Cowl - Neal Asher

Reviewed for Usenet (or see Google archive).

Neal Asher
ISBN: 1405001372 (Amazon link)

Although he has a long history with the small presses, Cowl is only Neal Asher's fourth novel by a big publisher, and it's the first one to get a hard-cover release. Given that my copy of Mason's Rats is literally a few pages of A4 cut up and hand-stapled, it's clear that Asher has come a long way and has had to work for his well-deserved success. Although I've been a bit of a fan for a while, I've never been entirely sure whether to recommend his books to friends. Asher's novels are characterised by a few themes - a relentless male super-warrior, a horrible monster or two, lots of gun totin' action, with all the testosterone offset against a surprisingly well developed background universe, albeit of the school which has technology owing as much to nonsense rhymes as scientific extrapolation. This is all great of course, but I've always felt Asher's writing to be very clunky and uneven.

Apologies to the author if he reads this, but in his small press days he always struck me as the brash, overly-friendly bloke down the pub who spends half the night insisting that although he's never been picked up by a publishing house, he could write SF just as good as Richard Morgan, Iain M. Banks, or Ken MacLeod (and possibly take them all on at once in the car-park to boot). What made him different was that he could... some of his early books are very good, especially The Engineer, but my reaction to them was always, "He's good, but he could be great with a decent editor."

Gridlinked was his first big release, followed by The Skinner, which I personally think is probably his best. Last year he followed up with The Line Of Polity, which I thought was more ambitious for him in terms of the style of writing, but also a relapse into 'tin ear' prose. For every page of decent writing, there was a paragraph that made me wince - but it was worth it for the no holds barred space opera, with added horror in the form of his trademarked Very Nasty Local Fauna. I liked it. I was looking forward to Cowl not only for the good read I knew Asher would deliver, but also to see if he would finally start to deliver on the promise he's been showing as a writer.

Cowl opens with some deftly written familiar future noir setup - Polly is a drug dependent prostitute, still numb from the loss of her best friend Marjae to New AIDs. Polly's trying to bury the hurt in more drugs, all the while sneering at the thought she'd be stupid or desperate enough to expose herself to infection like Marjae. In just two or three pages Asher manages to conjure not only a vivid world with several neat little SF touches, but also to fully flesh out Polly and her dead friend - something I don't think he could have done a few novels ago. Still, I don't read Asher for character studies, and on the next page Marjae's brother Nandru crashes onto the scene, babbling about vicious monsters and people out to get him. For a hardened man of violence - special forces? mercenary? not sure - Nandru is very nervous, and wastes little time in explanations, preferring to slap more drug patches on Polly and attach something to her before leaving. What he attaches to her chest is a Muse, a military tactical AI embedded in a convenient metallic lump. Polly is to be his sacrificial goat, allowing Nandru to negotiate with Them without being physically present.

One of Them is Tack, a genetically modified, force grown, cybernetically enhanced super-soldier, literally programmed for his mission. Tack is basically indistinguishable from his comrades, a familiar Asher killing machine. Tack and Polly's day is about to go horribly wrong. The object Nandru is negotiating with is a Tor, a scale from a transdimensional would-be world devouring beasttie fond of extruding a vast mouth into out world to pick off those about to die anyway - another Asher trademark, the Big Toothy Monster. Long story short, it all goes pear-shaped, the Tor ends up on Polly's arm, Nandru ends up dead but uploaded into the Muse, Polly panics and she and Tack find themselves back in time. Seems like Polly's new forearm decor offers her an out from any dangerous situation, but the out is always back in time. Tack has a shard of the Tor embedded in his arm, and it's not long before they end up going their separate ways through the past.

Polly's adventures, accompanied by the disembodied Nandru, are fairly routine, but well depicted - sobering rapidly with the help of her Tor, she discovers a well of self-reliable as she stumbles into WWII, travelling players in Medieval times, Emperor C-C-Claudius in Roman times, etc. Divorced from his programming or any controlling mechanism, Tack's journey also involves self-discovery but courtesy of rapid reprogramming by the post-human Traveller; Traveller is to Tack as Tack is to ordinary baseline humans. Traveller slowly reveals to Tack that he, and Polly, have found themselves caught up in a war over the past. Two factions, the cumbersomely named Umbrathane and Heliothane, are working back from a point in the future, seeking to control which version of the past is the main line. Working against everyone else is Cowl - who reminded me a lot of Dan Simmon's Shrike at points in the novel - who controls the amazing transdimsensional mouth beast from beyond the Nodus - the point in time beyond which no-one can travel back, related to emergence of life on Earth. Mayhem ensues, much of it relating to the nature of the Tors, and why Cowl has been scattering them around for people, not just Tack and Polly, to pick up.

Despite the front-of-stage action, the plot is surprisingly subtle and twisty - if anything involving a world eating monster can be called subtle - but I wasn't very convinced by the rather confused explanations given for the nature of the time-stream plotting. Which way energy gradients went seemed to be very much a function of what would drive the plot along best and facilitate the biggest fight. I really wanted to like Cowl, and I have to admit I enjoyed it, but I found that when it was all over and the dust had settled, that I was left a bit disappointed. The story seemed to lack the vicious verve of something like The Skinner, and while Asher's universe is always a fun place to visit, too much of the impact of his motifs was lost by over-familiarity; Tack is the typical Asher super-human warrior, with Traveller being a refined version of that, and so on up to Cowl himself. The Tor-beast was similarly lacking impact because it too owes much to previous incarnations in his previous novels; I was expecting a big monster, and I got one. The original material dealing with time streams felt unfortunately cliched - why does no-one ever appear in a small village in the middle of no-where? It's always near a court, or an emperor, or a dinosaur... no, what am I saying? It's always the correct decision to add dinosaurs... even if I would have preferred something more thought-provoking. There's some nice shading with grey near the end, where Cowl's nature and motivations come under scrutiny, but Cowl needed a more human central conceit, something as memorable as Cormac's decision to lose his grid-link in Gridlinked. Tack and Polly are strong characters, but by the end of the novel, some of the things that made them important started to feel a little arbitrary, decided by authorial fiat more than the internal logic of the story. (Can't say more without spoilers.)

Overall? Recommended. Cowl is a briskly paced, brashly violent but well written SF action adventure. There's a lot of interesting invention thrown into the usual time-travel plot, but Cowl still leaves me with the familiar feeling that Asher's next book will be the one I've been waiting for.

Post-script: I was Goggling for a long post I was convinced I'd made on The Line of Polity, didn't find it, but found this interview instead: Neal Asher interviewed by Duncan Lawie.

Posted: Fri - April 9, 2004 at 09:49 PM