Russell Letson Reviews Jack Four by Neal Asher
Jack Four, Neal Asher (Tor UK 978-1529049978, £20.00, 448pp, hc) June 2021. Cover by Steve Stone.
One of Neal Asher’s specialties is monsters (though not of the cute sort), and the new Polity novel, Jack Four, is all monsters, all the time. It starts with brutal mercenaries and their alien customers and works its way up through nearly indestructible mutated alien warriors and their transformed sort-of-human shock troops, to natural predatory fauna, to biomechanical war machines from the deep galactic past. Even the protagonist, who starts out as one of the most vulnerable creatures in the cast, is pretty scary, though his scary side emerges only gradually.
The monstrous entities mentioned above are only a few that have featured in the 18 novels and three collections that make up the sprawling Polity future history. The sheer volume of backstory might be a barrier for those who are coming to the series fresh, but for those unfamiliar with the galactic menagerie that makes Asher’s universe so busy and dangerous, the book provides a Glossary right up front, wherein are described a few of the essential beasties and some of the background that accounts for them. The prador are smart, ruthless, xenophobic, and very aggressive, now in an uneasy truce with humankind after a nasty war with the human Polity. Scattered all across our neck of the galaxy are the remnants and revenants of even nastier ancient conflicts: devolved creatures, evolved bioweapons, naturally-evolved garden- or jungle-variety predators, and the omnipresent, immortal, and strangely sentient Jain technology that has been subverting and wrecking star-spanning civilizations for millions of years. Of particular significance is the Spatterjay virus, an engineered pathogen that transforms whatever it infects into voracious survival machines – though it can be controlled and its effects harnessed, which is one of the matters that drives the story of Jack Four.
The novel’s namesake and narrator is a clone – the fourth of 15, thus his identifier – who comes to awareness as he and the rest of his batch are being prepared, under neural-implant control, for some nasty work involving rogue traders, prador, and the Spatterjay virus. He knows his name, but he has no personal recollections, though bits of basic knowledge keep bubbling up.
Images rose in my mind of soldiers standing in a row, and marching. Associations blossomed through my consciousness, including positions in organizations and societies, the relative importance of individuals and the smell of something foul…. Self-awareness of my human body and its constituents came upon me then – bones and organs and muscles. A positioning instruction fell into my mind and I walked unsteadily to my assigned place amidst the rest. I had a number and it was four; I knew the numbers of the others too and where I should be.
The other clones seem to lack Jack Four’s self-awareness and limited mental freedom, and the riddle of his exceptional status is the first of a series of puzzles, challenges, and hazards Jack overcomes in his pursuit of escape and eventual revenge.
There is more than a whiff of a role-playing game scenario here, as Jack must watch for clues, gather resources, and make his way through mysterious and deadly environments, each stage dumping him into the next set of dangers. It makes for a one-damn-thing-after-another plot, but the damn-things are gaudy and violent and energetic: hiding out in the ductwork of a gigantic prador vessel, dodging both crew and the “ship lice” deployed to scavenge the premises clean; surviving a crash-landing on a planet that has been a dumping-ground for all manner of off-world predatory fauna; being pursued by the minions of his one-time prador captor; and eventually taking part in an extended, multi-sided Grand-Guignol running chase-battle through a fifty-mile-across orbital habitat.
Through all this, Jack is tough and gets tougher, and (as his mind gradually reintegrates) it’s clear that there is a personal and professional history that will explain how all the parts fit together. But the book’s through-line remains the relentless piling-on of pursuers, opponents, hazards, barriers, and near-death experiences in bizarre environments. Along the way, we also get additional glimpses into the nature of prador, of the Polity, and even a look at how a future bathroom operates. And a warning: there are also scenes of carnage, dismemberment, torture, and massacre that are harrowing even by the standards set by previous Asher adventures. Jack is on the receiving end of much of it, so the up-close-and-personal aspect is magnified.
Despite scenery that dwarfs individual humans (or even prador), this makes for a narrowing of scope compared to, say, the recent Transformation or Rise of the Jain sequences, which can fairly be characterized as space operas. Jack Four has more in common with several of the stories in the Lockdown Tales collection, particularly the Robinson-Crusoe shipwreck-survival pattern of “Plenty”. Even in a giant starship or orbital habitat or trekking across a planetary landscape, it’s often just Jack and his pursuers or tormenters (though there is eventually an unexpected ally), or even Jack hunkered down in some hiding-place, rummaging through his own mind for answers: one truncated personality pursued by real demons. This is the territory of classic pursuit thrillers – Rogue Male or First Blood with inhuman monsters, along with a few from our own species, and not necessarily excluding the protagonist.
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 August 2021 issue of Locus.
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