Review of Prador Moon by Neal Asher

Title: Prador Moon by Neal Asher
Author: Neal Asher
Series: Polity #1
Published: first published 26 May 2006 by Night Shade Books. My edition published 17 October 2008
Publisher: Tor, an imprint of Pan MacMillan
Genre:  space opera
Source: review copy from Pan MacMillan South Africa
My Rating: 6/10

Chronologically, Prador Moon is the first in Neal Asher’s collection of novels about a post-human space-faring society known as the Polity. It’s the 7th of a series of books set in this universe though, so it functions as a prequel. For me however, it served as an introduction to Asher’s work, so I basically read it as a stand-alone.

The Polity is mostly composed of humans but is ruled by AIs. Although it’s a space-faring society, they’ve only ever encountered two alien species. One is already extinct. The other, known as the Prador, is alive but evasive. The Polity has gathered a few scraps of info about the aliens, but no one has ever seen one of them. That’s about to change however, as the novel opens with the first meeting between the Polity and the Prador.

It does not go well. The Prador are revealed to be giant crabs, and their first and only words in this scene are, “I am Vortex, first-child of Captain Immanence. […] You humans will surrender this station to us” (7). Each of the Prador whips out as many guns as they can hold in their multiple claws, and so the war begins.

The crabs would like to enslave humanity to use them as part of an organic hardware system that controls their ships’ critical systems. Plus human flesh turns out to be pretty tasty, and the Polity has some rather nice habitats and technology too. The Prador are a naturally aggressive species with highly sophisticated weaponry, and since the Polity hasn’t had to deal with a conflict like this for a long time, humans and AIs scramble to switch to military mode. Epic bloodshed and destruction ensue, with loads of guns, bombs and spaceship battles.

Prador Moon is certainly the kind of novel that deserves to be called a “no holds barred action-packed thrill ride”, but – not surprsingly – it lacks depth. I mean, look at the aliens – a hoard of giant, cannibalistic, man-eating crabs who want to enslave humanity. They have a viciously hierarchical society where progression through the ranks is typically achieved by killing (and then probably eating) your superior. The most powerful crabs have hoardes of children who are hormonally bound to obey their fathers’ every word. Most of these children are kept in stasis until cannon fodder is needed. Human prisoners on the Prador battleship are recklessly used in experiments that inevitably lead to gruesome deaths. Seriously, everything about the Prador just screams EVIL. This absurdity is actually openly acknowledged in the book as “the kind of scenario that would have been laughed out of the door by a modern holofiction producer” (9), implying that the story has a kind of necessarily pulpy realism. Admittedly, I was happy to just go with that because I found the Prador pretty entertaining in a scandalous way.

The human and AI characters aren’t all that sophisticated either, but they’re less interesting. Jebel Krong (whose name always makes me think ‘jezebel’), is a super-soldier who quickly becomes famous for his skills in killing Prador. He would sacrifice himself to stop the Prador, partly because they’re evil, but mostly because they killed his woman (she was preparing a romantic dinner for two when the crabs attacked). It’s kind of funny. I actually like the few AI characters, but you don’t learn much about them.

What the novel lacks in depth it tries to make up for in technical complexity – how that machine works, what this AI’s capabilities are, and so on. Some of this is very cool. Humans can get cybernetic enhancements that give them a few AI-style abilities. The Prador have these awesome ships that absorb the energy of anything you fire at them and use it to for their own massively powerful weapons or to repair damages. It makes them fantastically hard to defeat. The only ship that can really take them on is an old but advanced AI ship called the Occam Razor whose mind is fused with a human captain.

Unfortunately, most of the tech stuff was boring and too confusing for me, and there’s quite a lot of it. One of the protagonists – Moria Salem – receives a particularly advanced enhancement that allows her to process extremely complex calculations. Thanks to this, she and super-soldier Jebel represent the Polity’s best hopes of defeating the Prador, but I for one did not know what the hell she was doing. Fans of hard sf would probably love it. I could not.

However, since the novel manages to be an entertaining read without a sophisticated plot or characters, I didn’t really need to understand the details of the tech in the same way that I don’t need to know how guns work to enjoy an action movie. I just got through it by translating long paragraphs of explanation to something suitably dumbed down like “Moria does something really complicated with the fancy technology”.

Unfortunately, this came back to bite me in the ass at the end, when I didn’t have a clue what the big plan for the final showdown was. I re-read the ending and got a vague impression of an epic strike outrageous enough to suit the rest of the book. On the whole though, I had fun with Prador Moon, even though it does take itself a little too seriously. I’ve also heard from one or two reviewers that it’s not the best of the Polity novels, and either way I wouldn’t mind reading a few more if they are in fact characterised by “over-the-top violence and explosive action” as the blurb of this book suggests. On my list of review copies is Gridlinked (2001), the first Polity novel to be published, as well as the first in the popular Agent Cormac series. We’ll see how that goes.