Gridlinked by Neal Asher
(Macmillan, £10.00, 426 pages, trade paperback; published 23 March 2001.)
Gridlinked is mostly set in 2432AD, in and around an expanding sphere of human settlement. The inhabitants can travel about their galaxy using the wonderfully named 'runcibles' -- very big teleportation devices. Their society, homes, transportation, food, water, commerce -- even the runcibles -- are controlled by some very clever AIs.
To be 'gridlinked' in this amazing world means to be remotely connected to all these AI intelligences, to have the equivalent of an insanely high-speed Internet link continually open in your mind.
One such gridlinked person (and they are quite rare, although other types of augmentation are not) is Ian Cormac, a special agent of Earth Central Security (ECS) about whom the story revolves.
ECS is run by a very clever AI and a supposedly immortal Japanese man who survived the bombing of Hiroshima. Despite being so very clever and immortal, these two have not managed to eliminate crime or war in the settled and civilised parts of the galaxy; although to be fair poverty, as we know it all too well today, seems to be largely a thing of the past. The ECS sphere of influence is steadily expanding but the frontier is a raw, harsh and lawless place, a haven for the separatist groups that bedevil planets further in, supplying them with the means to make statements in the name of 'freedom'. But freedom for whom?
One such 'statement' would appear to be the sabotaging of a runcible 'transmission' which causes a megaton chain reaction that destroys all life on the planet of Samarkand. Cormac is sent to investigate but, shorn of the gridlink to which has been connected for 30 years because he has become too dissociated from his own humanity by it, he is not at his best.
His investigations lead him to suspect a very large alien intelligence calling itself 'Dragon' that he encountered and thought he had destroyed 30 years previously. Not only this, but unbeknownst to Cormac, the psychopathic brother of a separatist agent he killed on a previous investigation is accumulating weapons and companions for a crusade to avenge his sister.
There's a lot more to it than even this synopsis can suggest but it's written well enough not to seem quite such a labyrinthine proposition in Neal Asher's hands.
Parallels can definitely be drawn between Gridlinked and Peter F Hamilton's novels. Both are enormously enthusiastic about humanity and our uses of technology. Both depict a galactic future that is rather like today with knobs on, and both's books are actually pretty violent, featuring a lot of weapons-based technology. I actually prefer Asher's vision of the future: it might be grim in places, and he certainly fetishises technology (and guns) even more than Hamilton does, but the good guys in it are not Hamiltonian privateers and heroes of free enterprise; they are at least attempting to improve humanity's lot.
I suspect this is due in part to the M Banksian influence of the ECS AIs who run all the important stuff in the Asher universe. Unlike the Culture universe, however, this one is actually rather mundane. Don't get me wrong, it's a future I'd like to see (and which needs to be) developed further, but outside the glamour of the starships and the expensive runcible transportation life seems to go on very much as it does now, albeit with anti-gravity cars.
There are some interesting political contradictions in Gridlinked that I think Asher ought to have concentrated upon more instead of the bloodletting. Life under Earth Central is, for most people, remarkably good, but there are still inequalities because this is still a capitalist society, and hence people in it who necessarily remain unhappy or unfulfilled. The rich, in particular, are mentioned as being annoyed because they want to be richer, and consequently are the main fomenters of the anti-EC unrest. Earth Central, as I've said, is actually a pretty good and fair manager of things, but it is this very fairness that seems to infuriate so many people and drive them to terrorism in their pursuit of happiness. Or perhaps I'm reading too much into a single paragraph on page 15...
Returning to the mundanity of the EC universe, I can almost sympathise with the poor little rich kids of EC in that the human-settled worlds we visit in Gridlinked seem to resemble either fantastic airports or tedious suburbs. If, when we develop miraculous teleportation technology, all we are going to do with it is inflict Swindon upon other worlds then we may as well stay home!
There are Encyclopaedia Galactica-esque quotations at the start of each chapter that are helpful in building up our sense of history in the book, but their alleged origins in some 24th century equivalent of our Rough Guides can't disguise a certain hollowness of the ideas behind them -- they perhaps ought to be more cynical (get Transmetropolitan's Spider Jerusalem to write them, say) or rather more stuffy and official. As it is they're helpful and informative, but not believable.
If all this sounds very negative then I apologise. I did really quite enjoy Gridlinked for the most part. It's a zippy space opera with some well-realised ideas that definitely deserve more attention -- perhaps in a sequel...?
The eponymous gridlinking technology is hardly original but it sounds brilliant, and Cormac's dislocation upon being deprived of it is understandable; both sad and occasionally funny.
The 'big stuff' is especially well done. I hope Asher had as much fun writing the parts of the AIs and about the ECS ship Hubris as I did reading about them.
Overall: full marks for effort, but I hope he takes a little bit more time to think about what he's writing in future.
Review by Stuart Carter.
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© Stuart Carter 21 July 2001