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Apr 2013

Mini Review - Neal Asher's Zero Point

(Important - spoilers if you haven't read The Departure, but no worse than those in the blurb on the back of the book.)


Zero Point is the second book in Neal Asher's Owner Series, and continues with the strong - and somewhat unpalatable - themes that he developed in the first book, The Departure. The dedication at the start of the novel really sums it all up: "To all you steady researchers and developer of our technology, for recognising the optimistic road to the future, rather than seeing a slippery slope to doom."

Of course, the Owner Series is about a society that has been on the slippery slope to doom, both societally and ecologically. At the end of the first novel, the protagonist, an anti-hero called Alan Saul, was escaping from Earth on board the Argus Station having decapitated the global bureaucratic dictatorship of 'the Committee' whilst taking the station, and finishing off local controls by dropping their own satellite network on them. The 'zero asset' citizens are freed from Committee oversight, at the cost of the collapse of infrastructure, which potential could lead to their starvation.

This novel meshes three tales together - the emergence of Serene Galahad to reestablish the power of the Committee and the infrastructure of the Earth whilst pursuing a more radical path than her predecessors, the events at the Mars Colony which had effectively declared independence from Earth in the first book, and the events aboard the Argus Station. The plots are brutal, and don't show the nicer side of humanity.

Technology ramps forward without the control of the Committee, as Saul develops his abilities and others have the limits on what they can do released, and the plot twists and turns. Some of the characters - for example Galahad - feel quite two dimensional, but the energy and darkness of the plot drive you forward.

I found that it was quite hard to put down as it draws you in quite effectively, despite finding whole elements somewhat unpleasant. The story goes into areas that few other SF stories do except in the more literary side of the genre (such as The Handmaid's Tale or Nineteen Eighty-Four), with a dark dystopian vision and characters that match. It won't be everyone's cup of hot beverage, but I recommend it for its energy and dark flavour. It directly provides of vision that contrasts technology used for good and for ill, with the difference being the morals of those that wield it.

On Iain (M) Banks

I was sad to hear the news that Iain Banks is suffering from terminal cancer, as he is an author who has meant a lot to me since I first discovered him during a meal break whilst at the University of Southampton. It was when I was working at Silica Shop, unsuccessfully(*) selling PCs in the eyes of the manager, discovering the joys of the back passages and rooms frequented by the staff of the Debenhams in which Silica existed.

(*)I was 'unsuccessful' mainly because I tended to sell people a computer that met their needs and desires rather than a fully loaded and overpriced top end Compaq. Anyway, I digress.

I first encountered Banks through his SF epic
Consider Phlebas, which I found near impossible to put down after I discovered it on the shelf in WHSmiths. I can remember sitting outside on a bench in the cold, unwilling to move as I was gripped by the story, and getting annoyed that I had to go back in. It was glorious, enchanting and fast-paced space opera and so different to the norm of SF from the late seventies and eighties. Absolutely brilliant. I then went and bought everything that he had written at that point - The State of the Art, The Player of Games and then Use of Weapons. That book has the distinction of being one of the few that I've reached the end of and immediately re-read, as I never saw it coming. I moved onto his contemporary novels (published without the ‘m’ ), which are equally good and larger in number. The Wasp Factory was dark, macabre and I couldn't put it down despite intensely disliking it. Few books since have evoked that emotion, much like a film where you want to look away but can't. The Crow Road and Complicity are both great thrillers (and check out the TV series and the film respectively) and Espedair Street is a great rock novel (likewise the BBC Radio 4 version was excellent).

Banks quickly became one of the few authors I bought in hardcover (along with William Gibson and more recently Alastair Reynolds), and someone whose books I really looked forward to.
Excession is a personal favourite in his SF, and the surreal The Bridge in his 'literature'. Feersum Endjinn messed with my head when I read it, as the alternative phonetic and English chapters forced a meshing of gears.

I think his books went off the boil a bit about a decade ago, but even a weaker novel from him was worth a read, often surpassing other writer's best works. I think his work had been back on an upward improving trajectory over the last few years.

And now his next book is almost certainly his last unless there is some kind of reprieve or remission, which he states is unlikely. I'll miss his work, it has brought me great enjoyment. It also holds several unique places in my heart.

Thank you, Iain (M) Banks. You've thrilled me, inspired me and entertained me, not to mention set me on a journey in gaming that I hope I can complete this year.

Reflecting, what makes it even worse is that another of my favourite authors, John le Carré, is 82 this year, so I suspect there are a limited number of books left from him too.