I did not feel bad about what I had done. The priest had been a man who had probably tortured many people to death in the name of a god whose doctrines were supposed to be of peace and love, and respect for life. I went out onto the rock, picked up his rifle, and turned away. I felt nothing at all.
Neal Asher’s name is one that I have heard before, but I cannot pin down anything specific I may know about him. He is clearly a science fiction writer, one with ambitions that go beyond cyber-fetishism or mediocre aping of the New Weird set such as China Mieville. In fact just today on the train home from Sydney, a fellow was sitting beside me reading another of Asher’s books, Gridlinked. It appears I have been remiss in my sf studies.
In the far future humanity has fled Europe in the wake of new ice age. The arctic shelf drove their migration to the great continent of Africa. Earth itself has been left behind by the human race, having discovered space travel and setting about colonising other worlds. Those roaming the wild landscape of Africa are the unfortunate few abandoned by their fellow man. Worse again, the decision was made to cull the human race, to ensure its population growth would not overwhelm the sole remaining continent fit to support life. Vicious creatures from selected periods in Earth’s history were introduced into the wild. Woolly mammoths roam the prairie and even genetically modified humans have been created, such as the Great African Vampire. The individual responsible for this is a mythical figure, more machine than man known as The Collector.
The Collector wears human flesh, but beneath the surface ‘he’, has only a brain to remind him of what he once was. Over thousands of years old, he has guided and controlled the destiny of the surviving tribes of humans left on Earth, cataloguing the new species of creatures that have evolved thanks to his meddling. He feels little but contempt for humans themselves and only intervenes if the possibility of extinction rears its head. However, despite his self-appointed position as judge and executioner of the human race, there is another like him roaming the wild. A creature referred to only as the Silver One. It has begun hunting mammoth to draw him into a trap that may end his centuries-long existence on this decimated Earth. Despite knowing this, the Collector heads off in pursuit of the Silver One, perhaps even curious at meeting the possibility of his own non-existence.
The chase between the Collector and the Silver One at one point began to tickle a memory at the back of my brain. It took me a few chapters to realize Asher is attempting what appears to be an exploration of Mary Shelley’s themes from Frankenstein. Here we have a man-made machine seeing fit to judge humanity’s right to survive, a being of pure intellect who has escaped the mortal bounds of flesh. There’s some Terminator thrown in there as well for modern sf fans. Asher also includes a degraded version of Christian fundamentalism, the depraved worship of the so-called Drowned God. The Wachowski Brothers wrote a comic some years ago that pitted Frankenstein’s Monster against a similarly tyrannical version of the Church, titled Doc Frankenstein.
So there is some fun to be had here, picking up on references to Shelley’s work, as well as some musing on Asher’s part as to the consequences of interfering with the human genome. However, the themes of religious fundamentalism versus scientific inquiry hit the reader like a sledge-hammer. The ending dissolves in a hi-tech blood bath above the Earth’s surface and the immortality of the Collector himself renders his conflict with the gun-toting fundamentalists somewhat moot. The action also veers wildly across centuries, pushing the narrative further and further into the strange future history of this depraved Earth.
Overall I found this to be an interesting novel, but not a wholly satisfying one.