The Gabble and other stories by Neal Asher (Polity)

First I have to confess that not only am I new to reviewing, but that I am also new to reading Neal Asher. I choose this collection of short stories in the hope of a good introduction to the Polity universe, and I wasn't disappointed. I had no trouble at all in understanding the concepts or visualising his worlds, and each story is crisp, capable of standing alone whether you are familiar with his previous work or not.

The ten stories cover a range of themes and characters, though I found I had less empathy with some than others. Softly Spoke The Gabbleduck starts off as a simple enough trophy hunt that rapidly takes a couple of interesting twists, but I was left a little confused by the final one until reading some of the later stories. Putrefactors follows a bounty hunter on the trail of his lawbreaking quarry and left me with a suitably horrified shudder at its gruesome revelations. The macabre theme is taken a step further in Garp and Geronamid with the re-animation of the dead as the reified, and a play on the legend of the ghosts of murder victims who seek out their killer for revenge, with drug addiction and the horrific methods used to increase the drugs production likely to leave you squirming. My favourite quote comes from story four, the Sea of Death, as two characters discuss the find of millions of sarcophagi containing alien remains that, whilst not human, bear certain similarities:

'Do you think it's parallel evolution?'

'Does a scorpion look like a human? It evolved under the same condition and even on the same planet.' he says, and totally destroys the parallel evolution theory.

Some of the twisted humour in this particularly story struck a cord with me, though the ending seemed a touch abrupt. I thought this had potential to be something more exciting and contained scientific detail that was interesting, but overall it was not particularly enthralling. My favourite of the collection was Alien Archaeology – I felt more involved with the characters, who had more depth to them, perhaps because this is the longest of the ten. It also explained away some of my confusion over the Gabbleduck, introduced the Prador and expanded on the AIs with a beautifully sarcastic ship and rogue Golems. Acephalous Dreams was difficult for me to read – I don't want to do any spoilers, but this does involve the abuse of a young boy for anyone who may be sensitive on the subject, and it lingers for several pages on his revenge. Tangled amongst it was the possible resurrection of one of the three dead stellar races which seemed a glaring contrast to the human story. Snow in the Desert was surprising with its touch of romance and its questioning of the definition of human amongst the Golems, AIs, alien races and adapted humans. There was a decided sting in the tail with Choudapt, dealing with the unforeseen hazards of using alien DNA for improvements. Adaptogenic ran on similar lines, and left me pondering the question of how far would you go to survive on an alien world? Would you sacrifice your humanity to live at all costs?

The final story, the Gabble, is perhaps the most poignant of the book; the lengths a species might go to in order to continue its existence at a terrible price. Many of the stories, particularly those of the gabbleduck, invoke a certain pathos despite its reputedly horrific eating habits and appearance. The author's notes at the end are also interesting, giving you a small insight into each story and I had to laugh at his origin for the Gabbleduck – the zoo in question is only a ten minute drive from my home, though I've never met one there.

None of the explanations of the technology are overdone – they don't interfere with the story and leave you feeling as though you're ploughing your way through an instruction manual from the future although sometimes the descriptions are a little flat.

If you are new to the Polity Universe as I am, this is a good guide for your first steps. If you like a small slice of solid science-fiction with your mid-morning coffee, I can highly recommend this. I'm not swearing to be an eternal fan of Neal Asher, but I will definitely be looking to buy other books from the series, whilst for Asher devotees who have yet to buy this collection of short stories – what on Earth are you waiting for?

8/10 If you are new to the Polity Universe as I am, this is a good guide for your first steps.

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Neal Asher biography

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