Brass Man

Brass Man
Neal Asher

Brass Man is the third volume in Asher’s Polity series, following Gridlinked and Line of Polity. I have read, but not reviewed, both. I suppose that each book is technically stand alone, but they are best enjoyed in sequence. Brass Man in particular feels like the second half of a duology, continuing several story threads from Line of Polity. Things are fully continuous however, as this volume’s namesake is a holdover from Gridlinked and made no appearance in the second book. Brass Man being the middle book of a fairly popular series, I’m going to assume that most people landing on this post are already Asher fans and familiar with The Polity. (The alternative is to be wildly confused for the first hundred pages or so; I would be rather surprised if many people stayed with the book long enough to make sense of what they would have learned reading in chronological order.) Based on this assumption, I will structure this review a bit differently than normal, starting with my reactions and conclusions before highlighting some aspects of Asher’s writing that deserve a deeper look.

Like I said, anyone who has either read, or is considering reading, Brass Man is probably already a Polity fan. Praise or criticism would no doubt fall on deaf ears, so let us just say that this is my favorite Asher book thus far. He has a better command of his plots and characters than before, and is writing with greater precision and clarity. My biggest complaint with Gridlinked was the somewhat disjointed narrative arc; things happened that weren’t necessarily crucial, or even related, and Asher toyed with a few ideas early on that were left by the wayside, not as red herrings, but simply as dangling plot threads. In Brass Man, there is little fat. The story is complex and multilayered, but I didn’t get the sense that it was threatening to careen off the rails. He has maintained the dark, glittery edge that made the initial Polity books fun, but sanded off the rough edges that snagged once in awhile. To anyone who hasn’t read these and is curious, start with Gridlinked but please know that most of its shortcomings are remedied by the time Brass Man arrives.

Asher is part of the UK invasion crew that dominates contemporary space opera. Like most of them, he owes a debt to Iain M. Banks, Asher perhaps more than most. His Polity is a clear descendant of the Culture, though where Banks laces his future with utopian whimsy, Asher takes a darker path. This is because more than any of his countrymen save Richard Morgan, Asher has internalized the cyberpunk aesthetic. Not so much with hacking and mirror shades, but the hard-boiled, noir atmosphere in a stellar empire is a perfect 21st Century construct. This is a future that has maintained its shadowy sides despite the high technology. The hero Ian Cormac deserves to be played by a science fictional Bogart, beset by diabolical villains and dangerous seductresses. (I’m not sure what Bogart would make of AI, aliens, or near sentient shuriken, but that is a quibble for another time.)

Other motifs emerge as Brass Man proceeds. Asher places the bulk of his action on the frontier, in this case called The Line of Polity, figuring that life is pretty drab inside a stable, AI-run commonwealth. This reminds one of Banks of course, but they are hardly the only authors that choose the wild outlands to anchor their SF. Even with all the options presented by a galactic frontier, Asher shows a clear predilection for inhospitable planets, especially those with horrifying wildlife. I hope to never be reborn as a Neal Asher character, since the chances of me being devoured, dissolved, dismembered, or simply squashed by the native fauna seem prohibitively high. More conventional death is also abundant, but the animals are scarier than the terrorists.

Brass Man is not for those looking for profound meditations of the human condition. Instead, it is a festively violent, far future, slam bang action thriller, full of nefarious villains, imaginative technology, scary wildlife, and a hard boiled hero. Asher’s writing improves with each book, so I am looking forward to Ian Cormac’s next adventure.

Rating: Leeds United, circa 1974: Championship caliber material and lots of gruesome violence.

Death Sentences

Death Sentences
Kawamata Chiaki

I learned about Death Sentences from an article I now cannot find, a shame because it discussed the story surrounding the book’s translation and early efforts to get Japanese SF into English markets. The publisher, the University of Minnesota Press, isn’t the first place I look for Japanese SF, so this was completely off my radar until I read the now lost article. (It also provided a good overview of the books available in English and where to find them; this is where I first heard about Vertical Press.) I’m sure the publication hurdles were considerable, but Kawamata’s book is certainly deserving of a wider audience. It picked up all of Japan’s major awards in 1984 and Kawamata still has fingers in many Japanese genre pies.

Death Sentences is what might happen if The Ring was co-written by Umberto Eco and Phillip K. Dick. The story chases after a poem that leaves dead bodies in its wake (the power of words!), twisting and turning throughout the Surrealist period of the early 20th Century, 1980s Japan, a Gibson-esque dystopian Japan of the near future (paranoia!), and, briefly, Mars (science fiction!). It is a dizzying narrative, but all related in efficient, matter of fact prose, as though a poem written in France by a mysterious kid named Hu Mei that drives its readers into a fatal, dream-like trance is a perfectly normal turn of events.

This is the kind of book where individual mileage will no doubt vary greatly. I found the premise thought provoking, but I don’t really remember the characters. They were nice enough people I guess, but names and details now escape me. Those more educated about philosophy and literature will probably enjoy certain parts of the book more than I did, as Kawamata appropriates several Surrealists as characters, while name checking many others. As I understand it, those people killed by Hu Mei’s poem die on the same day and under the same circumstances as they did in real life; no doubt a fun game for anyone tuned into the Surrealist Movement. There is another character late in the book that Kawamata uses to show his disdain for a particular writer, but I didn’t realize that until reading an accompanying essay afterwards. These sorts of games, as well as the fact that a poem is the killer, remind me of Eco and figure to amuse astute readers.

I initially expected the focus to be on the near-future dystopia, as the book is billed as a relative of the cyberpunk emerging at the same time. Instead, a lot of attention is paid to the 1980s narrative track, wherein the employees of a small press in Tokyo prepare an exhibition for a department store that unleashes Hu Mei’s poem on an unsuspecting Japan. This, and the personal details that unfold, rather betrays the promise of poetic mayhem. On the other hand, what better counterpoint for a grim police state than nerd romance centered on obscure scholarship? The twists at the end also caught me off guard, though I liked the final solution. I do detect a whiff of, “now how do I get myself out of this?” as the plot starts to wind down, apparent in the slightly disjointed feel of the last two sections.

Death Sentences gets credit for being different, or at least for combining familiar elements in an unfamiliar way. It’s the kind of book I would give to a literature type who is willing to try SF, or a jaded reader tired of big mysterious objects, first contact, and the like. I enjoyed the book, despite its imperfections, and while it isn’t my favorite Japanese SF, I hope it gets a wide recognition.

Rating: The dystopian parts of the book remind me of the North Korean soccer team.