The Voyage of the Sable Keech, by Neal Asher

9329581Neal Asher’s The Voyage of the Sable Keech raises an important question: how many extremely graphic episodes of giant whelk rape is too many? As the book conclusively demonstrates, the answer is: even one.

But, asks Asher — pursuing this intriguing line of thought — is it perhaps acceptable to recount a rapacious male whelk “extruding the long, tubular, glassy corkscrew of his penis” and using it to “grop[e] around between her organs” while the female uses her “four tentacles” “to snap harpoon shafts one after another” into the male’s surging body, if this climactic (so to speak) episode of alien-on-alien BDSM tentacle porn is preceded by endless chapters about the female whelk’s pointless pursuit of a ship? Again, The Voyage of the Sable Keech provides a conclusive answer: no way.

Yet consider this variation on the question, Asher cleverly posits. Add to the giant whelk’s meaningless story a hive mind avatar’s dorm-room obsession with “killing death”; a standoff between two space crabs that plays down their entertaining psychotic-ness in favor of some mechanical puzzles; and a wholly inert story about a reif-staffed cruise that is literally pointless because the ship slowly chugs its way to its destination no matter what happens on board — can an author miraculously transform an entire collection of such tedious narratives into a single compelling whole? Once again, the answer is proven beyond a shadow of a doubt: not even close.

And finally Asher poses the most vexing philosophical question at all. Suppose that in a previous book you had concocted an outrageously entertaining tale, filled with florid violence, outsized events, and larger-than-life characters; suppose that the best part of that book had been your ability to one-up every crazy idea page after page and give the reader every major confrontation that you had been teasing from the start; and suppose you took all of these amazing features away. What would be the result?

The Voyage of the Sable Keech: res ipsa loquitur.

★☆☆☆☆

The Skinner, by Neal Asher

240297Aw yeah, this book has everything! Vicious wildlife; invincible sea captains; undead cops; hive minds; psychotic space crabs; smart-alecky AIs; and of course blood, torture, and gore, courtesy of a twisted monster named the Skinner who ain’t just skinning apples.

When a science-fiction novel is this overstuffed, it either falls apart or becomes totally awesome, and fortunately Neal Asher’s The Skinner takes the latter course. The main character in the book is really the planet Spatterjay, which Asher fills with an incredible array of horrible creatures, starting with the omnipresent leeches that mindlessly extract plugs of flesh from any organic being. I fricking hate leeches (seriously, their mouths belong on hellspawn), and Asher’s loving descriptions of their voracity sent chills through me.

But leeches are only the beginning because Spatterjay also has razor-edged prill (basically lethal lobsters), predatory whelks, roadkill-like lungbirds, and the putrephallus tree, which looks and smells exactly as you’d expect from its ingenious name.

There are of course also humans, and if you’re wondering how fragile meat sacks like us survive in a world full of predators, the answer is a bizarre virus that pervades the planet’s ecosystem and, when introduced into humans, warps physiology so thoroughly that flesh regenerates upon being stripped and life extends basically indefinitely, with all of these effects growing the longer the virus lives in the system.

Incidentally, combine this fact with the Skinner’s favorite hobby, and you can see why that monster is so feared. And that’s not the end of the horrors that Asher inflicts on the essentially immortal humans on Spatterjay who have nonetheless not entirely lost their ability to feel pain. The greatest enemy in the book is not even the Skinner, as grotesque as it is, but the Prador, violent crab-like aliens who make a habit of enslaving other species by installing thrall units on their nervous systems. (To be fair, they also enslave their own kind.) The dark back story to this world is that in the early days of Spatterjay’s colonization, a group of heartless pirates used their virus-given strength to sell millions of people to the Prador, leading to an intergalactic war and immense, lurid suffering. The actual story of The Skinner (well, the main one at any rate) involves a cop who has been reincarnated into his rotting body with the sole purpose of finding and killing the last of these depraved pirates — joined (of course) by a human agent of a hornet hive mind and a two-century-old xenobiologist.

When I said the book was bursting with crazy ideas I was not playing!

Mostly though The Skinner is just fun. There’s of course the fun of discovering yet another of Asher’s outrageous ideas. But a lot of the fun comes from Asher’s willingness to let stuff hit the fan. Spatterjay is a dark world with a dark history, and every bit of its awfulness gets dredged up during the story. But although much of what Asher recounts is stomach-churningly macabre, it provides a context for great heroics and literally world-changing decisions, as well as some kick-ass battle sequences. And hey there are even two sequels! I’m as happy as a leech on a heirodont.

★★★★★

Wool, by Hugh Howey

wool-uk-cover-finalI’ve read up on the back story behind Hugh Howey’s Wool, and I feel great personal warmth toward the author and his tremendous ascent from the slush pile of self-publication to an actual publisher, rabid fans, and (I sincerely hope) material wealth, but the actual book at the center of this heart-lifting tale is terrible.

There are so many issues I’m not even sure where to begin, so let’s just say there are some big problems and some little problems, with the biggest big problem being the basic concept behind this book. I have no issues with the idea of a massive underground silo being built to house the survivors of some apocalypse. I can accept that the survivors might have a deep fascination with the outside world, even if their only view of that world is through a fuzzy video camera. I don’t even really have a problem with the idea that such a society would devote extremely scarce resources to maintain computer servers for a purpose that most of the population doesn’t know.

But here’s the really stupid idea (note that I’m about to spoil the first story). The principal purpose of these servers — their principal, super secret purpose — is to create a virtual reality program. That program is used in the helmets of hazmat suits worn outside the silo, displaying to the user a verdant scene of renewed life rather than a barren wasteland. The users of those suits are criminals or crazy people who have expressed the forbidden desire to leave the silo. And the point of the deceptive view is to trick those people into cleaning the lenses of the cameras that beam a view of the outside world to the silo’s residents.

Jesus, that idea sounds even stupider now that I’ve typed it out.

There are just a lot of things that don’t make sense about all this. Why are people so obsessed with these cameras? If the cameras are so important, why are only criminals or crazy people sent outside? And is it really the case that a deceptive virtual-reality program is the best use that people can imagine for super-powerful computers and a staggering amount of electricity?!

This is not even to mention that the point of this entire scheme is apparently to maintain social order. I’m afraid to even explain exactly how that’s supposed to work.

Pile onto this silly concept some terrible writing (including an excruciatingly extended passage about knitting) and an unconvincing love story (“I told my mom about you,” the male lead says dramatically at one pivotal moment) and you have a book whose big problems are only the beginning of its troubles.

Because there still remain the little problems, which I’ll address in a series of questions:

  • Where does this very resource-limited silo get manufactured products such as manila envelopes?
  • How can the silo’s mayor — essentially the president — have so much free time and so few responsibilities that she can spend days away from her office just interviewing people?
  • In the last story, is Juliette really going to abandon the people she found, at the very moment when they need serious medical care?
  • And why, in God’s name, doesn’t the silo have an elevator?!

★☆☆☆☆

Immobility, by Brian Evenson

12139894Brian Evenson’s Immobility is an odd little trifle of a novel that spends its whole time hinting at bigger and frankly more interesting ideas while telling an extremely straightforward story. The entire book is, in essence, a single fetch quest. The protagonist, Josef Horkai, wakes up from cryogenic storage without any memory of his past and is told to cross a toxic post-apocalyptic landscape to retrieve a mysterious red cylinder by whatever means necessary. He goes, he comes back, the book ends. Yawn.

Okay, there are a few added complications, starting with Horkai’s lower-body paralysis (hence the title of the book), but none of them really contribute much. I mean, what exactly was the point of Horkai’s immobility? As far as I could tell its only purpose was to give Horkai some companions on his quest, in the form of two bizarre clones named Qanik and Qatik who take turns carrying him. But couldn’t Evenson have introduced these companions while giving Horkai the use of his legs — perhaps Q/Q could have carried some vital equipment or something? More fundamentally, if you’re going to force the reader to spend half of the book on a seemingly endless trek through a barren wasteland, try not to make two of the only three characters idiot savants! They’re boring as hell! Although I’ll admit that Q/Q have a few good lines (“Never know when you’ll need a good head,” one of them says deadpan while storing away a recently severed specimen).

To the extent that the story has any interest, it’s all in the back story: What happened in the apocalypse? What is going on with the strange society that produced Q/Q? Is Horkai human or something stranger? And what exactly is in the red cylinder that he is trying to retrieve?

As much as I like mysterious settings, it is a pain to read a dull story whose sole merit is drip-by-drip exposition. What makes matters worse is that the book’s explanations are incomplete at best (for instance, we find out what is in the red cylinder, but not why Horkai is such a strange being), and not really that inventive. I mean, how many post-apocalyptic fictions involve small, stunted societies that have turned ever more macabre in their efforts to survive? Believe me: a lot. Immobility joins that crowd without standing out from it.

★★☆☆☆