jueves, 29 de enero de 2015

Dark Intelligence, by Neal Asher

(Disclaimer: English is my second language, so I want to apologize in advance for there may be mistakes in the text below. If you find any, please let me know so that I can correct it. I'd really appreciate it. Thanks.)

Review Soundtrack: I suggest reading this review while listening to Dark Intelligence by Rozen (Spotify, YouTube).

Gridlinked is the only novel by Neal Asher that has been translated into Spanish so far. It was published by La Factoría de Ideas as Desconexión more than ten years ago and I remember borrowing it from my local library and reading it soon after that. I liked it, but I did not love it and I guess that made forget somehow about the author. Now that I've come to read Dark Intelligence I realize that it was a huge mistake on my part.

While reading Dark Intelligence I felt something similar to when I first met the work of Peter F. Hamilton and Alastair Reynolds. This is a superb novel and Asher has an amazing talent for world-building, for writing larger-than-life characters, for weaving gripping plots and for imagining exotic alien races and wonderful technologies. Huge ships! Big weapons! Space battles! Ground battles! Treason! Revenge! This is New Space Opera at its best.

Dark Intelligence is the first installment of series that has been aptly named Transformation. At the core of the stories of many of the characters of the book there are deep and drastic transformations. Some astonishing, some terrifying. Some unwanted, some searched for. And behind almost all those transformations we find Penny Royal, the mighty rogue AI. When confronted with this mysterious being you really must be careful what you wish for. Because it can make your dreams come true and then some. 

Penny Royal, as the Shrike in Hyperion, is the presence that permeates all the novel, but that we get to perceive only by its influence on the other characters. The similarities with Dan Simmon's book go even further, for Asher manages to create a perfect blend of science fiction and horror and an intriguing and multilayered plot with revolves around Penny Royal's unfathomable motivations. Even the preferred avatar of the AI, the giant black sea urchin made of blades, its detached cruelty and its godlike powers reminded me, in the best possible way, of The Lord of Pain.       

Dark Intelligence is an intense book which gives no pause to the reader. There are many different alternating points of view, flashbacks, plots and subplots, unexpected twists and surprises. New characters are introduced even when we are well into the book and some that seemed to be just secondary return, when least expected, to become main protagonists. The action never stops and the battle scenes are vivid, exciting and perfectly timed, providing satisfying resolution to a convoluted series of treason, persecutions and plans within plans.

But possibly the thing that I loved the most about Dark Intelligence was its world-building. Neal Asher has now published over a dozen books set in The Polity and it shows. This is an extremely rich universe with a lot of nuances, a multitude of races and factions and a fully developed history. There is also a panoply of different technologies, from the quantum to the biological, which interact in all sorts of ways, something that reminded me of the Boojum stories by Elizabeth Bear and Sarah Monette and, of course, of the Revelation Space universe by Alastair Reynolds.

Asher also has a clear fetish for impossibly big and powerful weapons, to a point where they verge on self-mockery. Judge, if you don't believe me, by the following fragment:
[Isobel] stopped to attach her speech synthesizer and then pulled a hover trunk out of storage and activated it. Into this went explosives ranging from those that could bring down a building, to antipersonnel grenades like the ones Trent had carried. She put in a rocket bundle: six armour-piercing missiles she could fire remotely from the trunk and mentally guide to their targets. Then, just for good measure, she added extra power supplies and reloads for her shoulder-mounted proton cannon and pulse-rifle. Anything else? Yes, there was something else and, just like the proton cannon, she found it still gleaming and unused. The mosquito autogun shrugged out of its packaging once she accessed and instructed it. Then, taking delicate steps, it walked over to the hover trunk and folded itself inside. That would have to do - there was no room for anything more.
But far from being a detriment from the overall enjoyment of the story, this contributes to the sense of wonder, especially because Asher really knows how to use his toys:
His particle beam stabbed out slowly through the seawater. It created a growing glassy tube where seawater turned to superheated steam, then ionized hydrogen, oxygen and ozone and smashed other elements to radioactive isotopes. The tube held for a few seconds before turning into a boiling explosion that simply wiped out the view in that direction.  
Throughout all Dark Intelligence there are many references to previous novels of The Polity, but everything is clearly explained and the book can be read and understood without previous knowledge of that universe (although I guess that readers previously acquainted with Asher's ouvré will get even more enjoyment from it). In any case, it has made me look forward to going back and reading all those other novels, for they seem really amazing.

The novel, of course, also has some problems. Asher's prose doesn't exactly flow, if you know what I mean. Add a complex structure, with many different things going on at the same time, and the result is a book that is, sometimes, quite demanding to read. Also, none of the characters is really likable or sympathetic and the technology is a bit over-the-top, something that can be annoying to some readers. To me, however, these were very minor issues and easily forgivable given the overall quality of the book.

I really had a blast reading this novel and I cannot recommend it highly enough, especially to Space Opera fans. In fact, there is a simple rule to tell if you should read Dark Intelligence. Take a look at the cover (astonishing work by Jon Sullivan, by the way). Do you like it? Then, you'll love the content. I certainly did. I know that it is very early in the year yet and that we are expecting some major releases, but it will be tough to beat Dark Intelligence as one of my favorite reads of 2015. I can't hardly wait to read the next one in the series.

(You can also read this review in Spanish/También puedes leer esta reseña en español)

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