(2013) Neal Asher, Tor, £18.99, hrdbk, 472pp, ISBN 978-0-230-75071-6
This is the third in the 'Owner' series from Billericay–born Neil Asher, which follows the barely human Alan Saul as he gradually develops an almost godlike intellect and control.
At the end of the last book, Saul is overlord of the Argos Station, carved out of an asteroid and orbiting Mars, where he’s just rescued his sister Var. Earth forces are on the way, and Saul has to decide whether to fight or flee.
At the start of this book Saul is on Mars, as he and Var get involved in a minor skirmish with enemy forces on the Mars Base, make repairs to the Argos Station and consider their next move. The storyline is about Saul's fight with the antagonist, ruthless Earth dictator Serene Galahad, who wants to wipe out most of human life and return the Earth to its pre-civilisation pristine state, but who also wants to wipe Saul out and grab back a 'gene pool' of extinct Earth animals which has been inconveniently stored on the Argos Station. Saul has enhanced his intellect by a combination of extra bits of brain in vats and online storage and is progressively outgrowing the humans around him.
Along the way, as Saul progressively replaces inefficient humans with more effective intuitive robots in his work details, he begins to question his goals and his own humanity. Galahad, on the other hand, gets more and more outrageous, with random and paranoid acts of extreme violence coupled with manic megalomania. She is quite endearing in an evil villain sort of way, the kind of character you hate but you find fascinating because you want to know what new atrocities or unspeakable acts of sadistic cruelty she’ll come up with. Added excitement comes from the imminent return to Earth of the Earth ship the Scourge, which was dispatched to kill off Saul and the Argos Station but which was roundly defeated in the last book. But the Scourge isn’t just the dead hulk that Serene Galahad is expecting. Her disgruntled ex-aide Clay Ruger is aboard, and he has a surprise…
I reviewed the second in the series, Zero Point, on this site a few months ago, and concluded then that this series had plenty going for it, but that better characters with more credible motives might make it more enjoyable. And this one? Same-same. Again, it takes a while to get up to speed with what is going on (unless you read these books consecutively it is all bewilderingly complex for way too many pages). Again, character motivations are perplexing. And again, none of the leads are likeable enough to care about. The most likely candidate for likeability, Saul’s sister Var, turns out to be a bit of a disappointment which leaves only relatively minor character Clay to root for (if you can ignore his compromised backstory). Still, the Serene Galahad storyline draws to its inevitable conclusion, though it stretches credibility in the time it took to get there.
This is solidly near(ish)-future hard SF, though, and despite its flaws I thoroughly enjoyed it. Asher's plotting and pacing are very solid and there are some interesting ideas here. But if I could actually find some characters I liked here I could have cared more about what was going on. That mixed bag draws a cautious recommendation from me, then. Good on explosions and neat ideas, not so good on characters. But that is never been what hard SF is good at, so it seems churlish not to appreciate this book for what it is. Read the first two in the series first though, otherwise this one will make even less sense.
See also Ian's review of Jupiter War.
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