Science Fiction Though the Decades

Thursday, December 6, 2012

2008: Shadow of the Scorpion (Asher, Neal)

Cormac prequel: all action and filler, no deeper sense to Polity (3/5)

There aren’t many authors in my library with the distinction of having been read a dozen different times through a dozen different novels. This accolade is given to such timeless authors as Poul Anderson (16), Iain Banks (17), Greg Bear (20), John Brunner (21), Larry Niven (20), Frederik Pohl (15), Alastair Reynolds (12), and James White (13)… names everyone is familiar with through experience or reputation. Each of these authors has also shown me that their talent does not lie in one direction, but they have the ability to cast about their vision into scenarios which awe the reader and impinge upon the mind the sense of childhood wonderment. There’s one more author who I have read fifteen times, yet fails to exhibit the two qualities of diversity and amazement: Neal Asher. Even outside his Polity novels, The Departure (2011) still maintained the essence of Asher: weapons, violence, destruction, gore, and horror. Perhaps it’s time to move on or be labeled a one-trick pony… oops, too late.

Rear cover synopsis:
“Raised to adulthood during the end of the war between the human Polity and the vicious arthropoid race the Prador, Ian Cormac is haunted by childhood memories of a sinister scorpion-shaped war drone and the burden of losses he doesn’t remember.

In the years following the war he signs up with Earth Central Security, and is sent out to help either restore or maintain order on worlds devastated by Prador bombardment. There he discovers that though the old enemy remains as murderous as ever, they are not anywhere near as perfidious or dangerous as some of his fellow humans, some closer to him than we would like.

Amidst the ruins by war-time genocide, he discovers in himself a cold capacity for violence, learns some horrible truths about his own past and, set upon a course of vengeance, tries to stay alive.”


A recent recruit with his rough platoon, Cormac is sent to a planet with a planet-downed Prador ship which is still host to a handful of second- and third-children. His fellow soldiers are his friends and one is even his lover. Emotions blur his senses of justice and proportion when the two of them discover Carl’s clandestine rendezvous with suspected Separatists. When Carl is gunned down, Cormac is enlisted to perform the cloak and dagger act and penetrate the Separatist organization.

Cormac is able to sneak the Separatists into the Prador ship but discover that the Prador have all but left. With casualties on both sides, they are still able to make off with counter-terrain devices which the Separatists wish to trade rather than use, but their scruples don’t deter them from inflicting casualties upon the Earth Central Security.

Carl unsuspectingly rises from his coma and rejoins the Separatists who capture Cormac and kill his lover. Cormac being Cormac, soon gore spills upon floors, limbs fling through the wind, and veins gush treasonous rebel blood. Carl still escapes but Cormac is close on his heels as the two rush to their destinies upon the same planet Cormac’s father disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

It are these circumstances surrounding the memories of his father which have caused him to reminisce about the time when his brother returned home to Earth to partially erase some painful memories from the war during his time as a medic. At the same time, Cormac remembers a sinister scorpion-shaped war drone which stalks him in Wyoming, under the sea, and even at school. Is it to deliver a massage, protect him, or one day assassinate him? When Cormac discovers that his own memory has been partially erased, he contacts his mother and is allowed to revisit the deleted memories which give answers to his past and possibly his future.


Much as Cormac is prone to violence, Asher is as prone to action-filled scenes. Aside from Cormac’s memories which dot the chapters, there’s very little else which doesn’t include gun blasts, laser streaks, or grenade concussions. The beginning of the novel is a juicy morsel with Prador ship investigation, Prador battling, and Separatist incursions, but soon the battle rigamarole becomes redundant and the reader aches for some early development rather than a gory rush to the end with its bow-tied gift of conclusion, which wasn’t bad--a tad predictable and dies in nice with the other Polity novels.

Being a prequel to Grindlinked (2001) and the other Cormac novels, this novel introduces the reader to two things: the Separatist strife against Earth Central (though still nebulous as to exactly what their intentions and influences are), and the early life of Cormac (childhood and new recruit). I expect a lot of depth from any prequel—succulent detail of the world, the deeper causes of the universe’s problems (this being Asher’s Polity universe), and more characterization than plot. I want to see the world behind the novels, the thread rather than the fabric. Sadly, Asher doesn’t address this matter to great degree and maintain his typical guns-a-blazin’ cavorting with a cavalier protagonist.

It’s not entirely yawn worthy because some of the action scenes are quiet vibrant, but the sheer amount of action diminishes the scenes that are there. Remember the motto “Less is More”. Two or three whir-bang sequences would highlight the destruction rather than eight bang-bang-bang battles. When the battles are Prador vs. human, Prador vs. AI, AI vs. Spatterjay or Spatterjay vs. human, these sequences are usually worthwhile enough… but the man vs. man elements are just too typical.


I’ll stick to the Prador and Spatterjay novels, but hang my hat up for the Cormac and Departure (2011) novels. There something very rewarding when reading about crab-like aliens’ guts being splattered and the tortures of the Spatterjay planet. Outside of these brutalities, the rest of Asher’s bibliography is a tad too flat for me in retrospect. While I enjoyed the Cormac novel at first (3-4 stars for each), they didn’t impinge upon my long-term memory like the Spatterjay novels. I’ve kept Gridlinked in my library, but the rest of the Cormac series will be finding a new home at the second-hand bookstore.

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