Wednesday, 26 December 2012

The Skinner

Neal Asher The Skinner (2002)

Neal Asher's short story Bioship made quite an impression when I read it in one of those Solaris anthologies, and this mostly delivers on that promise of sea sick space opera to churn the stomach and leave the reader smelling faintly of fish. Despite a relatively uncluttered turn of phrase, the narrative is surprisingly dense, for everything on the somewhat nautical world of Spatterjay is either weird or disgusting and requires much qualification. This is a thoroughly alien ecology of ships with living sails, huge seafaring leeches, and the salty old dogs which hunt them for a living.

The Skinner is initially disorientating, coming perilously close to doing too much - a great many characters introduced, each with their own story, and all before you've found your sea legs. This was why I ended up reading the first hundred pages twice, but it paid off and the detail is so engrossing that there's little possibility of getting bored, even in returning to recently covered ground.

In essence it's a fairly simple tale - the hunt for a war criminal - painted in very weird colours and seeming a far more likely influence on the mollusc aesthetic of the Pirates of the Caribbean films than any more obviously Lovecraftian source. The weirdest detail is probably the environment itself, a living illustration of that no such thing as a free meal poster with a succession of increasingly large fish about to vanish in a single act of recursive gastronomy. Everything on Spatterjay eats everything else, frequently by means of circular orifices lined with teeth; and everything in the food chain is infected with a viral mechanism promoting rapid mutation and healing so that even the most voracious predators need never fear depletion of their food source; so death doesn't come easy for anyone, as vividly illustrated by the Skinner of the title who, having been decapitated hundreds of years before, lives on with head and body as two independent creatures. As I said, everything on Spatterjay is either weird or disgusting.

The Skinner isn't really quite like anything I've read before in terms of story, although it hints at what Larry Niven probably should have written. As roughly contemporary space opera, it's as good as anything by Iain Banks, and superior to the work of at least a few other big names. Given how this novel is sort of like eating chocolate cake in terms of information density, I probably could have done with it being maybe a hundred or so pages shorter, but that's not a serious complaint.

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