Neal Asher: Gridlinked

Review of the novel Gridlinked by Neal Asher.

Neal Asher has been on my radar screen as one of the biggers names in high-tech SF in this decade. He’s published nearly a dozen novels, which means I have a lot of catching up to do. (I’m reading his blog, too.) Before diving into Gridlinked I’d read a couple of his stories in the SF magazines and liked what I’d read.

Gridlinked opens with Ian Cormac, one of Earth Central Security’s top agents, pursuing a group of anarchists on the planet Cheyne III. Although he disrupts their operations, they had him ‘made’ from the beginning, since he is constantly linked into the computer grid, which has gradually dampened his emotional reactions to things over thirty years. He also fails to capture of kill the group’s ringleader, Arian Pelter, although he does kill Pelter’s sister, Angelina.

Cormac is them abruptly pulled off the mission and shipped to the planet Samarkand. Humanspace, you see, is connected by a set of matter transmitters, called runcibles, which are controlled by the governing collection of artificial intelligences which run Earth Central. Something managed to disrupt the runcible on Samarkand, destroying it and effectively dooming all life on the cold, partially-terraformed world. Moreover, his superiors decide that it’s time for Cormac to be unlinked from the grid since his detachment from humanity is making him a less effective agent. Naturally this cuts Cormac off from being able to instantly access information and communicate with the local AI, as well as forcing him to rely on his human memories. Nonetheless, he complies.

Arriving at Samarkand Cormac finds several enigmas, including some creatures which remind him of a powerful alien being he’d encountered years before, as well as a well-defended artifact buried in the ice. Unknown to Cormac, while he investigates the event, Arian Pelter, his hired mercenaries, and a cyborg psychopath called Mr. Crane have been arming themselves and following Cormac to Samarkand so that Pelter can avenge his sister.

Gridlinked can best be categorized as “high-tech suspense”, concentrated more on building the suspense and executing the action scenes which resolve the plot and less on a high ideas content. After all, the core concepts here are pretty routine: An AI government, cyborgs, linking into cyberspace, interplanetary teleportation, and a variety of supporting technologies such as antigravity and energy weapons. That’s not bad, but I had expected a more ideas-driven story a la Alastair Reynolds or Karl Schroeder.

The book’s serious demeanor and sense of mystery is what makes it enjoyable. It’s not a mystery the reader can really solve, but watching Cormac poke around on Samarkand and deal with an old adversary is fun. Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what motivated the Samarkand disaster in the first place; I think the bigger ideas ended up getting swamped by the adventure and shooting and running around. The book comes to a rather abrupt, and somewhat unsatisfying, end in this regard.

The characterizations tend to be thin. Cormac himself is very much a cipher, perhaps deliberately given what being gridlinked for three decades has done to him, with little background or relationship to the other characters. Pelter and his aide Stanton are more well-drawn: Pelter pretty much goes around the bed during the story, while Stanton is a calculating but flawed mercenary who ends up in an untenable situation. None of the other characters are especially memorable (I don’t really count the mute Mr. Crane as a character, though his presence is certainly memorable).

And then I wonder why the book is titled “Gridlinked“, since Cormac of course becomes unlinked during the story, and the grid (or lack thereof) plays relatively little into the story. It feels like a marketing title, not a title truly representative of the story.

So I was rather disappointed by Gridlinked. It reads like the first novel that it is, with pieces that work and pieces that don’t, and pieces that feel out-of-place. Asher has written quite a few novels since this, and this one holds enough promise that I’m certainly going to read more of them, in the hopes that he develops both as a writer and as an idea-smith. But this one isn’t essential reading.