Russell Letson Reviews Lockdown Tales by Neal Asher

Lockdown Tales, Neal Asher (NewCon 978-1-912950-75-1, £12.95, 381pp, tp) December 2020. Cover by Vincent Sammy.

We live in monstrous times. Nevertheless, I sometimes find myself wanting not to escape but to symbolically confront the plagues of cruelty, craziness, and consequences (unintended or otherwise) that the last century (or the last week) has visited upon us. Neal Asher’s confrontations tend to distance and displace the monstrous, to locate it in a future far enough away to have solved most of the problems that bedevil us now. His Polity setting, like Iain M. Banks’s Culture, imagines a material utopia where scarcity is banished and the burden of rational self-governance has been offloaded onto presumably-wiser artificial intel­ligences. The universe beyond the Polity remains a savage environment, though, as inter-species interstellar war and the irruption of artifacts and survivors of much more ancient conflicts make clear. And even within the bubble of Polity civiliza­tion, mankind remains potentially vile. Outside that bubble, all bets are off.

Asher’s new collection, Lockdown Tales, is, as the title suggests and the author’s introduction con­firms, the result of a chunk of time made available by the pandemic-related narrowing of activities (“What else was there to do besides get some exercise and do a bit of shopping?”), as well as a sense that it was time to produce some shorter work. The stories proved to be not-so-short, though, so this volume consists of a half-dozen novella-length pieces. All belong to the Polity universe, with two counting as post-Polity stories, set in “a time when the Polity has collapsed or in some manner moved on,” when “the dregs and ruins of the Polity remain because, well, stuff gets abandoned.”

The lead story, “The Relict”, is one such, and the titular item is uncovered by Cheever, a professional scavenger who is not what he seems. While Cheever works to unearth what is clearly some potent aban­doned Polity hardware, we also get a picture of a left-behind colony world that is repeating a pattern familiar from terrestrial history: a grinding, stale­mated global war of attrition that has strong echoes of our two (so far) world wars, with a foreseeable outcome: “biotech and fissile weapons, [a] perfect storm putting them back into the Stone Age.” Need­less to say, the ancient technology Cheever digs up brings big changes, though not quite what optimistic readers might have anticipated.

“Plenty” takes place on another long-abandoned colony world, where the sole survivor of a spaceship crash is stuck in the Robinson Crusoe role and, worse yet, in basic-human physical condition – aging and fragile – since his post-human enhancements have broken down or worn out over the years. He has survived by salvaging components from his wrecked lander and by harvesting the food and the miscella­neous devices produced by gone-wild bioengineered “podules” that grow everywhere. There are, of course, exotic predators that hunt him (and are in turn hunted by him) and one especially frightening monster at large, but a completely unexpected find from the before-times turns his situation around and takes the story to places Crusoe would not have recognized, and that perhaps not even experienced Asher fans might have predicted.

The stories are studded with general and specific echoes of earlier work: the quirky, independent war drone Amistad and the deranged rogue AI warcraft Penny Royal make crucial appearances, as do rep­resentatives of the predation-intense Spatterjay and Masada ecosystems. In “Bad Boy”, a xenobiologist works at unpicking a scientific puzzle while on the run from a variety of Spatterjay fauna, especially the rampaging, hillock-size predatory whelk of the title. He also has to watch out for his local guide, a nearly-indestructible Old Captain who is struggling to keep the planet’s ruling virus from overwhelming his body and mind and making him into a monster – but mon­sters are not always or only what they at first seem.

Nor are all the monsters alien-human outlaws, outsiders, and outliers can be impressively nasty. In “Monitor Logan” (which deliberately echoes High Plains Drifter), a sadistic crime boss and slaver, Trader John, is pursued by a relentless and unfor­giving lawman. The story also serves as a reminder that the Polity can be pretty hard-nosed when it’s not being utopian, as witnessed by the Monitor’s indif­ference to the fates of a whole town where everyone is seen as implicated in the corruption, slavery, and exploitation that enables a crooked economy.

The possibility of monstrous transformation lurks everywhere in Asher’s universe. Sometimes it is self-inflicted, as in the over-the-top boostings and aug­mentations indulged in by the likes of Trader John:

He looked like he wore armour under his loose white shirt and slacks, but that was the carapace of the arthrodapt. His bald head sported saurian ridges running from front to back, while mandibles folded out to reveal his human mouth.

Then there are the ironic gifts of Penny Royal, who has the godlike power to grant wishes, but rarely in ways that the wisher expects. Penny Royal looks into the heart of the protagonist of “Dr. Whip” and (without the usual explicit re­quest) reshapes him into a perfect healer. The path to the doctor’s apotheosis, though, is strewn with pathologies that start with a gory plague and run through the private hell of Snyder Clamp, who has created a realm of torture and death and then “de­liberately wrought” on himself “the shutdown of life-maintaining nanotechnology so he could suffer numerous STDs, the syphilis eating his brain, the physiological imbalances resulting in obesity….” Eventually, the doctor finds his way to the home address of Penny Royal, whose “grotesque sense of humor and… utter disregard for suffering” do not make human sense.

“Raising Moloch” revisits a character type familiar from several of the earlier Polity novels: the Faustian seeker after dangerous knowledge. In this case, Jonas Clyde’s combination of scientific curiosity and the “ennui barrier” phenomenon (which drives very long-lived, very bored humans to engage in mortally risky behavior) leads him to a remarkably imprudent project: overseeing the gestation of an example of Masada’s apex preda­tor, a hooder. Clyde has come into possession of some secret data about the hooder genome and has the bad judgment to take a job offer from a crime lord who sees both an entertainment and a business opportunity in raising a hooder in captivity. Clyde soon realizes that taking the gig was a mistake but is dissuaded from resigning by the boss’s robotic Doctor Giggles (who flays and then heals him as an incentive). Eventually everybody comes to see what a bad idea hooder-raising is, which gives us another piece of this universe’s deep back-story, along with a spectacularly destructive climactic sequence.

The book’s introduction and the story headers offer welcome autobiographical snippets, inspi­rations, models, and glimpses of the inventive process–appropriate answers to “What did you do on your pandemic vacation” and “Where do you get your crazy ideas?” (For example, the world of Spatterjay had its origin in a nightmare.) But the stories themselves, gore and torture and madness and all, are the real reward–daylight nightmares that make the 24-hour news cycle almost tame enough to be bearable.

Russell Letson, Contributing Editor, is a not-quite-retired freelance writer living in St. Cloud MN. 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 January 2021 issue of Locus.

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