Aw 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.