Neal Asher is a prolific British Science Fiction author best known for his fast-paced and violent far future SF series set in the Polity universe. ‘Zero Point’ is the second volume in his latest series, which is focused on a character called ‘the Owner’, and follows on from ‘The Departure’, which I reviewed for SFCrowsnest in 2011.
‘Zero Point’ picks up immediately after the end of ‘The Departure’. In the aftermath of Alan Saul’s successful attack on the facilities of the totalitarian Committee all across Earth, there is a power-play amongst the few surviving Committee members. This is won hands down by British delegate Serene Galahad, who has made extensive preparations for just such an eventuality. While other Committee members panic, bluster or jockey for position, Galahad calmly dusts herself down, shoots all the ‘zero asset’ survivors who are unlucky enough to be anywhere close to her aerocopter and flies herself to a secure base on the south coast of England.
From there, she rapidly implements her master plan. First, she eliminates all the surviving Committee members, leaving herself in undisputed control of Earth. Next, she implements her top secret plan to radically reduce the planet’s chronic level of over-population to a more sustainable level. Finally, she sets about encouraging the rebirth of the Earth’s trodden down and polluted biosphere. In this sense, she is a modern Gaia, but one who is both Stalinist and psychopathic in her focus, methods and intolerance of failure.
Meanwhile, Alan Saul, the ‘Owner’ of the series title, has escaped Committee vengeance by hijacking Argus Station, the Committee’s orbiting command post, and taking it out of orbit, past the Moon and on towards Mars. Saul is by now post-human, due to the AI implanted in his skull, but his physical brain finds it increasingly difficult to cope with the speed of thought and volume of calculations that this AI allows. As he tries to control the whole of Argus Station from his head, he asks the Station’s medic, Hannah, to take samples of his brain tissue and grow him additional brain matter in the laboratory, so that he can use these ‘parallel processors’ to help his body cope with his exponentially increasing powers of cognition. This turns out to be a prescient move when, some weeks later, a catastrophic event causes Alan Saul’s physical body life-threatening injuries. Can his remote brains help him to rebuild his shattered body and, if he does, will he still be in any way human or post-human when he wakes up again?
At the same time that Argus Station is heading for Mars, Saul’s sister, Varalia Delex, is faced with a crisis of her own on that planet. Having killed the Committee’s political officer at the Antares Research Base that she runs there before he could shut the base down and dispose of her and the rest of the staff, she now has to get everyone to work together for their mutual survival, when half of them think that she has signed a death sentence for them all. Var starts seeing conspiracies to unseat or even murder her everywhere, but just because she is a little bit paranoid doesn’t mean that she isn’t also right.
When Galahad finally regains effective control of Earth’s infrastructure, one of her first acts is to send a warship after Argus Station, intent on bringing Alan Saul to ‘justice’. Since he’s headed for Mars, the ship’s mission also includes neutralisation of Var’s rebels at Antares Base. Can Saul recover from his injuries in time to defend himself and his sister from Galahad’s retribution?
‘Zero Point’ displays most of the same strengths and weaknesses as its predecessor, ‘The Departure’. On the plus side, Asher’s ability to write exciting set-piece action scenes featuring cool SF hardware is undimmed. I was also fascinated by Alan Saul’s continued evolution along a post-human trajectory and by Asher’s version of the faster-than-light spacedrive originally proposed by theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre as a possible solution to Einstein’s field equations in the theory of general relativity.
Set against these strengths, though, are some significant weaknesses. By far the biggest of these for me was the cast of characters that Asher has assembled. As I read through over 500 pages of story, I did not encounter a single major character that I actually liked or that I would want to spend any time with in real life. Galahad, whose character we explore more than anyone else’s in the novel, is a grade A psychopath who has her own father tortured and killed in revenge for the fact that he refused to sleep with her when she was a teen-ager. Alan Saul is incapacitated and thus absent for much of the book but even when he is present his lack of humanity makes him very difficult to warm to. Saul’s doctor, Hannah, is largely there to tend to his medical needs and has very little personality of her own. Saul’s sister, Var, is portrayed solely in terms of her role as the reluctant leader of Antares Base, doing the job only because she believes that nobody else is capable of doing it as well as her. We gain no idea of what she is really like as a person, so it is difficult to empathise with her. The end result is that I spent much of the book being intellectually interested in what would come next but emotionally unconcerned about whether the story’s erstwhile heroes lived or died.
My other main gripe about the novel is that it continues with Asher’s annoying recent insistence on explicitly linking the fictional future politics of the Committee’s totalitarian world government to present day political structures, such as the European Union, with which Asher personally disagrees. Each chapter starts with an italicised scene-setting message from Asher which heavy-handedly ensures the reader is under no illusions that the future he portrays is an inevitable evolution from the features of present day politics which he dislikes. These authorial interventions turn the novel into an amateurish political tract, when a more subtle approach might have put Asher’s concerns across far more effectively.
Those who enjoy Neal Asher’s fast-paced, technologically rich SF stories will find a lot to like in ‘Zero Point’. If you’re looking for depth of characterisation or political insights, though, you may want to look elsewhere.
(pub: TOR-UK/PanMacmillan. 564 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK), $15.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-330-52452-0)
check out website: www.panmacmillan.com