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This is a fourth book set in the Polity and it features Agent Cormac and some other characters known from previous instalments. It's not part of a saga, though, and it's perfectly readable as a stand alone, as enough explanation (in fact, perhaps even bit too much, as it often is the case with s-f books) is provided.
Jain nodes, a lethal nanotechnology designed to destroy civilisations is rearing its ugly head again in the Polity. Who is distributing the nodes? What do they have to do with the giant biotechnology construct called Dragon produced by the Makers' civilisation, itself destroyed by Jain tech 800 years in the future? And what exactly is the mysterious entity calling itself the Legate representative of?
Agent Cormac, Sparkind special forces members and various researchers and AIs combine forces to find answers to these questions and possibly save the Polity from destruction. Meanwhile, a haiman (a human highly augmented with AI) Orlandine engages in a careful research on the Jain node she has in her possession - will she manage to control and harness its power or will it subsume and destroy her?
Even from this brief plot teaser you can see that with Polity Agent we are firmly in the realm of high-tech space opera: interstellar travel through U-space, anti-gravity transport, spaceship battles, anti-matter guns, violent annihilation of whole planets. On top of this we have a good dose of post cyber-punk motifs including benign ruling AIs, humans augmented with electronics, Virtual Reality, mighty information gridlinks and memcrystals.
Add genetic modification, bio-machines and a powerful nanotechnology that breeds like a combination of biological and information virus and you have an author that clearly knows his stuff and confidently uses the whole techno-science-fiction toolkit.
All of this is combined quite well into a consistent and believable world which to me strongly resembles Banks's Culture; though Polity is of somehow more obviously harsh and warlike, masculine character. There is an acknowledgement of Asher's debt to Banks though it only mentions drones; but the book also owes a lot to the cyberpunk tradition - in fact the cover of Polity Agent reminded me instantly of the UK cover of Neuromancer.
It's all there, and by all accounts Polity Agent should be, if not exactly inspiring, then at least fun. However, this novel fails on the main criterion of genre fiction. It is rather boring, despite all those plot strands and characters and fireworks of undoubted technical inventiveness. I could put it down pretty easily and I felt no compulsion to take it everywhere with me, as a true page-turner would induce. In fact I stopped reading Polity Agent for a day to read something else.
It's not that I don't like science-fiction, or even space-opera as such. But there was something unsatisfying about Polity Agent: it had a rich and complex plot, a decent world, great mean warships, and all those little gizmos, widgets and creatures that make for a fresh s-f setting. I particularly liked the haimen and their ultimate aim of attaining an AI/human synergy and Horace Blegg the immortal survivor of Hiroshima.
It even, in passing, asks some important questions: what it is to be human and what would be an improvement on human without losing essential humanity.
But ultimately, it's a SAS-style novel, in which secret agents, super-fighter dracomen, war drones, Earth Central Security AIs and terrorists take central stage.
The writing itself is not that bad. There is certain clunkiness (people don things all the time instead of putting them on, frigid is overused in its meaning of very cold) and an occasional anachronism (glare of an arc welder is not exactly fitting with this space age world) but it's not worse, in fact it's probably slightly above average of genre fiction.
The psychology is either very shallow or non-existent, with female characters being perhaps bit more developed, but generally Polity Agent doesn't excel in depicting the emotional or intellectual life of its characters. It's not a big problem, but it adds to a vaguely plastic feel the whole novel has.
The biggest obstacle on my way to truly enjoy Polity Agent was probably the fact that it had too much of some things and too little of others. Too much of semi-comprehensible futuristic technical description of hardware and too many not particularly memorable renderings of battles. And too little of anything to do with social aspects of the world Asher is writing about, which for me are the main attraction of science-fiction.
Combined with characters I don't particularly care about, apart from maybe the haiman murderess Orlandine, this made for a very underwhelming read.
I don't particularly regret reading Polity Agent, and I could possibly imagine reading another Polity novel some time in the future, but I don't think my life would have been any poorer if I missed it completely. I would leave this one for library borrowing by s-f readers, unless you are a confirmed Asher fan or really like SAS-type space opera. Others, read Iain M. Banks instead.
Hardback: 496 pages
Publisher: Tor (6 Oct 2006)
£8.99 from Amazon.
This review was originally published on www.thebookbag.co.uk
From 800 years in the future, a runcible gate is opened into the Polity and those coming through it have been sent specially to take the alien 'Maker' back to its home civilization in the Small Magellanic cloud. Once these refugees are safely through, the gate itself is rapidly shut down - because something alien is pursuing them. The gate is then dumped into a nearby sun. From those refugees who get through, agent Cormac learns that the Maker civilization has been destroyed by pernicious virus known as the Jain technology. This, of course, raised questions: why was Dragon, a massive biocontruct of the Makers, really sent to the Polity; why did a Jain node suddenly end up in the hands of someone who could do the most damage with it? Meanwhile an entity called the Legate is distributing pernicious Jain nodes ...and a renegade attack ship, The King of Hearts, has encountered something very nasty outside the Polity itself.