Review | Polity Agent by Neal Asher (Tor)


Title: Polity Agent
Author: Neal Asher
Publisher: Tor UK
Format: Hardback
Pages: 496
Release Date: October 2006

Buy from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com
Space opera on a magnificent, non-stop roller-coaster of action

From 800 years in the future, a runcible gate is opened into the Polity. Those coming through it have been tasked with taking the alien ‘Maker’ back to its home civilization in the Small Magellanic cloud. Once these refugees are safely through, the gate itself is rapidly shut down – because something alien is pursuing them.

From those who get through, agent Cormac learns that the Maker civilization has been destroyed by pernicious virus known as the Jain technology. This raises questions: why was Dragon, a massive bioconstruct of the Makers, really sent to the Polity; why did a Jain node suddenly end up in the hands of someone who could do the most damage with it? Meanwhile an entity called the Legate is distributing toxic Jain nodes . . . and a renegade attack ship, The King of Hearts, has encountered something very nasty outside the Polity itself . . .
Polity Agent is the fourth book in the Agent Cormac series, a series I've been catching up with and thoroughly enjoying. The second and third books in the series, The Line of Polity and Brass Man, dealt with the emergence of Jain tech and Skellor's use of it and was a fairly self-contained duology within the main story. Of course, just because that sub-story concluded it doesn't mean everything is fine, far from it - Jain tech is still out there and Polity Agent hits the ground running.

As a runcible opens from 800 years in the future the team that were sent to return the Maker to its civilisation in the Small Magellanic cloud comes through in a panic, the Makers overrun by Jain tech. With runcible time-travel not recommended by the AI's of the Polity due to the huge power requirements and dangers it involves, this situation is used solely to destroy the Jain infested Maker civilisation and most of the Small Magellanic cloud. This event raises many questions, most prominent of them being the purpose of Dragon, the huge bio-construct that the Makers created and sent to the Polity. Meanwhile an entity called Legate is distributing Jain nodes to certain people within the Polity, one of these being Orlandine, a haiman who takes a whole different approach to studying the Jain technology she has in her possession, while another is a dangerous separatist leader on the planet of Coloron. Meanwhile Horace Blegg, the infamous immortal of legend, is slowly learning more and more about jain tech and of himself, while Cormac continues to discover more about Dragon while trying to limit and eradicate the spread of Jain tech. And then there is the King of Hearts, a renegade AI whose journey out of the Polity leads him to discover something very dangerous indeed.

Where to start? Well, Polity Agent isn't so much a build up of events like previous novels, but an instant hit of what to expect throughout. This really does help the novel, but then it's part four in a series so it shouldn't have to take too much time building up the story. With the future runcible opening early in the book it kicks off a chain of events that has a huge impact on the Polity, but it starts to raise more questions about Dragon, the Makers and the Jain nodes. These questions have been there in the previous novels, but it's only now that the dots are starting to connect and the bigger picture is becoming visible - and boy is it big!

The characters that carry this story forward are all interesting. We've got the returning characters of Cormac, Mika, Thorn, Scar, plus the AI Jerusalem, but it's the new ones I enjoyed reading. Orlandine is one of the main characters here, and her haiman heritage is a very interesting part of this. She's as close to a human-AI hybrid as is possible (a full meld results in the death of both within minutes), and because of this she's got much more knowledge and intelligence than humans and can apply it very specifically. With a Jain node in her possession she hides away to fully investigate it, a story thread that results in some interesting discoveries about the Jain tech. There is also Horace Blegg, the enigmatic immortal we've seen in previous books. This time he gets a major role in the story and we start to learn more and more about him and his status within the Polity, and it's a very interesting journey he goes on. We also meet an Atheter AI - awesome! As for the King of Hearts, well, its journey out of the Polity leads to some startling discoveries that really will effect humanity as it stands.

In my review of Brass Man I said this:
What is most enjoyable about Brass Man is the sheer feeling of threat that faces the Polity. While we only see this through the events on and around Cull, the implications of these events have far reaching effects.
Well, now that threat is wide reaching, and we see it. Asher has done a wonderful job of showing this in Polity Agent and it comes across very well. We aren't restricted to one place, although much of the story does focus on the Jain tech outbreak on Colloron, and it's because of this that Polity Agent steps up the game. The ending doesn't conclude this story at all and instead introduces more of the threat that the Polity will face very soon, and here's hoping Line War will deliver everything that it needs to wrap up this series in style.

So, Polity Agent is a big book dealing with big issues to the Polity. It's not the best place to start with Neal's work, simply because it requires prior knowledge of events that have occurred to get the most out of it. Fortunately Neal does take some steps to help the new reader here with his chapter introductions. These little snippets give the reader either a little reminder about events that have occurred previously, or fill in the gaps for anyone new to the series. These chapter introductions are a presence in all of Neal's novels and are hugely enjoyable to read. Some of them give general background of the Polity and it's technology while others are a direct reference to the story, to give that little bit of world building without being too in your face. I love them though, and enjoy these just as much as the story itself.

Polity Agent is another great SF novel and continues the Cormac series in style. Asher doesn't shy away from anything here and delivers everything you could possibly want in a science fiction story. Simply put, this series has got better with each new novel and Neal Asher is firmly establishing himself as one of the premier science fiction authors writing today.

The Kat  – (4 February 2011 12:03)  

Whole heartedly agree with your 9/10.

Polity agent really shines and benefits greatly from the rich backstory provided by the previous books in the cormac saga and further the other semi-related books set in the same universe.

I love the polity universe its got rough edges, and plenty of shades of gray in its charecters.

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