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The Line of Polity

by Neal Asher

(Pan/Tor UK; £10.99, 560 pages, trade paperback; March 21 2003.)

Having diverted through a nautical adventure in The Skinner, Neal Asher resumes the story of ECS agent Ian Cormac in the cover scanwake of the events of Gridlinked. Masada is a world on the edge of the Polity, its population in the grip of a vicious religious autocracy. In orbit, the Theocracy's cylinder habitats and laser arrays keep watch on the surface, where an enslaved underclass work, in spite of a poisonous atmosphere and a variety of unpleasant fauna, to produce the Theocracy's luxury goods. Below ground, a rebellion is gathering, hoping to collect enough secret ballots from the workers to persuade the Polity to come in and take over. What they get while they're waiting are: John Stanton, former mercenary with a grudge to settle against a member of the Theocracy; Ian Cormac and friends on the trail of the most duplicitous, cryptic and vast creature in the galaxy, the alien bio-construct Dragon; oddly enough, Dragon; and something a little bit special. It's too much fun for me to spoil it by giving details here.

Other reviewers have made much of the similarities between Asher's Polity and Iain M Banks' Culture -- far be it from me to break with tradition. Personally, I find Asher's writing a lot more colourful than Banks'. Of course, this could just be a subliminal effect of the eye-catching covers his books are given, as opposed to the more austere one-colour artwork that adorns Banks' work, but I think it's something in the prose too. It's bouncier, brasher, more fun somehow. It's also busy. Asher, I would say, focuses far more on action and incident than on higher themes, which are more the province of Banks' novels. On the subject of themes, Polity inevitably deals with issues of religion. Now, I'm as unruffled by this as the next atheist, but there's one or two bits of rather heavy-handed anti-religious commentary in the text, specifically in the dialogue, that may offend more devout readers. It's just unnecessary: it's perfectly obvious in the context of the story that the Theocracy are evil bastards, and surely this should stand as its own commentary? For the most part, though, Asher seems content simply to write space opera that is entertaining, slick, sometimes even jaw-dropping, but not exactly thought-provoking.

And so the plot tilts headlong towards a very neat but swift resolution. Polity has a certain satisfying quality to it that leaves one feeling that everything's been duly wrapped up, even though there remain enough loose ends to kick-start the next novel in the series. Not least of these, of course, is Dragon, but there's another trailing thread I couldn't help noticing, and which may prove just as intriguing. Asher's characters have developed the habit, first in The Skinner and now in Polity, of stumbling into immortality. The fact that this has happened in two novels, and not the two most obviously related, leaves me suspicious that the author is Up To Something, besides just keeping his favourite characters in play. I hesitate to suggest "The Dancers at the End of Time: Neal Asher Remix".

For those who hanker for some pure SF entertainment that uses its brain without forcing the reader to over-exert theirs, The Line of Polity is pretty hard to beat.

Review by John Toon.

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