Orbus, by Neal Asher

8721074With Orbus, the Spatterjay trilogy ends up so far from its thrilling beginning that this last book might as well be from a different series altogether. What made the original book so great was that it pitted fragile humans against horrible creatures on a planet full of freaks. Orbus, though, takes place entirely off that planet and removes the human element altogether. What’s left are the horrible creatures, who are left to duke it out in spaaaace.

Actually I’m getting ahead of myself because the duking doesn’t even start until the second half of the book. The first half — good god, but it crawls. Essentially Asher spends a few hundred pages getting all of his characters to the same place: the DMZ between the Prador (psychotic space crabs) and humanity. As I hinted at above, all of his characters are disgusting, from good old mutated Vrell, to the equally grotesque Prador king, to the Golgoloth, who rather unbelievably ups the ante on Prador insanity. (He raises little crablets for the sole purpose of harvesting their limbs and organs.) For a while I thought the sadomasochistic Old Captain Orbus might be the only feeling member of this circus, but no — as Asher reminds us in graphic detail, the poor man once carved up and ate a child while he was in Prador captivity.

After a lot of pointless maneuvering, the war between all of these miscreants becomes well and truly joined, but then Asher feels the need to introduce another element (SPOILER ALERT!): apparently the Spatterjay virus actually hides an aggressive nanomachine civilization called the Jain that decides this is the time to come out and play. What the duck?! Putting aside the fact that some of my best friends are Jains, so it’s weird to see a galaxy-swarming machine intelligence with their name, there had been zero hint of this lurking threat in the first two books of this trilogy. I mean, yes, the Spatterjay virus has been badass, but for other reasons that Asher has apparently forgotten.

Granted the resulting monster fight is not too bad (though Alastair Reynolds did a better job with a nearly identical enemy in his Revelation Space series). My problem is that it’s not what I was looking for in this book. Is Orbus unreadable? No. Is its story terrible? No. But Asher commits the cardinal sin of ignoring what was so great about his original idea, leaving us with…this.

★★☆☆☆

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.

★★★★★