(2008) Neal Asher, Tor (UK), £17.99, hrdbk, 339pp, ISBN 978-0-230-70925-6
Ten snapshots of life in the dangerous and bizarre worlds of Asher's polity. The short stories that make up this collection explore worlds both new and familiar, concepts that previously only appeared in passing, and characters who up until now may have only been bit-players. They are small scale adventures, but evidencing the violent action that is Asher's trademark, along with his occasional lashing of black humour. Collected together like this, it is easy to compare the content and pick up on the common threads. Asher's leanings are pretty much laid bare: monstrous aliens, freaky technologies (suitably revolting), kick-ass androids and cyborg babes, all lightly interspersed with ultra-violence.
On their own, the elements seem fairly standard SF fare, but in the short story, Asher seems to make them shine. The shorter form brings his strengths to the fore. The action is blunt, brutal and often final. The pace is brisk and rarely drags.
'Garp and Geronamid' and 'Snow in the Desert' are two typical examples: the first follows a journalist reporting on a crime-ridden planet's attempt to join the Polity; the second is the story of a near-immortal soldier whose genetic material is so highly sought after that he only attracts constant attention from the wrong sort of people. And Asher makes the weird just as wonderful. 'Choudapt' follows the efforts of an Earth Central Security Agent to cure a planet from a viral infection using the symbiotic 'doctor' mycelium inside him. His final, desperate solution to the problem is creative to say the least. 'Adaptogenic' relates the somewhat easygoing story of an antiques-hunter in search of a lucrative find, but has to resort to a disturbing measure when the trip turns out to be more life-threatening than he bargained for. The 'hits' in this collection are all gripping and imaginative stories, immensely gratifying thanks to expertly woven suspense, sheer thrills, or just plain out-and-out weirdness. Where the collection misses the mark, it tends to lack these. 'The Sea of Death' re-works the old sci-fi trope of archaeologists digging up the remains of an ancient race, only to find they're not as dead as they appear. Here I just did not find enough in the plot to enthral me, the resolution of it all harbouring few revelations. Similarly 'Acephalous Dreams' begins dramatically, but after its main character is given the choice of a death sentence or accepting the implantation of an alien memory node in his mind, we are introduced to the intriguing concept of accelerated evolution, but not a particularly eventful story
It is the 'gabbleduck', Asher's bizarre creation for which this collection bears its name, that is the unofficial star among these stories. Appearing in three stories, we discover a little more about its history, its nature and its possible future. Always an odd creature to feature so heavily, with a perverse fan following, Asher still keeps the creature's history surrounded in intrigue, and its appearances entertainingly tongue in cheek.
This is a fine collection of stories, but probably not the best introduction to Asher in itself, even though the strong selection does show him at his best. Fans will be happy to see these brought together, if only for the insights into Asher's growing Polity universe. For the rest of us, there is some very readable skiffy action to be had here.
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