by Neal Asher

      Whoever thinks that sci-fi is about anything other than the present, would be about a parsec wide of the mark if they were to hold Hilldiggers up as a case in point.

      In Asher’s latest novel we find two diametrically opposed cultures just emerging from a long conflict that almost threatened mutual annihilation. One, the Sudorians, have managed to take the technological high ground with the development of the Hilldigger orbital attack ships. The result, to quote the book’s central character, is an enemy “nuked back to the Stone Age.” Well, practically. Now, in the ensuing power vacuum, all civilian eyes turn upon the military to question their wartime atrocities and ongoing funding. Caught between a rock and a hard place, it seems the old guard either needs to find a fresh external enemy, or run the risk of opening a schism wide enough for a civil war to fill. Any of this sounding topical at all? Either of the battling superpowers ringing any thermonuclear bells?

      Asher definitely has an axe to grid, but what a shiny, well honed and beautifully weighted axe it is. As for the grinding itself, it’s quietly implicit and adds a nice edgy ring that underpins some glorious moments of page blurring action. He’s on top of his game with this one and his confidence entwines itself like a fibrous thread throughout the plot. Multiple narratives occurring in different timeframes, shifts between first and third-person perspectives, a detailed and convincing description of not just one, but two planetary ecosystems… In lesser hands, a rambling and wayward text that leaves the reader unsatisfied and confused could well result. What we have instead is a wonderfully rich and complex tale that happily flips between giving the mind something weighty to mull over and pleasing its baser, thrill-seeking desires.

      If there’s one criticism that could be leveled at the book, it would have to be the similarity with its predecessors on the space opera stage. We’ve all encountered ruling AIs, intergalactic hegemonies and genetically cranked humans before. But, again, Asher’s skill is in making it all seem wild, wonderful, politically provoking and fresh.