Earth Central Security), have encountered a few alien civilisations in passing, and one (the Prador) heads on due to their genocidal mind set. AIs fly space ships, or control drone bodies, and are considered full citizens of the Polity. And Penny Royal turned dark during the war against the Prador, bombed the Polity forces it was supposed to evacuate, and abandoned the war.
It had gone to ground on an Asteroid in the Graveyard, as the now established buffer zone between the Polity and the Prador Kingdom is affectionately known. In it renegade, criminals, salvages, and general chancers and rejects from both races mix, trade, and kill each other, without any government to speak of. Some people have approached Penny Royal due to its unmatched Biotech/Genetics capabilities with requests for special abilities – these wishes come, even when fulfilled, frequently with unwanted and unwelcome side effects, as Penny Royal (or at least one of the 8 states of consciousness if fell apart into) is patently deranged. One of those beneficiaries/victims is Isobel Satomi, a power player in a local crime syndicate, who asked to be turned into a Haiman, a being as close to a melding of human and AI abilities as is possible. But now she's changing, and turning into something much more hideous, dangerous, and decidedly non/inhuman...
The other key character in the book, and as it looks the series, is Thorval Spear. He's a former ECS soldier, and was part of the forces which were bombed into obvlivion by Penny Royal when whatever happened to it occurred. History says there were no survivors from that massacre. His memory, which was put into a new body from his crystal 'memplant' which he wore, claims otherwise. And he blames Penny Royal for all the horrors he now re-lives as his memories come back, piece by piece, so he sets out to destroy the AI, not knowing that (as The Technician tells) it now is back in the ECS fold, and has apparently been forgiven... But his memories, as he find out piece by piece, are also not reliable, and seem to have been tampered with.
The story is told in chapters, labeled by the protagonist whose eyes we see through for that round. We get the above two, plus a whole palette of others, including a former War Drone (who remembers Spear), a Prador Father-Captain who did not return to the Kingdom at the end of the war with his Dreadnought, but who sought out Penny Royal looking for understanding how weak humans and their detested AIs could have bested the Prador might (he got more than he bargained for, too), and many others. The only one we don't see is Penny Royal itself – we learn of some of its genesis, but beyond that the main character in the book (and the series) remains a cypher, for all concerned.
This is a good and entertaining read with a good drive, and up there with some of Asher's best writing. It does not always have the drive and doesn't grip you as hard as some of his other books, and maybe could have done with a bit more development on part of the key characters, but it's the first book in a series, so much more is to come I would expect; and I would also think that future books will pick up the dangling threads which this installment leaves behind.
The story plays on a number of known Asher topics and memes, but thankfully avoids endless and pointless exposition of endless killing (megadeath is always on the cards in an Asher story, of course), but also does not descend into the bigger ships/bigger weapons/bigger battles trap, which I also consider an boon.
It also raises a number of interesting questions for me – including, given the degree of Adaptogenetics, changes to the human form, augmentation, near-melding with AI etc: how long, up to what line do you remain human? If you don't look like a human, don't think like a human, are you still one? And, if not, is having sex with each other in whatever form (yes, some characters engage in such activities – it's actually quite well handled, too) count as bestiality? And does it matter?
I was also surprised to find myself sympathizing with Isobel Satomi. Yes, she's a horrible person, now turning into a veritable monster. But the way she's being played, and being messed about (even more than everybody else it appears) is just plain horrible in parts. The story actually provides some kind of conclusion to that, too (and no, I'm not going to tell).
The other thing I kept wondering whilst reading (and enjoying) this was when we will see Asher's gradual slide towards the right hand side of the political spectrum (as we see and witness on his blog), and its key topics and issues reflect stronger in his writing. Yes, there are (and have been) things which could be interpreted that way before, but so far the central government seems to be considered overall beneficial and benevolent, the separatists fighting it are baddies, aliens are not by default considered evil, and refugees are being taken in and integrated. Watch this space (with me!)...
Overall I can recommend this book to everyone who likes Asher, and/or large scale Space Opera. If you've never read any of his books then I'd suggest you read The Technician first to get a bit more of a grip on the setting, but you will not need to read the whole of the other previous Polity stories (they're fun in large quantities, though, so feel free to have a go!). Actually, I'd recommend reading The Technician for everyone before hitting that one, for the reason above.
And now to wait for the next one in the series ...
More Neal Asher
Title: Dark Intelligence
Author: Neal Asher
Series Number: 1
Reviewer URL: http://thierstein.net
Publisher URL: http://www.panmacmillan.com
Publication Date: Jan 2015
Review Date: 150128
Topic: Space Opera
Thanks to the publisher for the review copy.