Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Voyage of the Sable Keech

Neal Asher The Voyage of the Sable Keech (2006)
For me it began with Bioship, an entertainingly disgusting short story in a Solaris anthology which prompted me to bag a copy of Asher's The Skinner, an entertainingly disgusting novel, a big fat housebrick of smelly maritime science-fiction based on that poster of a small fish about to be devoured by a larger fish which is itself about to be swallowed by an even bigger one, and so on and so on. The Skinner is set on Spatterjay, a planet with a unique ecology based around a virus which keeps its host alive by almost any means necessary. The oceans of Spatterjay are home to galleons manned by salty and significantly mutated sea dogs who spend their days wrestling giant leeches or else regrowing body parts nipped off by the same; and that's before we even get to cored human slaves and all the other stuff you probably wouldn't want to read about whilst eating dinner.

The Skinner was such a treat that plucking others by the same guy as I found them from the book store shelf seemed a no brainer, as they say; but unfortunately Shadow of the Scorpion and The Engineer Reconditioned both turned out to be pretty dull, your average militaristic technowank; so when I chanced upon this sequel to The Skinner, the resumption of a nautical theme suggested it to be at least worth a look.

I read about a hundred pages engrossed and yet without much of an idea what was actually happening. Online friends and acquaintances commented that they found Asher's prose impenetrable partially due to his lousy characterisation. I could see their point, but I nevertheless persisted, actually going back to re-read those first hundred pages in the hope of forming a stronger impression as to what was going on with the narrative; and as it happens I seem to recall also having had to do this with The Skinner. One might suggest that finding myself obliged to re-read those first four or five chapters indicates a severe failing on the part of the author, and whilst that may be true, it's probably also worth considering that I actually enjoyed the re-reading as much as I'd enjoyed the initial bewildering foray. The problem is that Asher gets so lost in his baroque and squelchy biological world building, that it's difficult to pick out individual characters or events amongst all the slimy protuberances and circular orifices lined with plug-cutting teeth.

I seemed to be back on track, but with each hundred pages or so, progress became ever more difficult. I knew what was happening, but I never quite worked out why, or why I should care, and after a while the novelty wore off because I've already read The Skinner; and if convoluted, I'm sure it had a bit more of a story than this. It's not that The Voyage of the Sable Keech doesn't have a story, but it doesn't have one requiring six-hundred pages; which is a real shame because some of the concepts are fucking bananas.

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