Neal Asher's latest novel, Shadow of the Scorpion, is an insane, sexy war story full of giant explosions on alien worlds. It's also a well-plotted exploration of the way violence destroys everything, even memory.
If you've read Asher before, you know that many of his novels take place in a future civilization known as the Polity, where posthumans mingle with AIs who watch over them as they explore the galaxy and wage war with a rigidly hierarchical, crablike species called the Prador. The hero of many Polity novels is Ian Cormac, a special agent whose ultra-competence rivals that of James Bond.
In Shadow of the Scorpion, we skip backward in time to Cormac's first military engagement and discover what made him the mega-soldier he ultimately becomes. Asher quickly plunges you into the action, as Cormac's routine deployment on a world where the military has been sent to protect locals on a world where a recent Prador attack has left a large area in ruins. But it turns out that not everybody welcomes Polity forces - a separatist plot on the planet reduces Cormac's team to mincemeat and puts Cormac on the wrong end of a separatist torture session.
Though it reads like a typical war tale, complete with narrow escapes and stolen atomics, Asher sneaks up on you with a story that is anything but ordinary. As Cormac's derring-do gets him rapidly promoted to an elite fighting unit called the Sparkind, we learn more about his early childhood via flashbacks. While his father and brother were offworld fighting the Prador, he had a series of odd experiences that involved a giant, scorpion-shaped war robot. It seems to be following him, even when he and his mother go on a vacation with his war-traumatized brother, who has come home to get his bad war memories excised via a process called "editing."
It's at this point that the novel becomes far richer than your standard military yarn. Cormac's memories lead him to question what exactly happened to his father, who he believes died during the war. And finally he comes to question his own memories, which seem to contradict each other in ways he can't explain.
Asher superimposes Cormac's search for one of the separatists over his search to understand his own past, creating an intriguing, multilayered portrait of a man whose mind has been fragmented by war his whole life.
I don't mean to make it sound as if this isn't an action-packed yarn, full of hot robot sex, cool aliens, and even cooler weapons. It's all of those things. But it's also about what we should do with horrifying memories created by war. In a future where such memories can be edited out, is it better to excise them for the sake of mental health? Or is it better to remember, to know what's really happened to you, even if the knowledge might drive you to the edge of sanity?
Asher does a deft job answering this question in a variety of ways that take us into Cormac's own mind, as well as the minds of AIs and other soldiers. This is a novel of war that isn't afraid to remind us of the price our heroes pay to fight - even if they win.
Shadow of the Scorpion [via Amazon]