The Engineer by Neal L Asher (Tanjen, £6.99, 214 pages, paperback. Published 1998.)
Neal Asher's latest book, The Engineer, consists of the title novella and six short stories, most seemingly set in the same universe as "The Engineer". That universe, of the human empire known as the Polity, could almost be termed "Culture-lite", bearing as it does a passing resemblance to Iain Banks' more substantially drawn Culture. Here there be immense AI-run ships, androids and a human-based empire spanning thousands of stars. Asher's universe does have enough going for it to be interesting, though. The stories here certainly sketch out a series of intriguing possibilities.
"Sketch" is probably the operative word, since the potential of the tales is often more than Asher makes of them. The title novella is a case in point. A Polity research ship finds a sphere drifting in space, which turns out to contain the cryogenically preserved body of the last surviving member of an ancient race. When revived, the Jain turns out to be an exceptionally accomplished genetic engineer. Meanwhile, news of the discovery has promoted responses from both the Polity and its enemies, and the race is on as to who reaches the research ship first, between the Polity who would preserve the Jain and those enemies who would destroy it out of hand rather than let the Polity have it. Now, this plot contains considerable potential, but Asher settles for a fairly perfunctory examination, a rapidfire plotline that leaves little room for any character development, and an ending that arrives much too soon. Lots of intriguing hints about the Jain and the Polity's universe, but nothing that truly gives it the depth that Banks achieves with his Culture books. And that's a loss, because Asher's writing is generally good, his ideas are excellent, and his characters seem to have the potential for enlargement. But it doesn't happen, so the reader is left rather unsatisfied.
If Asher could flesh out his stories into full-blown works, I'm sure that he would find himself many more readers. The Engineer doesn't quite deliver on its promises.
The Engineer is published by Tanjen Books, 52 Denman Lane, Huncote, Leicester LE9 3BS, UK
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© John D Owen 11 July 1998