'The runcible has been developed to the stage where it is near perfect in function. Humankind can now step from star system to star system with ease...' --Dragon talking about advancing human technology including runcibles, matter transmitters controlled by AIs
A feeling of detachment and apathy permeated my reading experience of British author Neal Asher's 2001 science fiction debut GRIDLINKED. The characters failed to capture, the plotting and pacing sagged while the fragmented prose stuttered. As with any science fiction and fantasy novel, world building and settings factor significantly because the SFF story's backdrop lies outside of a contemporary or historical setting. Although GRIDLINKED adequately builds its universe, I felt its clunky and tediously scientific prose swallowed any potential wonder or excitement in GRIDLINKED's universe. The science fiction What-If scenario in GRIDLINKED? Matter-transmitting "runcibles" controlled by AIs allow humankind to literally step from world to world light years apart. A threat to exploiting this technology forms the foundation of this novel. GRIDLINKED contains an overwhelming element of mystery in its characters (Dragon, the Japanese demigod Horace Blegg) and suspense in the plotting (Dragon's motives, Cormac's mysterious scheme at the end). A story may spell things out for its readers, essentially dumbing it down, or it may intentionally leave readers in the dark by obfuscating the prose. Instead of some balance in the delivery of the mystery, I thought GRIDLINKED chose the later in the extreme to the point of disinterest (fogging the prose and mystifying characters and their intentions to the point of apathy). There's terrorizing Separatists who detest AI's growing role in the universe, sympathetic mercenaries, mysterious dragons, androids, and our James-Bond agent in the center of it all: Ian Cormac. Unlike some science fiction novels, the AIs here aren't "bad" and they represent an extension of humanity. In fact the AIs exhibit more emotion and attitude than the characters. Like the quote below, I found Ian Cormac's character characterless, and I just didn't care about our mercenary John Stanton or Stanton's lover Jarvellis whose boring perspective appears in droves later in the novel.
"Ian Cormac: Yet another mythical creation of hero-starved humanity. Earth Central Security (ECS) does have its monitors, its Sparkind and troops, and, yes, it does have its secret agents. But let us be honest about these people: they are, on the whole, grey and characterless. Again, this is all about what we want to believe. We want to this superagent who so easily sorts out all the bad guys for us. Cormac is to ECS what a certain agent with the number 007 was to M15. At best he is fictional creation at his worst he is a violent and disruptive role model." --From Quince Guide, compiled by humans
I immediately compared James-Bond agent Ian Cormac with Richard K. Morgan's Takeshi Kovacs, and boy, is Kovacs hundred times more interesting. Morgan's gritty protagonist makes for wondrous world building and a hard-boiled detective story in ALTERED CARBON (****). In terms of a gripping plot, pace and characterizations, Asher's GRIDLINKED pales by comparison.
The Story, possible SPOILERS.
In the prologue, a technician steps into these matter-transmitting runcibles on his way to the planet Samarkind. As soon as he steps on the other side to Samarkind an explosion kills all of the planet's 10,000 residents. Back on the planet Cheyne III, the book opens with a gridlinked Ian Cormac killing Angelina Pelter. His chainglass weapon called "shuriken" harbors an independent AI and it seems to bail out Cormac in any tight situation. Being "gridlinked" places any information at Cormac's fingertips and as one of Earth Central Security's (ECS) most valuable agents, he's been gridlinked for over 30 years now -- 10 years too many according to convention, and quickly losing his humanity. The mysterious demigod character Horace Blegg advises Cormac to disconnect from the grid and Cormac spends the rest of the book attempting to regain his humanity. Blegg diverts Cormac's operation on Cheyne III uncovering terrorist cells to investigating the explosion on Samarkind. Angelina Pelter's psychopathic terrorist brother Arian Pelter chases Cormac. The majority of the interminable middle sections of the book spend time at Samarkind as Cormac and his team try to discover what happened. Everyone considers hacking into the powerful runcible AIs impossible and for someone to accomplish such a feat killing 10,000, it's imperative Cormac uncover the how's. I'm not sure it's ever fully explained even in the end, and if it is, it's scientifically overbearing. Eventually a mysterious and powerful extragalactic entity called "Dragon" appears over Samarkind. Dragon implicates one of its makers, called "Maker," an entity consisting of energy.
Pelter chases Cormac across the galaxy with a single-minded purpose: kill Cormac. The chapters studiously alternate between the boring events on Samarkind as Cormac and his team investigate the explosion and install a new runcible AI, and to Pelter traveling across the galaxy to kill Cormac. Finally the book climaxes on the planet Viridian as all relevant parties converge for a showdown. There's many uninteresting pages from the smuggler Jarv's perspective towards the end. I found Jarv and Staton's reunion corny and too convenient, while Cormac's end-game scheme protracted and drab.
At the end of the day, not only did the book bore me, but I failed to understand the point of it all. Maybe I just didn't get it, but nor did I want to; the book tried too hard to sustain a measure of suspense and mystery over 400 pages into a 426-page hardcover. The Dragon implicates the Maker in the destruction of Samarkind, Dragon wants Cormac to kill the Maker, Cormac agrees, but in the end, concocts a sheme to renege on his promise to Dragon after learning the Maker isn't all bad, and along the way he faces off against the psychopath Pelter. Oh and the mercenary Stanton (originally with Pelter) and his love interest the smuggler Jarvellis find each other after much hardship. Did I miss anything? It all seemed too dumb and the boring content and prose didn't help.