Page File It’s not easy to come in cold on something like Neal Asher’s Polity universe, a hard sci-fi world spanning 12 books and counting that I’ve never quite got around to starting. Instead, it was a dive into the deep end with the twelfth novel, Dark Intelligence, the beginning of a trilogy about the black AI Penny Royal, who’s popped up in Asher books before.
Penny Royal is a rogue AI from the mostly beneficial, but definitely meddlesome rulers of a post-human society called the Polity. He’s from a stash of AI minds created during the Polity’s long war with the fiercely martial crablike species the Prador, when a number of artificially intelligent minds were let out of the factory in a hurry with more than a few screws loose.
Set a hundred years after the war has ended, Dark Intelligence kicks off with Thorvald Spear, a Prador war casualty whose consciousness was discovered in a memplant ruby and granted a new body and boatloads of cash by virtue of his good service. Spear was the sole survivor of a Penny Royal attack on the planet of Panarchia, when it annihilated huge numbers of its own troops. This is not an event that Spear is willing to forget, despite the fact that the technology exists that would allow him to do just that, and decides to evade the benevolent-ish scrutiny of the Polity to set out on a revenge quest, armed with a variety of technological augmentations (augs).
Along the way, he runs into a number of other folks that Penny Royal has wronged – crime syndicate boss Isobel Satomi, who asked the AI to help her rip her rivals to shreds and is getting exactly what she wished for in an unwanted transformation to a vicious, mindless, alien-centipede species known as hooders. Father-captain Sverl, a Prador who couldn’t understand why his king called a truce and asked for clarity, which he gets in a similarly unwanted transformation into a creature that’s part-human, part-AI and part-Prador. And Amistad, an AI mind (seen in previous books) that was duped into thinking that Penny Royal had mended his ways.
There are definitely elements of the novel where you feel like you’re missing out a little by not having read previous tomes, but Dark Intelligence is still a vast, richly complex world that deals with familiar sci-fi themes like how far future biological and technical changes will take humans from their humanity and the impossibility of knowing a hugely superior mind like an AI.
I’ll mention, as many have done before me, that Asher’s books are similar to the world of Iain M Banks’ Culture universe, but the Polity is arguably a much darker and more vicious environment – and all the better for it. My massive fandom for Banks is probably what kept me from the Polity universe in the first place, given that many sci-fi enthusiasts will tell you that you’ll like one or the other.
I’m happy to be one of the exceptions, who’ll be heading back to the first books on the strength of this hardboiled, fast-paced space opera epic that leaves you wondering just how far back Penny Royal’s motivations go. ®
Title Dark Intelligence – Transformation: Book One
Release date 29 January (UK) / 3 February (US)
Price £7.19 (Ebook) / £12.91 (Hardback)