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.