Neal Asher, The Warship (Tor, 2019, 480pp, £9.99)
Reviewed by Joseph S. Norman (Brunel University)
The Warship is the second in Neal Asher’s Rise of the Jain trilogy, an offshoot of his established Polity series, which focuses on the re-emergence of the titular alien civilization, alluded to in the earlier sequence. In the first book, The Soldier (2018), Asher lovingly describes the resurrection of an extraterrestrial super-soldier by the deeply scary and ancient Jain, long thought to have vanished, and attempts by the Polity (a pan-galactic human settlement run by AIs) to destroy it. The Warship picks up immediately from its predecessor, where the former enemies, the Polity and the Prador (an ultra-violent, crustacean-like alien race), combine forces in an uneasy truce to fight the Jain. While The Warship is a well-crafted and enjoyable read in many respects, and it will surely keep Asher’s fanbase very happy, I found it a tough slog and is certainly not the best introduction to his work.
Hard science and hard living underpin the Polity books. Asher’s vision is almost a Grimdark far-future, something akin to a more scientifically informed Warhammer 40,000 universe, where constant violence seems inevitable. The Polity, though, is a kind of capitalist utopia run by AIs, governments and large corporations, frequently compared to Iain M. Banks’s Culture books, and with some reason: there is something of Banks’s writing style in Asher’s sleek prose, especially the hard-sf-tinged Excession (1996) with its complex representation of AIs. Yet similarities between Asher and Banks largely end there. At the start of each chapter, Asher includes excerpts from fictional books, and these are sometimes amusing: ‘If you ask someone how many legs does a Prador have, the answer (besides ‘too many’) is usually ‘They’re decapods aren’t they?’ Yet Asher’s stories contain little Banks’s warm wit and zany humour. While Asher has no obligation to make his readers laugh, more light moments would not go amiss, and would make the grit and gore more startling as a result. Asher’s personal politics differ sharply from Banks’s common-sense socialism. It’s perhaps not entirely surprising that a writer of hard sf and space opera may dedicate his work to Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos ‘and all those other private sector lunatics with similar goals in mind. You go guys – ignore the naysayers!’ At the time of writing, Bezos has spent around $55 billion dollars to spend four minutes in space, funded by Amazon customers, and it’s difficult, if not impossible, to imagine how such radically selfish behaviour could lead to a positive tech-utopia. It may not entirely surprise readers to read Asher’s Twitter feed, which he has used to air scepticism of man-made climate change, transphobia and anti-lockdown sentiments. Such reactionary tendencies surely clash with a writer who supposedly advocates for the advancements of science.
You can’t completely separate the art from the artist, but that doesn’t mean that the artist’s politics always loom large in their work. Fortunately, Asher’s personal politics are seldom explicit in the Jain books, although presumably the corporations from which the Polity emerged are supposed to resemble the likes of Amazon, SpaceX and Virgin. Yet the scale and focus of The Warship mean that – unlike Asher’s earlier books – the Polity itself is not centre-stage, forming merely one of many active factions, and even those who do represent the Polity are far removed from all but remote contact with its AI hub, Earth Central. There’s also the nature of that grim universe: everything in The Warship has evolved in response to predation, conflict and violence, presumably necessitated by the supposedly inevitable forces of Social Darwinism and the bleak meaninglessness of life.
With The Soldier, Asher demonstrated how excellent his writing can be: the technological metamorphosis of the soldier is told using beautifully elegant and poetic prose, in which science and far-future speculation are entwined. In The Warship, if occasional passages of dense, techno-jargon pass by without comprehension or interest (‘a duct for power and data lines was a boon, since the superconductor and optics weren’t as efficient as they could be and their EMR offered cover’), it is instead subconsciously registered as a fluid universe-building technique. The gravitas in Asher’s prose makes the mix of real and imagined science feel right, cohesive, coherent, even if unverifiable. The key differences between the Jain books and Asher’s earlier novels are largely in the scale and point-of-view. While earlier books frequently follow Polity agents like the rock-hard-boiled Ian Cormac, the Jain books have no clearly delineated central protagonist: each chapter is split into sub-sections, focused on one of the ten or so regular characters, who receive roughly equal attention. Who are we routing for in the Jain books, then? It’s clearly not the destructive Jain. And while the answer is usually ‘the (post)humans’, the Polity has achieved a rough truce with the Prador, and Asher’s alien crustaceans (never call them crabs!) are less obviously evil in this series. But, in The Warship, this means it’s difficult to care that much about the fates of Asher’s characters. Orlandine, an AI-upgraded ‘haiman’, is the most important character given that she has the daunting responsibility of literally saving the universe from destruction, and she is the most relatable in human terms (even if she stopped being ‘human’ a long time ago).
One of the best aspects of The Warship, yet also something that makes it challenging to follow, is the range of different entities at play – humans, post-humans, various species of alien and AI – and the extent to which they are constantly being reborn, resurrected, rediscovered, reinvented, and hybridized. It’s often difficult to recall exactly which kind of entity you’re currently reading about, knowing that they are already on the brink of change. And Asher does, on the whole, do a good job of characterizing even the most opaque and baffling of creations. All three books in the series come with a Glossary and Cast of Characters, which helps a lot. Does the need for such supplementary material constitute a flaw in the writing? Shouldn’t good sf writing, no matter how epic in scale, provide all that is necessary for the reader to clearly follow the plot within the narrative itself? Technically yes, and yes. But this is hardly uncommon, and here, this extra material is largely for the benefit of those who have not read The Soldier. In theory, therefore, The Warship works as a stand-alone text, although it largely serves as a plot-thickener for the series, and the reader will benefit the most from reading the entire trilogy in order. There is a crucial moment halfway, though, which isn’t really a spoiler. A ship, trapped in U-space, is freed when a black hole hits an inactive star: ‘And that did not bode well for either the Polity or the Prador. What had just been released into their world?’ Here, it feels like the book really starts to take off, and I’m left wondering (as one often does in the current climate of publisher-pressured trilogies) if this series would not have made for a better, tighter read in one or two volumes.
While I disagree with Asher’s politics, they have not stopped me reading and enjoying his work so far. What I like best about The Warship is the beautifully Ovidian sense of both a natural universe and of technological cultures in a constant state of flux and metamorphosis: consciousness is transferable, matter is malleable. While Asher’s worldview seems founded upon the immutable, ‘Cold Equations’ of right-wing hard sf, the mutable universe of The Warship seems capable of egalitarian social change beyond the need for constant violence. If only Asher saw it the same way.