Fiction Reviews

Shadow of the Scorpion

(2008) Neil Asher, Tor, £17.99, hrdbk, 296 pp, ISBN 978-0-230-73859-1

Neil Asher's Shadow of the Scorpion is billed as 'An agent Cormac novel', the sixth in the series, but it is a prequel, alternating episodes from the character's childhood with his initial recruitment from Earth Central Security into its intelligence agency (apparently unnamed, even in the 'Runcible Universe Background Taster', which I found on the web). Cormac has big gaps in his memory, erased at his mother's behest, and eventually he finds out why. Presumably the gaps, and the eventual discovery, have long-term psychological effects, and the purpose of the novel is to explain them – in which case regular readers may get more from this novel than I did as a first-time reader.

The background to both event sequences is an ongoing war between the Polity of humanity and the Prador, who are arthropoids with whom no accommodation is possible. Their life-cycle involves cannibalising their own siblings, so they can hardly be expected to recognise any moral rights of other intelligent beings (Kantian 'rational agents') such as ourselves. One of the novel’s more effective techniques is the gradual revelation of the scale of the Pradors' operation: the human inhabitants of whole planets have been enslaved to be harvested for food, and it’s routine to remove and replace large parts of the central nervous system to make captive humans into passive victims or cannon-fodder.

So far, strong echoes of Starship Troopers, but this version of humanity at war has a resistance movement, the Separatists, whose ultimate aim is to free mankind from dominance by Artificial Intelligences, but have been corrupted into organised crime, routinely use torture, and in this instance are after nuclear warheads from a downed Prador warship, to no good purpose. Neal Asher is British and parallels with the IRA are obvious, but I wonder how this plays with US readers, for whom the rebels are usually supposed to be the good guys?

It is not clear how well the Separatists understand the nature and scale of the Prador threat. Even Cormac, briefing himself for his first front-line assignment, concludes from low-security military information that 'The Polity, apparently, was not to be trusted and the Prador were not as bad as portrayed', whereas in fact they are a great deal worse. The Separatist movement apparently began in the Solar System to counter dominance by Earth, but now has a presence on many planets and has infiltrated the ECS. If they know how big the danger is, do they think these worlds can stand alone against the Prador? Is the AI-ruled Polity so repressive that the Separatists feel compelled to break it up regardless? Does the Polity regard the danger as so great that any internal dissent must be crushed, as presumably it would be in Starship Troopers, and if so, is the corruption of the Separatist ideal the result of that internal repression?

I tried to find some answers to these questions by looking up the other Cormac novels on the web, but as far as I went, all I could find were action summaries and articles about the technology, which makes me wonder if this canon is just a sophisticated shoot-em-up. There is lots of action in this novel, and lots of technology, but there are places where they conflict. Here for instance is Cormac, posing as a defector to the Separatists, leading their top people on the planet Hagren into a trap, as they try to retrieve nuclear warheads from the Prador wreck, within which some of the flesh-eaters are still alive and by whom he has been attacked on his previous visit.

"Eventually the platform jerked to a halt beside a metre-wide circular port in the hull. Stretching inwards, evenly spaced around this port, were eight cross-section rails, their inner faces micro-ridged all the way down with doped superconductors. Coolant pipes, s-con cables and various control systems ran through the jacket enclosing all this. It would have been impossible to enter had not a hole been cut through the base of the port. Cormac eyed the ladder, expoxied in place there and stretching down into darkness, took out his torch and turned it on, then climbed down.

"The ladder got them into a chamber over five hundred feet long, with the rail-gun sitting above them like a fallen redwood. To one side lay the magazines and related mechanisms: a belt feed still linked with one-ton iron-and-ceramic projectiles, whose impact energy when fired by this thing delivered the destructive potential that in the past had been reserved for nuclear weapons. Two more torches came on, their beams stabbing here and there about the interior…"

Not only does this scene lack tension, it has no place in the plot: these huge chambers are not where the trap has been set, nor where the Prador attack is going to disrupt it. There are lots of descriptive passages like this, and they focus on machines, not people. The back cover reads, “Neal doesn’t just do combat droids; he does razor-edged combat droids with attitude”, and sure enough one of those haunts Cormac throughout the book, impelled by a sense of moral duty which is not explained until the end. As far as I can see, it’s the only character in the book which has one.

Duncan Lunan

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