How to best describe Brass Man by Neal Asher, the sequel to Gridlinked in his “Polity” series? Perhaps “An insane robot brain is brought to life in a shiny new body, to kill again” would be good for starters (that quote, by the way, comes from a press release about the book). But it is so much more: a complex weaving of a large cast of characters and scientific and philosophical thinking, a tale blending both hard science and fantasy into a satisfying gestalt, whether you’ve read its predecessors or not. It is, in a way, a sort of Melvillian epic, like Moby Dick, with Ian Cormac, an Earth Central Security Agent both hunting down an interstellar dragon (called “Dragon”) possessing ancient Jain technology and also his arch-nemesis, Skellor.
Ian Cormac is not the only one searching for Dragon. A Rondure Knight named Anderson Endrik and his unlikely sidekick, a young tough called Dound Tergal, share the obsession of killing a dragon, and the one called simply “Dragon” would suite his purposes just fine in the absence of any other. Anderson reminded me a lot of Stephen King’s Roland, The Gunslinger in King’s Dark Tower series. When Tergal asks him if he still intends to “slay the dragon” after a twenty-year search for one, Anderson tells him:
“I’m too close now to turn aside. I’ll provide myself with the means of dragon slaying,
and I will find the dragon. I rather suspect that what happens then depends on what the dragon itself does. Again, it is the nature of the trial--the journey being more important
In Brass Man, Dragon is not just any dragon; he is a bioengineering AI marvel, capable of creating new life forms, recombining DNA, and traversing the far reaches of space. Kilometers large, he is a sort of self-appointed guardian of a the world Cull hunted by Earth Central and other AIs, who want to figure out what makes him tick and use the knowledge for their own purposes. Ian Cormac and Anderson are some of the “good guys” in Brass Man but as obsessed in their own ways as Captain Ahab in the afore-mentioned Moby Dick.
The “Brass Man” of the title is a schizoid golem known as Mr. Crane, called that because of his machine-like efficiency in killing - and because “Crane” sounds more like it could be a last name than, say, “Bulldozer.” In the mega-violent future depicted in Asher’s Brass Man, life and death are relative terms; the “dead” can “live,” again, as long as a memcording has been made of their brains. The memcording can be transplanted, after the death of one’s body, into either bodies that have been mind-swiped (like what might happen in the case of murderers, for example), or golems.
Mr. Crane started out as a Golem with its own bioengineered brain programmed with the memcording of a notorious mass murderer. To escape going irreparably insane, the golem, as a safety measure, split and compartmentalized its brain into seventeen separate sections. He carries out the commands of whomever controls him at different points in Brass Man, killing people in often gruesome ways. Still, he is a somewhat sympathetic figure. He’s being used, and all the while, he’s trying to regain control over his actions by collecting certain tokens or toys from a potential victim here and there, and letting that person go instead of killing him. One day, if he manages to overcome astronomical odds and arrange the tokens into a certain pattern, he will be able to regain his sanity and control over his own actions and cease being the puppet of others, like Skellor.
I recommend Brass Man; it’s a very good sequel from Neal Asher, who was nominated for the Philip K. Dick Award for his novel Cowl. But, it is a complex book, in both its various plots and subplots and its use of jargon and abbreviations. Reading the previous Polity books would be a help. If you haven’t, you can definitely still enjoy Brass Man and appreciate it for the great book that it is: a tale of obsessions, the striving to regain one’s soul (if golems can be thought of as having souls), the nature of good and evil, and what it means to be “alive” or “dead”, among other themes. It just may take you a little more work and patience with reading it, until you get into it further. Brass Man is violent, containing descriptions of acts such as people’s arms being ripped off and heads being squished by Mr. Crane’s powerful hands. Brass Man is a book that will challenge you, but often that sort of book can be the most rewarding - though it may turn away some readers who don’t want to be challenged.