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In 1970, Greil Marcus infamously opened a review of Bob Dylan's Self Portrait with the words, "What is this shit?" Gone were the usual tricks of the reviewer's trade; context, introduction, and argument were supplanted, and instead Marcus immediately presented the conclusion. Sometimes, that's the only response a reviewer can muster, and the only honest approach. Now, perhaps Self Portrait wasn't so bad an album, although it certainly isn't close to being good; perhaps Marcus had expected one thing of the record, in the event a collection of Tin Pan Alley-ish compositions quite apart from Dylan's spokesman-of-a-generation shtick, and found instead something quite different.

Perhaps, then, I'm simply not the best reviewer for Orbus, the latest entry in Neal Asher's assembly line-like series of Polity and Spatterjay novels. But Self Portrait has never been rediscovered—unlike, for instance, Nashville Skyline or Slow Train Coming—as an underappreciated minor gem, and nor, I think, will Orbus ever show its literary greatness to a reviewer more attuned to its subtleties. All of which acts as just the sort of preamble Marcus wisely excised from his review of Self Portrait. In other words: I hate this book.

Orbus isn't actively offensive, although its out-moded brand of boy's own machismo may be juvenile. Its politics, if soft-headed, aren't pernicious; its (human) characters, where amoral, at least strive to be better. Only in its problematic relationship with gender—only one character, a human who works for the evil king of the Prador, an atavistic race of crab people, is female, and she a cipher—is Orbus to be condemned on a conceptual level. "Hate" may be too strong an emotion for a book whose only real vice is its sheer, clunking incompetence. This, it is true, isn't what I expected—I have previously read Cowl, a standalone novel of Asher's, which, whilst hardly the most intelligent or insightful of books, was at the very least an endearingly mad romp. Orbus lacks even that insane momentum: it is a moribund book with neither movement nor sparkle, its central characters faceless drones, its core concepts tired and over-done, its plot barely in existence. It is a novel written by a writer with no craft or control.

The attentive reader might have a sense of what is to come from the opening sentence (though each chapter truly begins with a desperate-to-be-hip infodump from a fictional guide book of sorts, a la John Brunner but without the wit): "A varied collection of interesting crates, boxes, storage cylinders and oddly shaped objects wrapped in crash-foam is strapped securely in the quadrate cargo scaffold of the enormous zero-gravity hold space of the Gurnard" (p. 1). Much of what is wrong with Asher's writing is on show in these fantastically poorly chosen thirty-three words. First, the tone: a deadening mix of the po-faced and the breezily casual (that pernickety list of what we are told, dead-pan, is a "varied collection" of "interesting" things); wrapped up in that is the awful didacticism, the way in which Asher insists on us knowing everything he wants us to know, regardless of relevance (important fact: the oddly-shaped objects are wrapped in crash-foam), without making the effort to provide that information more smoothly. The old "show don't tell" rule is generally over-used, but Asher could do with a refresher.

Second, the sheer blandness of Asher's diction—crates, boxes "oddly shaped objects"—is doubtless what forces him to over-use adjectives, but that technique is no replacement for a more varied vocabulary. Third comes the meaningless technical verbiage, as if Gernsback is still the latest thing. The cargo scaffold never appears again, and has no importance to the ensuing narrative; and yet its material presence is thickened by that ungainly "quadrate," for reason other than a love of stuff. Finally, and most fatally, the construction of the sentence itself: so devoid of any understanding of how language can be made to flow, Asher routinely dumps an ill-shaped sentence before his readers and asks them to figure it out for themselves. Perhaps it wouldn't be so bad that people neither think nor speak in these terms if Asher didn't have his characters talk in exactly the way that he narrates.

"No," Gurnard replies. "I've information about this Golgoloth now, and about how that creature is basically what held together the Second Kingdom, and further data on how Oberon alone is what holds together the Third Kingdom. Remove both of them from the equation, and Vrell too, since he might become as capable as either of the other two, and the Prador will start attacking each other again, and the Kingdom will fall apart."

"Then, I suppose," says Thirteen, "after letting them tear each other apart, ECS goes in to clear up the mess."

"Neat, don't you think?"

"Not very moral."

"Whoever accused us AIs of morality?" Gurnard wonders. (p. 296)

If Asher is here trying to present the cool logic of non-human AIs, he fails spectacularly. I am not a fan of Peter Watts's anti-adventure novel, Blindsight, but the one thing it does succeeds at is depicting emotionless reasoning. Asher simply cannot compete, with his mixed tone and lack of facility with something as basic to his trade as the sentence (Gurnard's second is awful—read it again if you can bear it). His AIs, then (or "us AIs" as they are apparently wont to call themselves in private), are a hopeless product of Asher's own deficiencies: confused and impassive, they wholly fail to compel.

So, too, his carbon-based lifeforms. Take Orbus, an Old Captain of the diseased world Spatterjay, increasingly marginalised in the course of the story and yet from whom the novel bizarrely takes its title. Early on, Asher attempts to engage us in his supposed protagonist's psychology: "He is not sure when things then started to fall out of shape, though he knew the cause lay further back in his past, in his long and brutal journey to the world of Spatterjay, from which even now he remembers the first taste of raw Human flesh" (p. 7). Huge mileage is made of Orbus's dark past, which revolves around his capture—with thousands of others—during the Human-Prador war, his transportation to Spatterjay, a stay in the hellish concentration camps there, and his eventual infection with the Spatterjay virus. The virus is important to these books in the way that melange was important to Frank Herbert. A condition passed on by the leeches of Spatterjay, it forces endless mutations in its hosts which are able to deal with any physical obstacles which present themselves—effectively incurring immortality upon the host body. (If you catch it right—one of the worst aspects of those concentration camps was the creation of human zombies through use of the virus.)

The problem with this backstory is that it is used so clumsily. What we read of it is gruesome and discomfiting—one of Asher's better moments in the book is a flashback in which Orbus is haunted by visions of the cannibalism and other unspeakable barbarisms to which a person can stoop to survive in unimaginable conditions—yet it is never weaved into a convincing development arc for the Old Captain. We hear several times how this formerly "sadistic" sea dog is trying, like a cut-price version of Joss Whedon's tormented vampire, Angel, to reform and atone. We are told, in fact, again and again—but we never see it happen, are never witness to the development of a counter-psychology. So, for instance, when Orbus, a man with more reason than most to hate the Prador, decides to side with one, we are not treated to the conflict and the self-rationalisation that could lend real substance to his character development. We are simply told, tersely and unsatisfyingly, "He has made his choice: Vrell is an ally, and that's the end of it" (p. 264).

In this way, Asher never passes up an opportunity to hobble his own book. Take the small: "That King Oberon is agitated seems plainly evident" (p. 196); if the evidence is so plain (and why can the agitation not simply be evident, or merely plain?), it is of course rather more than seeming to be the case. Or take the large: the structure of the book, resting as it does on action sequence after action sequence, makes too little room for the connective tissue between them, with the fatal effect that the whole book feels a bit like an accident. In an interview with SciFi London, Asher admitted to making up his stories as he went along; it shows, creakingly and painfully so. Where plot is present at all, it is explained on the go in woeful dialogue ("'So who is it we're here to see?' Drooble asks. 'One of the co-owners of this ship, a certain Charles Cymbeline'" [p. 10]); more often, we are expected simply to go with the flow.

Were there any such momentum this might be possible, but the stylistic problems, and the total lack of a compelling central character, give the book very little in the way of forward movement. Perhaps I'm missing something: I have not read (and now do not intend to read) any of Asher's other Spatterjay novels. He spends so much time recapitulating their core concepts, and many of their events, however, that nor do I feel I have to. Orbus can easily be read as a standalone novel—but I remain open to the possibility that I have failed to spot some of its more interesting moments as a result of my unfamiliarity with its predecessors. This knowledge couldn't make the writing, characterisation or plotting of the book any better, but it may make proceedings more diverting for Asher's pre-existing fanbase.

Indeed, it is not as if Orbus is devoid of interest. Asher is very good at monsters—the Prador as a whole, and in particular King Oberon and the Golgoloth, are all agreeably nasty. In the case of the Prador race, it is true, there is a sense in which this begins to get a little distasteful. Asher tries to have it both ways, creating a monstrous race in the vein of the antagonists in the Alien movies, yet simultaneously giving many of them their own personalities—and, despite telling us time and again they are hateful, selfish, awful things, he has one of them commit an act of self-sacrifice at the climax of the story. This confused approach to the race is uncomfortable: the constant blanket judgements of the Prador are laid down not by the characters but by the narration itself, and conflict with its depiction of their individuality. King Oberon and the Golgoloth, meanwhile, are different beasts, and their monstrosity of a different order; the latter in particular is memorably gruesome.

The Golgoloth's grisliness rests largely in its harvesting the body parts of its own spawn in order to ensure its own increasingly decrepit survival. Here lies the other area of interest in Orbus: its treatment of bioshock. Orbus, for instance, has been transformed and rendered practically non-human by the Spatterjay virus's endless mutations; the anti-heroic Prador Vrell is likewise being transformed, and of the King of the Prador we are told, "only a small portion of the original Prador stuff that made Oberon is still there" (p. 237). Other characters, such as Sniper, encased with a war-drone's chassis, or Gurnard, the ship intelligence, are estranged in other ways from biological corporeality. The will to manipulate, alter and extend biology is the engine which drives the novel, and an almost universal revulsion for flesh is a curious undercurrent of Asher's writing: from his sexless characters to the Prador's obsession with hiding within impregnable suits of armour, there is throughout Orbus a separation from the physical which approaches the pathological.

These piquancies are, however, too sparingly applied to change the taste of the dish. Orbus is a stodgy, ill-thought-out thing, poorly planned and badly executed. On the level of language, it shows a shocking lack of polish—I'm in a sense amazed that Tor's editors are happy for it to appear under the imprint. Asher's sales figures, I imagine, are consolation enough for them. What all those readers find of value in this artless, derivate melange of a novel must remain to me a mystery. I finish, therefore, where Greil Marcus might well still begin.

Dan Hartland blogs at http://thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.



Dan Hartland's reviews have appeared for some years at Strange Horizons, as well as in publications such as Vector, Foundation, and the Los Angeles Review of Books. He blogs intermittently at thestoryandthetruth.wordpress.com.
20 comments on “Orbus by Neal Asher”

It is a shame there isn't more push back on these types of novels. As you say, they sell very well and that is deemed enough. Hey, if it's not your cup of tea just ignore it. The thing is, it could be my cup of tea. I'd like to read a decent action-based SF blockbuster from time to time, just as I'd like to watch a decent action film from time to time. Unfortunately both are rare because they usually ignore the basic fundamentals of their respective crafts and I'm afraid I find spectacle without anything else underneath it boring. In the case of film the problem is usually that too much money leads to too many cooks spoiling the broth. This doesn't apply to books. Instead there is the even more frustrating problem of writers just making shit up as they go along.

Asher's rather a disappointment. I really liked his first book when I read it but I struggled with his second enough to give up on it and when I checked in on him again for Prador Moon I was struck by how tired it all seemed.
As Martin says, there should be more of a push-back against this kind of thing. Asher has gotten something of a critical free ride (not least because he gets his copy editor to give him rave reviews in SFX) but it's pretty clear to me that he could do much better and his fans have a right to expect more from him.
As a critic, all I can say is that a) he's a homophobe, b) he's a climate-change denier and c) I haven't liked the last three books of his I've looked in on. Why would I request one of his boks for review? Dan's done a laudable job of taking on Asher's writing and making it clear that this really is not good enough.

Orbus is the third book in this particular series and really should be read after the other two to get a full idea of the characters and general story arc.
I loved this book and enjoyed it more than some of Asher's other stuff, style included, simply because it builds on the excellent universe that Neal has created. The characters, particularly the non-human ones, are well developed and interesting and were a joy to read.
If you haven't really read and enjoyed Neal's previous work then this definitely won't be one you'll enjoy. I still think this three book series is one of Neal's best offerings.

Haven't read this one, so dunno.
Asher's novels suffer a bit from bloat for this sort of thing, too.
However, I have read almost all of them, and I will say this - Prador Moon is definitely his worst.

Tristan Davenport

I also would love to read a sharp, well-structured SF adventure story. But I agree with Martin that there's a dearth of good material. Asher has never cut the mustard for me, and Iain M. Banks only sufficed for a few books. Any recommendations?

Matt Bright

Tristran - 'Singularity Sky' and 'Iron Sunrise' by Charles Stross, both set in the same space-opera type future, have non-stop action, wacky invention and an amusingly frothy writing style. Scott Westerfield's 'The Risen Empire' is vigorous hokum that doesn't tale itself too seriously, knows what you want at the end of a hard day and gives it to you in spades.
Asher, meanwhile, is a tedious hack whose iffy politics keep surfacing in his novels like a really stinky whale. I have this suspicion that he's one of those glibertarian SF types who think that literary style is for poofters.

Martin and Matt are spot-on: there is a place for a rollicking adventure, and Neal Asher is not the man to provide it. It does seem strange, as Jonathan says, that SF hasn't spoken up for this (and against Asher et al) more loudly before now. (Thanks, too, Jonathan for the kind words - though on re-reading I note some typos and editorial misses which rather undermine my smartarse undercutting of Asher's style!)
Mark, thanks for confirming that previous readers of Asher's might get something from the continuing universe. I remain at a loss, though, as to where you find the character development.

People speak of bloat, but is the problem not better described as an addiction to worldbling?
I remember giving up on the first Spatterjay novel because it was about 5% story to 95% world building and I was surprised to see that the Spatterjay virus is still being played with now, all of 7 years and 8 books later.
Obviously some people enjoy that kind of thing but combine it with a seemingly quite lax approach to plotting and you do not get a good adventure story... instead you get something comparable to Peter F. Hamilton's recent output : Fat fantasy with space ships.

Jonathan,
Should critics be talking about someone's politics? Isn't what matters the book?
If not, then the suggestion that Strange Horizons reviewers are a bunch of commie pantywaists with their testosterone excised is how Ben Grimm might put it. 😉
People can write what they like but the continual interjection of that sort of thing certainly detracts considerably from what is being written. A rather constant flaw, here.
Dan,
Also, isn't it rather silly to criticise crab people for having a fondness for armour? Sort or like saying humans should run around nude a bit more. Imposing your own monkeyboy psychology on them makes no sense at all.

Blue,
To be fair, I wasn't commenting on the content of Asher's books so much as the reasons for why I wouldn't request one of his books for review 🙂
In general though, I'll simply paraphrase Joanna Russ and say that I'll leave politics out of my reviews when authors leave it out of their books.
As for the other points, I'll happily accept the accusation that I'm left-leaning but I don't think I'm lacking in testosterone. Nor do I see any link between being leftist and lacking fight... I can think of far more vicious left-leaning criticism than I can vicious right-leaning criticism (though Clive James does spring to mind in that latter category).
As for finding political criticism dull, I would argue that that's down to individual taste rather than a failing of the form.
If anything, I tend to find the apolitical nature of most genre reviewing to be rather dull. If science fiction is about big ideas then does it not follow that science fiction criticism should be too?

Blue - no criticism of the armour-loving crab types here. I was just remarking that said passion was another instance of the very strong theme in Orbus of physical estrangement: that is, the Prador maintain a remove from the world outside them by remaining encased within an external shell.
On the politics front, I agree with Jonathan that you can't easily separate politics from literature. I don't really criticise Asher's politics in the review, though - what I say is that it's execution is lacking, that the politics of the book is simplistic (or "soft-headed"). In this case, Asher's libertarianism stands apart from the book, and is (here I agree with you) therefore of less relevance to the particular text in question.

Matt Bright

I don’t think you can separate politics out from literature in SF. There’s a sense in which politics is the discussion of potential modifications to existing society – so creating modified societies out of whole cloth is just an extreme contribution to that conversation.
Asher’s Spatterjay novels are a really good case in point – those long, loving introductory paragraphs describing everything eating everything else in The Skinner hardly contribute to the plot, he’s clearly just taking great pleasure in imagining and sharing an ecosystem stripped of any of that pesky altruism that make it so awkward to argue for ‘Social Darwinism’ in the real world…

Dan - In regards to the charcater development I admit that I may be biased with my opinion, but I am looking at the characters and developemnt from the previous books as well as this one.
The prador Vrell is particulalry interesting as it has grown from the lowly third child status at the start of The Skinner to a prador that is a match for the king himself. Orbus has also grown, but again this relates back to Voyage of the Sable Keech more than it does to this book only.
I guess I'm trying to simply say that although this book could be read as a stand alone (as you have done), it really needs to be read as a continuation of the series, something it does very well.
Jonathan - A couple of points regarding your comments.
First, you mention that this sort of things is comparable to Hamilton's latest stuff (which I took to be an insult because of the way you say it), but surely the growing popularity of authors such as Asher, and the continued popularity of Hamilton, simply shows you that although this may not be to your taste there is a large demand for it. Lax plotting is something you may be able to criticise some authors of (Asher included due to the way he writes), but Hamilton is one author that has some intricate plotting going on. Again, I feel that your comments are based simply on your preferences - which is fine, after all where would the genre be without diversity?
The other point is about your comments regarding Asher's views. At first I wanted to object, but I find myself agreeing with you in the sense that if an author has views and opinions that you disagree with, especially when they can be outspoken about them, you just won't pick them up - I find myself in this situation with a particular author. However, I still don't think there is any need to say what you said in the comments of a review. A simple 'I don't like him' would have sufficed.

Hi Mark 🙂
Regarding your first point I was merely expressing an opinion but I would have a lot more time for the diversity angle if setting bloat wasn't such a universal problem. In the case of Asher it's even more of a problem as he's presented as a producer of rip-roaring adventure stories whereas in fact he's producing awkwardly plotted books filled with ponderous setting exposition.
Regarding your second point, I'm not sure I follow. You agree with me, you even share my feelings about him but I shouldn't say how I feel? I don't know whether I like him or not.. I've never met him, but I don't like his politics.

simply shows you that although this may not be to your taste there is a large demand for it.
We've now looped round to exactly where I started the conversation. Sure, lots of people like bad stuff. I'm not convinced that they would cease to like it if it was a bit better though.

Thanks for the reply Jonathan. I completely understand what you're saying regarding the bloat, I guess I just don't see it as much of a problem as you, but then I do enjoy door-stopper sci-fi books 🙂
As for the point about commenting on an authors personal views - I don't think criticising them because of their personal views is an appropriate thing to say, although I understand where you're coming from.

Tristan Davenport

Matt: I did enjoy the Risen Empire books, and "vigorous hokum" is such a spot-on description that I may have to steal it 🙂
As for the larger conversation that's going on here (was going on here?), I take the position that political content is orthogonal to literary quality. The problem is that writers with a political axe to grind often present simplistic versions of political positions that could be treated with a great deal of nuance. A lack of nuance in the story makes me suspect a corresponding simplicity in the author's noggin, which inclines me to put down the book. And of course this becomes more of an issue if the politics are more foregrounded in the story.

Tristan, that very often depends on which axe is being ground, and which axe it is the reviewer's preference.

Andrew

the first two lines of this piece are:
Orbus by Neal Asher
Reviewed by Dan Hartland
This isn't much of a book review. Dan Hartland comes across as a frustrated school teacher, addressing a classroom of bored seven year-olds, using unnecessarily long and complicated words to bolster his failing self-worth.

Ehtel Jansen

Thought I might add this "If most of us are ashamed of shabby clothes and shoddy furniture, let us be more ashamed of shabby ideas and shoddy philosophies... It would be a sad situation if the wrapper were better than the meat wrapped inside it." - Albert Einstein

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