Fiction Reviews


(2022) Neal Asher, Tor, £9.99, pbk, 531pp, ISBN 978-1-529-05005-9


A stand-alone novel set in the universe of ‘the Polity’, the human/AI star-spanning civilization centred on Earth, Weaponized takes that well-worn idea of human colonists set down on a hostile planet and then runs with it, before crashing into a radical, not to say extreme, conclusion. The central character – indeed, the only one that is fleshed out in any detail – is Ursula Ossect Treloon, a former marine who, struggling with the effects of the ennui that bedevils those humans whose lifespans have been significantly extended, decides to lead the colonisation effort. However, in addition to the inimical plant-life, equipped with an assortment of poisons, acids and projectiles, the colonists must also deal with a species of predatory ‘cacoraptor’. Extremely aggressive and with the ability to morph and adapt to human weaponry, these fearsome beasts quickly whittle the colonists down from the eight hundred who landed, to three hundred and twenty survivors when the novel begins.

Of course, the humans, who see themselves as extremophiles, had thought they were prepared for any eventuality, not least thanks to a comprehensive ‘nano-suite’ modified and tailored to each individual by the group’s enigmatic biophysicist, Oren Salazar. Realising that this is not enough to cope with the raptor threat, Ursula accepts Salazar’s offer of a dramatic ‘upgrade’ that promises to give her, and the other colonists, the advantage by allowing them to similarly, and radically, alter their bodies and abilities. Some merge with their weaponry, while others develop multiple eyes and tendrils to better interface with the communications systems and it soon becomes apparent that the subject of the ‘weaponization’ here is the human body itself.

What sets Ursula apart is her innate ability to integrate multiple data points and then devise an appropriate strategy, so the mental and physical changes induced by the upgrade evolve accordingly. And initially, at least, she frets about whether she, and her fellow colonists, will retain their essential humanity as the body modifications become even more radical. As the story progresses, however, such concerns begin to fade and then fall by the wayside entirely as the remaining humans find themselves facing an even greater threat. A wayward spaceship crash-lands into the planet, complete with Prador crew, an extremely xenophobic and near invulnerable crab-like race with which the Polity is engaged in a fight for survival.

With the cacoraptors having destroyed their shuttle, and close to over-running the colony itself, Ursula convinces her comrades that the only option is to seize the Prador ship and make good their escape. However, things are do not go smoothly, of course, and with the Prador threat amped up even further, Ursula determines that a truly monstrous response is required. Long before this stage it’s pretty clear what the outcome is going to be, as is the big reveal of the hidden agenda behind Salazar’s upgrades.

For those who like this sort of thing, the action throughout is full-on and very much in video-game mode, with Ursula facing and overcoming one obstacle after another, across several hundred pages. With both the cacoraptors and the Prador portrayed as unremittingly aggressive and unable to be reasoned with, any moral dimension is severely attenuated. And as Ursula herself takes on ever more extreme adaptations, her personal connections correspondingly whither. It may be that it was to balance the loss of empathy for her on the part of the reader that the book is structured atypically, with Ursula’s present circumstances interleaved with passages from her past and ‘near past’. However, although these certainly yield insights into her background and character, they also generate some confusion, as it’s not always clear whether she’s being put back together this time because she’s fallen off a mountain, or been blown up in a training exercise or attacked by cacoraptors while trying to save another colonist. The other problem with flashbacks, of course, is that they run the risk of draining away any tension as the plot unfolds, as can loosening the constraints on Ursula’s combat abilities – there’s a reason why Superman is vulnerable to kryptonite, after all!

As an extended study of the radical steps that might need to be taken in order to defeat a vicious and pitiless enemy, Weaponized is a provocative piece of work, but as entertainment I’m afraid I found it pretty hard-going.

Steven French

See also Ian's review of Weaponized.


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