Fiction Reviews

Zero Point

(2013) Neal Asher, Tor, £8.99, pbk, 564pp, ISBN 978-0-330-52452-0


It took me a good fifty pages or so to get into this one, but that’s because I hadn’t read the first book in the series, The Departure. So I had no clue what was going on, and no reason to follow the characters. It shouldn’t be like that, of course. You should be able to pick up any book in a series and enjoy the story. If reading book one is a prerequisite for reading book two, then publishers are looking at diminishing returns for the sequels.

But once you get into the rhythm, Zero Point is rather good. It is a hard SF novel, all technobabble and explosions in space, plus the usual mix of AI, robots, cyborgs, hydroponics farms, space battle cruisers with slightly alarming names and a continuous ramping up of tension.

The plot is pretty standard space opera fare, but skilfully executed, It is set on and around Earth a couple of hundred years into the future, a place of dictatorship and suppression, where no scientific advances have taken place for years. The book opens with Earth’s ruling Committee having been largely eliminated by Alan Saul, floating off somewhere near Jupiter on an asteroid-space station growing extra bits of brain to expand into. Zero Point never actually makes it clear how Saul and the other people on his Argus Station caused Earth’s rulers so many problems in the last book, but enough of the old regime is still in place to make this sequel possible, though not enough to make it simply a rerun.

The old Earth dictator, Messina, has been memory wiped and rehabilitated as an agricultural worker on the Argos Station. Into the power vacuum comes Delegate Serene Galahad, who has some nifty technology which enables her to kills whoever she likes just by entering a code, remotely, in their ‘implants’, which she can do (and does) on a mass scale, very quickly wiping out half of Earth’s bloated population. I like her. She is an eco-warrior gone all dangerously twisted, looking for ways to reverse decades of environmental degradation by removing the root cause: people, But she’s a melodrama villain, all single dimension rage and brutality, and for me she is undermined when she’s given a chance to show some character depth (with her father, and how she treats him) and I believe Asher goes the wrong way. And at that point, Galahad stopped being a credible villain. Still, supreme ruler of the Earth, keeping her people in line with obedience suffocation bands around their necks? What’s not to like.

The point of view narrative switches between Galahad, Saul and a third character, Var, who is just about in charge of the Mars colony by dint of shooting the previous incumbent in the last novel. Because of this it took me a while to realise that she was actually one of the good guys, And at first I wondered why there were two extra terrestrial foci to the novel The Argus Station and the Mars Colony are very similar in issues and plotline, even characters (there’s a scientist called Rhine on Argus and a scientist called Rhone on Mars. Or is it the other way round? Damn those German rivers), But then the plotlines diverge and something interesting happens on Mars which drives the end of the book towards a very satisfying conclusion.

The ending works because it is on a human scale, Unfortunately much of the book doesn’t because it’s just too impersonal. In my view the scale needs bringing down for the tension to really rise, and the characters fleshed out. Still, it would make for a great spectacle movie, and maybe that was always the point.

There is lots to admire here, and Asher fans are unlikely to be disappointed. On the other hand more roundly drawn characters with more nuanced (and credible) motives would, I believe, have made the book even more enjoyable.

Mark Bilsborough

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