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.
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