…by Neal Asher
The Skinner is well-crafted intelligent adventure sci-fi. It’s the second of Neal Asher’s books I’ve read, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. It builds upon premises set forth in his first book, Gridlinked, which posits an intergalactic future with warp gates known as ‘Runcibles’, a vast confederation of humans called the Polity (which happens to be run by superintelligent AIs), and plenty of rogue cyborgs, weird alien races, and deadly planetary vistas thrown in for good measure.
Asher’s universe also imagines humanity as nearly immortal in a basic sense. That is to say, through physical enhancement – cybernetic, genetic, memory transplant, etc. – the humans of these books can live is as long as they like. Theoretically. Assuming, of course, they don’t meet a particularly nasty and violent end, they can afford the upgrades, and they don’t become bored and choose death (either consciously or subconsciously). This theme of immortality/longevity plays strongly throughout The Skinner. And in the brutal Darwinian ecosystem of the Planet Spatterjay, it provides a nice counterpoint.
Take, for example, one of the main characters: the reification, Sable Keech. Keech is a walking corpse, his body a mash-up of robotic parts and dead-but-constantly-replenished flesh. His mind consists of half an organic brain and a computer with memory and personality uploads. Not the most popular or socially acceptable version of immortality, but effective. And Keech has a mission: find and kill the villains who not only killed him 700 years earlier, but were also responsible for war crimes rivaling those of Hitler or Pol Pot.
Take, for example, Erlin and Janer. Janer is a paid envoy of a Hive Mind (For $500 Alex, What is a colony of hornets, found to be intelligent and sentient through use of pheromonal communication rendered lightning fast by computer chip augmentation, now protected citizens of the Polity even though they give most people the creeps). Janer has lived a couple of centuries and his main foe is boredom. Erlin is an accomplished interstellar scholar and researcher who’s achieved all her professional goals. She’s over 200 years old and also facing a crisis. What else is there for her in life? How does one learn to accept longevity? And it’s a little tougher for Erlin, because she’s a Hooper: a human born on the planet Spatterjay.
The Hoopers are kind of like the sci-fi novel version of the offspring of the Hulk and Wolverine. Except it works like this: the older they get, the tougher and stronger they get. This is where Asher brings some of his scientific chops to bear. With Spatterjay he’s created a vicious but logical ecosystem, and at the top of that system are alpha predators called leeches. They are a lot larger and more fearsome than our own terrestrial leeches, and the rest of the lifeforms have adapted to these predators through evolution of disposable body parts and a shared virus that, when transmitted to humans causes us to develop our very own mutant healing factors and strength. There’s a payoff, naturally. It takes centuries for Hoopers (named for the original settler of Spatterjay, the pirate, Jay Hoop aka the Skinner) to develop that resiliency – and they need it to survive on the planet. They also have to get regular helpings of Earth-type food lest they continue to evolve towards gruesome subhumanity.
The Hoopers have their own approach to immortality, manifested in the form of the Old Captains. These are men and women who’ve not only survived several centuries, but have developed a sense of peace and certainty to accept their continued survival. A couple of old Captains, Ron and Ambel are our guides through this sub-culture.
You also have AIs with their own developing personalities, strange but intelligent Spatterjay aliens who are only just becoming cognizant of the wider universe, a sadistic war criminal (and ancient enemy of Sable Keech and the Hoopers), and an antagonistic alien race who views humans a little more than fleshy tools. And the Skinner.
A lot of ideas – cool ideas with some thought behind them. A variety of takes on survival, the value of life, perseverance, and loyalty. Did I mention that The Skinner is tightly plotted? And that Spatterjay is an enjoyably deadly and blood-curdling setting? How about its piratical/nautical feel… Did I mention the book is well written – fierce and frightening, gritty and laced with sharp humor? The Skinner gets high marks all around and comes highly recommended to readers or sci-fi, horror, or adventure fiction. But perhaps what I enjoyed most about the book is the sense one gets, that amidst questions of extreme longevity or immortality, even in a savage and merciless environment, what really matters is how you treat your mates, how you answer for past deeds, and whether you choose right or wrong when the time comes.