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Neal Asher

It is by no means necessary for my enjoyment of art that the artist has vaguely sensible political views, but it helps. Looking for a science fiction novel to read, discovering that the latest Alastair Reynolds was something to do with global warming, I instead took Amazon up on one of its recommendations and tried Neal Asher, who has a blog, and at the time had recently written this:

So, Cameron is a nannying statist who wants to stick a minimum price on alcohol per unit. What on Earth is he thinking? Does he think that this will result in fewer pavement pizzas and fat slags crying in the gutter on a Saturday night? Does he think there’ll be less violence on the streets after chucking out time on a Friday and less chaos in A & E over the weekend? If he does think that then he’s an idiot because the people responsible for that drink in bars where the price is already way above his damned 45p a unit.

He has also written favourably about fracking.

The novel I chose was The Departure, the first of the Owner trilogy. If anything it had too much action for my taste. If Alastair Reynolds writes film noir, Neal Asher writes Bruce Willis and explosions. The science is sensible enough: there are no exotic physics and the technologies discussed are robots, giant space stations and brain-computer interfaces. The politics is very interesting. Asher seems to have perceived a slippery slope and extrapolated in the extreme. Something like the EU has, thanks to a complacent populace, taken over the whole planet. This is the Committee and it has long since stopped pretending to be democratic and gone outwardly Orwellian. Cigarettes are illegal; armed robots are used to control rioting crowds; selfish, individualistic dissidents are taken away for readjustment by pain inducer; and clever scientists are allowed to do research useful to the state but are considered a risk and kept under scrutiny or even lock and key. The protagonist is one such scientist who sets out to get revenge.

The action includes novel ways of killing people, fantastic feats of computer hacking to fool officials who trust their computers rather too much, zero-gee small arms combat and lots of expensive things getting destroyed. Interspersed is plenty of discussion of the political situation that has lead to all this.

Statism gets a good kicking. Government is described as the biggest killer on the planet. A Committee member is scorned for her belief in “knowledge-based societal planning”. Fiat currency is scorned when the protagonist uses gold to make a purchase. There is a subtle reference to the purpose of practical politics as described by H L Mencken. In a history of NASA, the agency is described as “moribund under its stifling level of bureaucracy”. One chapter opens with a description of how people obtain things forbidden by the state:

The greater the power and extent of the state, the more room there is for corruption. The more inept state services and industries become, the more pies it takes its huge cut from and the more regulation it imposes, the greater the call for black markets.

Politicians are described as using global crises as an excuse to extend their power globally. The slippery slope is described:

Make the process slow enough to sit below immediate perception and they will grow accustomed to their enslavement; they even might not realize they are wearing any chains at all.

My biggest criticism is that the theme of overpopulation runs strongly through the book. There are food, housing and other resource shortages, and while it is acknowledged that the Committee members are doing very well for themselves, this is very much in a zero sum sense. At one point the protagonist wonders about “the mindless, ever-breeding swarm” governed by the Committee. In a discussion of how government waste prevented development of technology, he claims that the only technology needed was birth control.

The author understands that technology and people can overcome resource shortages. In a sub-plot on Mars, the colony has hydroponics which are somehow not applied on Earth, though robotic farming is. The colony has problems as a result of events back on Earth and the administrators plan to cull the population but the author understands that people create wealth:

Yes, they had problems over food, air and water production and usage and, yes, by killing off many personnel these could be eked out, but they would still eventually run out and those few remaining here would die. Better by far to apply all those useful minds to their present problems, since brainpower was all that could save them.

It is obvious that centralisation and misallocation of resources is enough to cause all of the economic problems described in the book. But none of the characters seem to connect these dots and I am not sure why. I am worried the author has not either. Perhaps the rest of the trilogy will make things clear.

13 comments to Neal Asher

  • Regional

    Don’t insult idiots.

  • Chip

    I skipped the Reynolds book for the same reason. One can wade through only so much conventional ignorance in a lifetime. I stick with Banks despite the ideology because he writes and creates so well.

    The catastrophic global warming schtick is so done. The continued denial of empirical evidence regarding CO2 is almost acting like a filter of the lower end of the intellectual gene pool.

    How Reynolds can be a phd and still not realize the IPCC’s computer models all failed is a mystery.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Martin (of the “Game of Thrones” series) is a political scumbag – an Obama fan, who pretends that efforts to fight voter fraud are racist “voter suppression” (and on and on).

    But I like his work – I think he does good work. And that the books have been turned into good television also (and Time Warner HBO are not political friends of ours – and they often to good work).

    Artistic worth and politics are not the same thing.

    After all I also think that Richard Wagner produced some good work.

  • Paul, I agree up to a point. But SF authors are creating universes. These universes have objective reality. I enjoy reading about them more if this objective reality makes sense to me. If the story is set in a world ravaged by famine because the EU abolished the CAP, I’m not going to enjoy the story as much, even if it has a really good plot unrelated to that detail.

  • Keith

    I just read “Constellation Games”, a first novel by Leonard Richardson. I think readers of this site will enjoy the politics. It is a first contact by aliens story where the aliens are post-scarcity economics anarchists.

  • Rich Rostrom

    Some years back I read a novel by the late great Hal Clement which had rather startling unspoken political assumptions.

    Clement was one of the finest practitioners of really “hard” science fiction. He was a mild-mannered gentleman whose stories almost entirely avoided violent conflict or romantic drama. But he was a political and economic naif.

    In the novel in question, all the characters accept, as a given, state control of (IIRC) a newly discovered array of natural resources. It went by so fast that I had to stop and re-read… It was written in the 1960s, and I think Clement just accepted the conventional thinking uncritically. But it still bothered me.

    Other SF authors write with specific political agendas, or speculate based on the truth of some political doctrines. Sometimes these authors become de factor advocates, and if what they advocate is bad, that condemns their work.

  • May I recommend the recent SF works of Sarah A Hoyt. The first (or 3 so far) won the Prometheus Award in 2011


    They are all published by Baen (which is pretty much the only mainstream publisher of SF that is any good) and in my opinion they are getting better. The latest (A Few Good Men) is to be published in a month or so (but I already read the pre-release electronic version) and I strongly recommend it to anyone who likes the idea of liberty and believes it is worth fighting (and dying) for.

  • Paul Marks

    FrancisTurner – many thanks.

  • “It is obvious that centralisation and misallocation of resources is enough to cause all of the economic problems described in the book.”

    Yes, there was some about this in The Departure and there’s more about it in the ensuing books: Zero Point and Jupiter War. For example: the waste from desalination plants poisoning productive land etc.

  • Rob Fisher (Surrey)

    Thanks for your comment, Neal. I’m looking forward to reading the rest of the series when I might have more to say. In particular I’m thinking about the way big government destroys wealth and stifles the innovation that would otherwise overcome such things as food shortages.

  • Paul: George R R Martin is indeed a very fine writer. I haven’t actually read any of the Song of Ice and Fire books, but I was a huge fan of a lot of his earlier work.

    On the other hand, Subcomandante Marcos is apparently a fan. This is perhaps going too far.

  • Paul Marks

    It does not surprise me Michael.

    After all Mr Martin’s own politics are vile.

    I repeat the case of Richard Wagner and (much later) Austrian corporal.

    The Austrian corporal was indeed correct to believe that Wagner was a kindred spirit.

    Yet that does not alter the fact that Richard Wagner did good work.

  • Of course I have to point out that in the later books there’s more in the way of ‘exotic physics’ (Alcubierre drive and zero point energy), while Earth’s new government is very efficient, though not in a good way. Incidentally, right now The Departure is up for 66p (UK) on Kindle.