Neal Asher’s 2002 The Skinner follows closely on the heels of Gridlinked’s success and is the first in a sub-series of the POLITY called SPATTERJAY. The novel is part horror, part fantasy, part science fiction, and its main character may be the water world Spatterjay itself, filled with vividly imaginative, exotic (and hungry) forms of indigenous life. The Skinner, Asher’s second published novel, improves upon the first and gives lovers of action/adventure sci-fi hope that a new voice is emerging.
At its core, The Skinner is the tale of four characters, though a handful more round out the cast. Erlin Tazer is a xenobiologist who is looking not only for an old lover, but some excitement in life. Spatterjay exists beyond the line of polity, i.e. the tamed part of the universe, so she heads there, getting more adventure than she bargained for sailing the planet’s teeming waters. Janer Cord is a man employed by a hornet hive mind to take their kind on an interplanetary tour so they may learn of the universe. Though this seems a difficult task to pull off, Asher describes hornet sentience plausibly enough, mixing the insects’ interests wholly into the plot. Sable Keech, a 1,000-year-old reified man kept alive by cybergenetics he must regularly flush and cycle from a suitcase he carries, is on a mission of vengeance resulting from the Prador war. The last character, an elderly war drone named Sniper, is likewise on the planet and becomes involved with the war-lusting Pradors in ways his tempered metal casing never wanted.
As can be seen, the focus of The Skinner is plotting and characterization. The latter is generally sacrificed in favor of the former; the novel is a ripping yarn. Action, death, justice, battles, surprises, and a grand showdown fill the book. These are not thrown at the reader in an unending onslaught of gore and gunfire, however; Asher balances nicely the quieter moments with more energetic ones, building to a climax that closes the story arcs in satisfying fashion.
Darwinism is a theme in The Skinner; the beginning of each chapter features a few paragraphs of an intra-story that links thematically to that chapter. Life in Spatterjay’s ocean is described in dog-eat-dog style, and it seems there’s always a bigger fish. Paralleling nicely the ambitions of most of the main story’s characters, particularly their desire to simply stay alive on the wild planet, this intra-story makes for good narrative tension, and yes, the opportunity to describe a few macabre scenes of horror and violence. And in Sable Keech’s case, the cadaverous immunology that will have people wrinkling their brows.
In the end, The Skinner is an entertaining mixture of genres: fantasy and horror, centered upon science fiction, but with little substance beyond. Asher aims (almost) all his guns at telling an excitement-filled story, and readers should expect little thematic exposition beyond a light survival-of-the-fittest motif. The writing is not grand or lush, but does a good job relating the action and describing the odd, terrifying, and fantastical forms of life that call the ocean world of Spatterjay home. Thus, those who like their sci-fi action filled with excitement and creatures will have difficulty going wrong with The Skinner. Though lacking a similar humanistic ambition, there are some similarities to Iain Banks’ CULTURE books (Sniper and the Pradors, for example). With regards to style and content, fans of Alastair Reynolds will find something to like, though expect better technique and a less “factual” presentation of space. Given the light touch of horror, there is perhaps also a little something of Dan Simmons at work …