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The Technician (Polity 4) by Neal Asher

01/11/2011. Contributed by Tomas L. Martin

Buy The Technician (Polity 4) in the USA - or Buy The Technician (Polity 4) in the UK

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pub: TOR-UK/PanMacmillan. 203 page hardback. Price: GBP 17.99 (UK), $36.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-230-70874-7).

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I find Neil Asher to be a little infuriating these days. He is a very good writer, especially of action sequences and political intrigue, and some of his books – ‘Brass Man’, for instance, or ‘Line Of Polity’ - are riveting, unputdownable and have pride of place on my bookshelf. However, for every must-have book, I find there’s another one or two novels that just don’t work, whose plot collapses under the weight of trying to tell a story in the increasingly over-complicated far future setting that Asher has created. Unfortunately, that was the case for me reading this book.

‘The Technician’ returns to the world of Masada, the world that in ‘Line Of Polity’ was ruled by the iron fist of the Theocracy, a religious cult that kept the world subjugated by huge orbital lasers, until the AI led Polity that rules the rest of the galaxy came and crushed them. Twenty years later and Masada is mostly peaceful, but still boiling over with the revolutionary politics and bizarre, lethal local flora and fauna.

Jeremiah Tombs is one of the few surviving leaders of the Theocracy, but he’s alive because the AIs of the Polity want him to be. For Tombs has some strange piece of information locked into his head, following a meeting with the Technician, a vast worm-like ‘hooder’ which dwells beneath the earth of the planet, creating strange pieces of artwork that mankind has puzzled over for centuries. The Polity wants to know what the Technician put into Tombs’ head when the creature attacked him.

The problem is the attack also left Tombs with that favourite of SF tropes, a blank memory. Tombs remains convinced that the Polity’s occupation of Masada is merely a trick and that the Theocracy remains all powerful and in command. He assumes all of the AIs’ attempts to talk to him are trying to get him to betray the Theocracy. The AIs and their human accomplices must resort to desperate measures to unlock the secrets locked in Tombs’ brain, even as revolutionaries plot to kill him.

I really struggled to get into this book, as I have done with several of the recent Asher books. There’s so much back-story and information needed just to comprehend what’s going on, I felt like I needed an encyclopaedia next to me just to be able to tell what was going on. To really get the most of this volume, I think I would have needed to have re-read at least three or four of the previous books and that’s an investment I don’t think a lot of people can spare these days.

I think that’s partly a problem of how complicated Asher makes his plots, but it’s also the way he deals with the AI in this and several other books. Having an all-knowing, all-powerful character (or several!) is a difficult thing for a writer to juggle, as it can take all the dramatic tension out of a story. Iain M. Banks threads this eye of a needle very well in many of his books by setting off the AIs as godlike figures in the background, with the characters under real threat in the foreground.

Asher sometimes manages this, but other times I feel it doesn’t quite come off. The characters in ‘The Technician’ are flat and rather dull and I never quite grasped why learning what Tombs knew about the Technician was so important. Without a big baddie to drive the plot forward until very late in the book, such as the nano-enhanced Skellor in earlier books or the crablike Prador, the book felt lacking in tension and a bit of a chore to read. I’m sure for Asher fans there’s some enjoyment to be taken out of this book and the description of the crazy wildlife of Masada continues to entertain, but for the most part I would skip this one.

Tomas L. Martin

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