Neal Asher, Brass Man (Tor UK, 2005)
Here at the Green Man corporate offices, we spend a lot of time in meetings with statistics and pie charts, trying to determine just what exactly it is that we review here. Fantasy, folklore, and a bit of history seems to be the norm, as far as books go. Science fiction is always the big question mark. When do we get too far away from the roots of our art and culture, and too deeply into the far-removed realm of scientific speculation and extrapolation?
Intuitively, cold, clinical walls, exacting techology, and deep empty space is our future, not our past. Our past is a world of enchantment, overgrown, near-sentient forests, iconic beasts, and the wonders of an unexplained world. But isn't so much of human history cyclical? Indeed, how many sci-fi stories open up on primitive, semi-medieval worlds, with the same strange creatures and magical phenomena, iconic heroes and villains and epic circumstances, only to later reveal said world as some distant future colony of genetic engineering, alien fauna, or any number of other explanations.
Brass Man is such an epic. While quite deserving of the title "hard" science fiction, I don't think it is so out of place on our shelves here, either. Nevermind the differing explanations, the universe presented here is as far removed from our day-to-day realities as any story of gnomes and werewolves, and there is more than a little overlap into the realm of myth, scientific in origin or no. This is a world of demigods, golems, monsters, sorcerers, dragons, and familiars. Perhaps more importantly, this is a story of grand, sweeping events, and our heroes merely try to stay afloat as they are carried away with the current.
A sequel to his previous work, Gridlinked, I found Asher's newest to be perfectly capable of acting as a stand-alone. Though unfamiliar with the previous story (though I'm thinking I might pick it up), the returning characters, or the universe they live in, Brass Man grabbed me rather quickly, and once so ensnared, I could only hang on tight, as I too was swept along with the hapless characters, slowly and inexorably drawn to some final showdown. Asher helps the immersion process along by opening each chapter with a short excerpt from some miscellaneous work, explaining the future history of the world, or details about how different technologies, scientific disciplines, political systems, or any number of other things, work.
There are quite a few characters involved. At any given time there are perhaps four to six different stories in progress, all related to the greater story in some way, which becomes clear earlier in some cases, and later in others. It was a little difficult to keep track of at first, but I got into the swing of things before too long. On the book's back cover, only two of these stories are mentioned:
The Brass Man in question, Mr. Crane, is a broken (read: insane) golem: a schizophrenic, half-psychotic, mentally crippled titan. In haphazard control of him is his resurrector, Skellor: a black-hearted sorcerer -- a triumvirate of human evil, merged with the god-like processing power of an AI, and wielding the five-million-years-old Jain technology that is suspected to have destroyed at least one entire galaxy-wide civilization.
Meanwhile, on a distant, forgotten colony, a Rondure Knight named Anderson is battling all sorts of new mythic beasts on his quest to hunt down and slay a dragon. Dragon being the same mysterious and powerful alien entity that Skellor himself is seeking, for his own purposes, with the assistance of his nearly indestructible, but often unpredictable, brass slave.
But in addition to these eventually merging stories, we have a handful of human, golem, and cyborg alumni from the previous book, gathering together and then separating, as the case may be, in their own combined efforts to track down and stop Skellor. The demigods previously mentioned, the most powerful of the already intimidating AIs, are guiding events, setting heroes on their paths, keeping things on track towards the eventual climactic meeting on Dragon's chosen planet.
The human Polity agent, Cormac, taking his orders directly from the Earth Central AI, head of the Polity (humans have long since ceased holding any significant political power, being incapable of responsibly making those kinds of decisions), leads the search for the psychotic necromancer, with the help of his ever-changing, variably human crew. Jack Ketch, the AI of the warship of the same name, which bears its passengers to their various destinations, does his own piloting, of course, and usually has his own opinion on the proper course of action.
Asher does not paint his AIs as emotionless processors. Indeed, though firecely intelligent, each has its own personality and quirks, and is a character in its own right. Jack, named after the historical London executioner (AIs name themselves) is a principle protagonist, with his own unique perspective to share, and his own battles to face. He is, in fact, one of my favourite characters in the book.
It's revealed throughout that each of the AIs, despite their varying positions and power, have their own agendas, just like any human character. Compared to some of the truly powerful AIs, Jack is just another hapless individual being dragged along for the ride, and doing his best to keep his head above water.
I really was pretty much in love with almost every character that made an appearance in this book. The Brass Man himself had a certain charm that made it difficult for me to dislike him, although I didn't want my less ambiguously good guys to run into him and get torn apart. He wasn't exactly a whole person, but there were hints of a person, and that person maybe wasn't the person you would expect based on his largely involuntary actions. A series of "retroacts" give us insight into his creation, subsequent subjugation, and ensuing mental perversion by his former masters (the villains who were eventually killed in the previous novel).
I'm not surprised to find that a positive response to this silent, simple-minded, yet endlessly complicated character from Gridlinked is what acted as a catalyst in the creation of a second novel in this universe. Mr. Crane's uniqueness as a semi-villain, including such habits as wearing a lace-up boots, a coat, and a hat tilted at "a rakish angle", along with his curious search for self, elevate him beyond the role of a simple thug. He could not simply be left on the scrap heap; his story was not done yet.
So, perhaps if I say lots of good things about this latest novel, and my desire to see more of Jack Ketch, amongst others, Mr. Asher will come up with a brand new entry to the series? Here's hoping.