Neal 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.