Russell Letson Reviews The Human by Neal Asher

The Human, Neal Asher (Tor UK 978-1-509-86244-3, £18.99, 544pp, hc) April 2020. (Night Shade 978-1-950994-83-0, $26.99, 433 pp, hc) June 2020. Cover by Adam Burn.

I don’t know whether Neal Asher had figured out the nature of the ancient, alien, civilization-destroying Jain technology back when he introduced it in some of the early Polity-universe novels (The Line of Polity, Polity Agent), but he certainly has now. The Rise of the Jain sub-series has been revealing the history and nature of this menace, and that trio’s final volume, The Human, turns it into a central line that retrofits it into much of the Polity-series future and back into its galac­tic deep history. Of course, since these are Neal Asher novels, all that background has to compete with a foreground story full of outsize heroes and monsters, gigantic spacecraft, godlike artificial intelligences, and horrific large-scale and close-up combat sequences that result in expanding clouds of shrapnel and plasma and elementary particles or ichor splashed all over the walls.

Five million years after the mysterious Jain vanished from the galactic scene, surviving bits and pieces of their technology have been making life interesting for the Polity’s keepers of order by seducing the curious and the ambitious with pow­ers that eventually subvert and destroy the wielder. Two centuries after the war with the xenophobic, crablike prador, though, much larger and more dangerous manifestations have appeared – first a Jain super soldier (The Soldier), then a battleship (The Warship), and now finally swarms of Jain-stuff escaping from where it had been sequestered for millions of years in the accretion disk of a strange star. The enormously enhanced haiman (AI-boosted human) Orlandine has been in charge of keeping that Jain tech in and would-be exploiters out, but this outbreak threatens to overwhelm her sentinel forces on the nearby world of Jaskor. Nor is the Polity the only power wary of Jain infection. The king of the prador (now much transformed by the Spatterjay virus, for which see below) has sent a force under his senior captain Orlik (also Spatterjay-infected), and the mighty Earth Central AI itself eventually shows up to take a hand.

The story lines are multiple and tangled, fol­lowing the usual round of skirmishes, incursions, infestations, pragmatic alliances, internal cliff-hangers, set-piece battles, and general escalations of scale. The cast is large, including, in addition to Orlandine and Orlik: Cog and Trike, a pair of nearly indestructible “hoopers” from the red-in-tooth-and-nail world of Spatterjay; Gemmell, a senior Polity soldier detailed to help defend Jaskor; Diane Windemere, Polity fleet commander and captain and guiding co-intelligence of the 200-mile-across dreadnaught Cable Hogue; the Client, the sole survivor of a supposedly extinct species; plus various war drones, intelligent warcraft and battle platforms, and miscellaneous dire creatures natural or manufactured or spawned.

The first two books of this trio are named for each volume’s central Jain-entity antagonist. But the title of this one strikes me as deliberately ambiguous: is it a noun or an adjective? Are we to focus on one human character (and on which side would that human be playing?), or is it “the human something” – some trait, talent, essence, authentic character, esprit? I do not think I’m overthinking this, since several important cast mem­bers are human-plus-something-else. Of course, this has been an Asherian motif right along: heroes, villains, supporting cast, and even walk-ons in his work tend to feature (or suffer) upgrades, transformations, and re-inventions; whether via computational or nanotechnological physical enhancement; or from infection by the bizarre Spatterjay virus that turns humans into superhero-strong and tough “hoopers;” or by invasion or subversion – as by, say, seductive Jain technology that promises great power and ends by consuming its hosts.

Not that even the most ordinary Polity citizens are the bare, forked creatures we unaugmented 21st-century primitives are. Superhero-level physiological and mental/computational/com­munication add-ons are the rule, and lifetimes are so extended that a significant hazard is the “ennui barrier,” when boredom can lead to imprudent danger-seeking. But several of the central charac­ters here have gone far beyond mere enhancement, to the point where they face the possibility that their more-than-human physical and especially mental powers might eventually remove them from human-ness altogether. Orlandine started out on the extreme end of AI-boosted humanity and then added (theoretically) tamed Jain technology to her mix. In ramping up her efforts to defend Jaskor she keeps adding to her computational and physical assets, to the point where her original hu­man perspective becomes a tiny, almost forgotten fragment of her greater being. The young, half-mad hooper Trike undergoes a similar process, go­ing from mere near-indestructibility to fearsome, rampaging god-of-war status.

It’s not only the humans. Some of the preda­tory, xenophobic, utterly selfish prador have found themselves changed by the Spatterjay virus into creatures with interests and affinities and a mental/emotional flexibility quite, um, alien to the character of their unchanged cousins. Captain Orlik, for example, finds himself working with and depending on the captured Polity assassin drone Sprag (which had been designed specifically to kill prador in a decidedly nasty manner), and the pair wind up a bickering, buddy-movie odd couple.

Of course, transformation-unto-transcendence, which becomes transcendence-unto-self-destruc­tion, is exactly what Jain tech is designed to ac­complish. So the struggle is not simply with the Jain but with the temptation it presents, over and over, to those seduced by its promises. Beyond that parable of temptation and (literal) alienation, though, the situation and its unfolding also had me thinking of a gigantic, space-operatic version of Europe facing the Nazi war machine in the early 1940s, as well as (again) of those Marvel Cin­ematic Universe movies, which are, in large part, delivery systems for grand set-piece sequences of special-effects mayhem – though, to be sure, Asher’s prose equivalents are much smarter and better-thought-out.

And as with, say, Avengers: Endgame, I found this climactic series entry longer than it needs to be, with more blow-by-blow detail about indi­vidual battles and the imaginary super-science measures and counter-measures deployed by the opposing sides than is strictly required to tell the tale (and I realize that for some readers such detail is a feature rather than a bug). Nevertheless, out­side those passages, there is plenty of satisfaction in getting a full picture of the nature of the Jain, of the temptations inherent in the knowledge and power – the poisoned chalice – on offer from that entity. And as long-winded as this review is, and despite my occasional impatience, I tore through the book, assembling that big picture and gap­ing at the gaudy, exploding scenery along the way and wondering how the cast members were going to get past the latest cliff-hanger moment and whether the resolution was going to go as I suspected, thematically and dramatically. I declare myself satisfied and entertained and impressed.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud, Minnesota. He has been loitering around the SF world since childhood and been writing about it since his long-ago grad school days. In between, he published a good bit of business-technology and music journalism. He is still working on a book about Hawaiian slack key guitar.

This review and more like it in the May 2020 issue of Locus.

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