Mar. 31st, 2017

sawyl: (A self portrait)
And so to Infinity Engine, the final novel in Neal Asher's Transformation series. Given the density of the plot — one of Asher's principals is a god-like AI able to predict and manipulate all the other characters' actions — I wasn't sure whether the book would stick the dismount. But it turns out I needn't have worried: the elegant way Asher resolves his outstanding plot threads is a wonder to behold.

The action begins where War Factory left off, with all the main characters trapped in Room 101, a vast space manufactory created during the Polity-Prador. Cvorn, the immediate antagonist of the first two books, is dead, as, apparently, is his fellow prador Sverl. But that doesn't mean that Room 101 is safe for Thorvald Spear and his companions: the station's left-over drones and artificial intelligences have abandoned sanity to engage in a struggle for survival against one-another.

Meanwhile, across space, a group of scavengers find the remains of a small ship washed up in a strange region that attracts debris from U-space. The ship appears to contain a survivor: a human in an antique space suit. Being unpleasant sorts, the scavengers take the survivor back to their space station where they plan to enter them in an illegal death match against their current champion, the prador Sfolk, one of Cvorn's children, who was washed up on the wrack when his father's dreadnought was destroyed. But all is not what it seems and what should have been a simple gladiatorial match ends up going badly for the scavengers, leaving Sfolk and the survivor free to investigate an ancient alien spacecraft at the heart of the wrack.

Elsewhere, in another significant strand to the plot, a forensic AI called the Brockle has escaped his confinement in the prison hulk Tyburn and set out in pursuit of Penny Royal. Driven by a warped sense of justice, the Brockle is perfectly willing to torture and maim to discover what he needs to know, but he retains a squeamishness about murder, reasoning to himself that if he doesn't kill anyone who doesn't deserve it, he will remain morally blameless in the eyes of the Polity. During his dogged pursuit of his quarry the Brockle picks up Captain Blight and his crewmate Greer, both of whom were former play-things of Penny Royal, and encounters another the rogue AI's creatures, a gangster called Mr Pace who seems to be locked in a Faustian agreement which has granted him a costly form of invulnerability.

To say much more about the plot would be to spoil it, but suffice to say that everything pulls together an extremely effective and satisfying way. The characters are classic Asher: a group of deeply advanced post-humans — or post-prador — who, for all their vast intelligence, find themselves struggling to survive and to find something to give meaning and shape to their lives. Penny Royal, perhaps the ultimate protagonist of the series, rarely appears in person, limiting itself to cryptic comments and occasional savage interventions; a wise decision that helps retain the mystery of the god-like entity at the heart of the plot. This results in the main characters' existential doubts being intermittently interrupted by clear and unequivocal evidence that, however free they think they are, their actions have been precisely predicted by something greater than themselves in furtherance of its own goals.

As I've already said, Infinity Engine brings the Transformation trilogy to a sound, satisfactory, and enjoyable conclusion ending on a note that more than slightly nods to Asimov and Clarke. It obviously doesn't work as a standalone novel — Asher assumes that the reader is up to speed with the events and cast of the previous novels, and has a more than passing familiarity with the technology, poltics, and setting of his Polity universe — but this is entirely fair given that it's the final book in a tightly coupled series. I think it's fair to say that if you liked the first two books in the series, you're going to enjoy this an awful lot.

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