the Little Red Reviewer

The Skinner, by Neal Asher

Posted on: October 17, 2012

The Skinner, by Neal Asher

published in 2005

where I got it: borrowed from a friend

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So often in science fiction, immortality is found through technological means – we upload, or become cyborg, or some such. How refreshing to come across a biological method of immortality  in Neal Asher’s The Skinner, and that’s just the first of many refreshing concepts presented in this unique space opera.

Discovered around a thousand years ago, the planet known as Spatterjay is unique in the universe. The environs of the planet are so harsh and the poisons coursing through the bodies of its indigenous species so volatile that every life form on the planet has evolved to survive. Nearly every life form on the planet is teeming with a native virus, that for all intents and purposes, makes its victims immortal. On Spatterjay, the most valuable commodity is permanent death.

If you could survive any injury, how would it change how your life? To the citizens of Spatterjay, decapitation puts a crimp in one’s afternoon, not one’s life. Those with a weak stomach may want to skip The Skinner, as Asher has quite a bit of magnificently disgusting fun putting characters through the physical ringer.

The story begins with the arrival of three off-worlders.  The depressed yet curious Erlin who is searching for a famous ship captain who keeps a monster’s head in his sea chest; Keech, the cyborg corpse cop who has a score to settle with the remaining pirates who were involved with enslaving the citizens of Spatterjay; and Janer, who tries to convince every one he’s a simple tourist employed by a hive mind.  And circling high above them all are the snarky subminds of the Artificial Intelligence who manages the government of Spatterjay.  And we can’t forget the semi-intelligent long-necked large-winged living Sails, who are an integral part of the fishing industry on Spatterjay. If you read The Skinner for no other reason, read it for the Sails.

As in all good space opera, there are a handful of fascinating subplots that weave their way around the main characters.  No subplots and the story feels simple. Too many and I feel lost and overwhelmed. Asher hit that goldilocks sweet spot with just the right amount of everything to convince me to read more in his Polity family of novels.

Not only does Asher offer up fascinating characters of astonishing depth, but he pulls off the often attempted but rarely successful trick of making Spatterjay itself, a character. A world of mostly oceans, the different sea creatures feed off each other, and have evolved in different ways to survive better in different areas.  Deftly offered as chapter openings, the info about the planet’s ocean dwelling creatures feels more like a suspenseful thriller than an infodump, and that’s how it should be.

If you can’t tell, I loved The Skinner, and I can’t believe it took me this long to read a Neal Asher!  The author very quickly got my attention with his description of the strange denizens of Spatterjay, and kept my attention by feeding me the growing complexities of the plot. With its unreliable and secretive characters, sprawling storyline, and gross-out action scenes, The Skinner certainly isn’t for everyone.  But If you like good space opera, have an appreciation for unique aliens, and you have a strong stomach, you are going to love it.  If you enjoy Iain Banks, Alastair Reynolds, or James S.A. Corey, you’re going to get a kick out of Neal Asher. The Skinner is book one in Asher’s Spatterjay trilogy, and the books take place within his larger Polity universe.

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9 Responses to "The Skinner, by Neal Asher"

There are one or two big-time fans of Asher in the Classic Science Fiction Book Club that repeatedly nominate books for the monthly reads and they haven’t been picked and reading this review and your enthusiasm for the book, coupled with the fact that I LOVE space opera, makes me wish we had voted differently and will influence my vote next time!!!

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especially since it was you, and the recommendations from your book club that got me reading Alastair Reynolds, I figured I’d return the favor. :) Maybe it’s because he’s British, but I’m surprised Asher isn’t better known (and lauded) in the US.

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I have this book waiting for me on my “headboard reading list.” I like Asher’s writing style a lot, as it tends to move along at a nice pace. Asher also has the dubious honour of being the writer of a time travel novel I didn’t hate, the number of which you can count on one hand (4 currently.) Going from your review, I should move this one up in the queued list.

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no time travel in this one, I promise. And yeah, his method of pacing was spot on. No draggy bits, but nothing so fast paced that I couldn’t keep up. Which one of his novels is the time travel one?

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It is called “Cowl” and is in a universe apart from the Polity. The thing that made it special for me was his explanation of applying concepts like Newtonian physics to changing the past. Some events require more energy to alter in order to offset their probability of change. It just made “sense” without all the usual handwavium you get in time travel stories.

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sounds very cool! and time travel that’s a little more scientific and little less wibbly wobbly timey wimey? NICE.

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Sounds interesting, thanks for sharing it!

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Thank you kindly for this – and those comments about Cowl!

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Wow! and, um, Hi Mr Asher!! thank you for visiting my little corner of the blogosphere and leaving a comment! :D

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