A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #34:-
THE LINE OF POLITY
Tor pb, 547pp, £10.99
Hooray! At long last we have the sequel to Gridlinked, and if anyone thinks that book was a one off this should convince them otherwise, being bigger and better in just about every department.
Ian Cormac, special agent without portfolio for Earth Central Security, is sent to investigate an explosion that destroyed outlink station Miranda with horrendous loss of life. There’s evidence that his old enemy, the alien construct known as Dragon, may have been involved. The trail leads Cormac to Masada, a world outside the rule of the Polity. Populated by a whole menagerie of monstrous creatures, flesh eating and virtually indestructible, Masada is not a good place to be. The planet is ruled by a fanatical Theocracy, who live high above its surface in orbital conurbations, while the vast majority of the people fare little better than slaves, with their only hope the Underworld, a resistance movement hoping to secure Polity help. Cormac’s arrival is a light blue touch paper and retire moment, though luckily for the reader the latter option isn’t available to him, prompting a planet wide revolt against the Theocracy. Things are made even more complicated by both Dragon and Skellor, a renegade scientist who has injected with alien Jain technology, acquiring fantastic new abilities and control of the might of a Polity dreadnought. The stage is set for a knockdown, last man standing fight, and though there’s not much doubt who that will be, the excitement is all in the getting there.
While this book is every bit as rich in incidental invention as its predecessor, both in terms of the military hardware and exotic wildlife, the case could be made for The Line of Polity being ‘soft’ science fiction. The social critique which provides the book with much of its narrative backbone and moral authority has to do with politics and religious fanaticism. Easy comparisons can be made with September the 11th and its aftermath (a Terrorist act directed against a superpower, prompting the overthrow of a religious tyranny on a backward world), and on that score there is no doubting where Asher’s sympathies lie. His criticism of religion is hard hitting and on target, albeit he offers only straw men as opposition. He is perhaps not so successful in stating the case for Polity rule. We are told how good life is under the Polity but never actually shown its benefits; the characters are too busy fighting for the way of life they espouse to taste the fruits of their labour.
Such concerns are just icing on the cake though. It is entirely possible to read The Line of Polity as a fast paced adventure story and on that level it works superbly, with never a moment for the reader to catch breath as one menace gives way to another and all the characters suffer those good old slings and arrows of fortune, outrageous or otherwise. In Skellor (minor quibble: I hate that name; it brings to mind He-Man’s old enemy Skeletor, and if you don’t get the reference be thankful) Asher gives us a chilling and entirely convincing picture of a human being taken over by alien technology, with sanity the first thing to fall by the wayside and, while it’s impossible to empathise, Skellor’s motives for what he does are entirely credible when taken on his own terms. Elsewhere, in the relationship between the Masadan girl Eldene, who has never known anything except slavery, and the offworlder boy Apis, used to living under low gravity, he provides valuable emotional counterpoint to the detachment of Cormac and the business first attitudes of those around him, adding a very human dimension to the proceedings, with two people caught up in galaxy shaking events and trying to both survive and make sense of it all, feelings most of us will be able to identify with.
While the books stands alone it is also very much part of an ongoing series, perhaps the most ambitious and purely enjoyable sf sequence since Dan Simmons’ Hyperion/Endymion novels, with hints in the text of much greater things to come, and I for one can’t wait to see what happens next.