Shadow of the Scorpion is a novel of the Polity, as are Neal Asher’s best-known novels, like Gridlinked, Line of Polity, Brass Man (my personal favorite of the series), Polity Agent, and Line War. What sets this Polity novel apart from the others is its role as a prequel, a look at the young boy and man Ian Cormac and his origins, including why he prefers in general to go only by his surname, Cormac. This is one of the shorter Polity novels, if not the shortest. If you’re into the Polity books and Asher’s writing, this is a must-read, if for no other reason than to complete your knowledge of and insight into what turned the boy Ian into the killing machine that he becomes as a man, as an agent for Earth Central Security (ECS). If you’ve never before read any of the Polity books, this makes for an excellent introduction and is guaranteed to hook you to want to read the entire series.
The book doesn’t come right out and define what “the Polity” is, but it can be thought of as a confederation of the humans on all of the planets banded together to fight a common foe, the arthropoid race the Prador. Intelligent crab- or lobster-like aliens (the cover features a very good illustration created by the late Bob Eggleston), the Prador are difficult to kill because of their shell, which acts like armor; even within their own kind is ingrained the impulse that the bigger adults dominate and enslave the younger, immature ones - the first- and second-children, as they are called. They will fight to the death to obey the orders of the adults, even if or when the adults are killed. Though the adults are the toughest to kill, the younger ones are formidable, also, eager to kill and eat their human opponents, enslaving the ones they don’t kill right away or raising them like cattle on farms for future consumption.
The action of Shadow of the Scorpion goes back and forth between the time when Ian was around eight years old to eleven years old ( a very formative time in his life, when his mother decided to mem-wipe - basically erase - memories she felt were too disturbing for him to handle) to when he is a young man and decides to join the ECS like his father, Dave, and older brother Dax had done before him. One thing he remembers that seems to be vitally important to him in some way, but he doesn’t know really why, is as a boy having seen after a ball game a huge war drone that looked like an iron scorpion:
At first glance it had looked like a car, but now it rose up onto its many legs, and
waving its antennae, swung its head from side to side as if trying to pick up some
scent. Two green eyes, peridots, seemed blind. It possessed what looked like short mandibles, but they probably weren’t used for eating, more likely they were used to
clean and maintain the particle cannon and two missile launchers residing where its
mouth should have been.
While both plot lines are interesting, and Cormac’s attempts to regain his erased memories make for fascinating reading, the thread occurring when Cormac is older, though, is more compelling – it features a lot more action since Cormac is a soldier fighting the Prador. Also, one of the people he’s trained with, Carl Thrace, isn’t what he seems to be: he came from a family of “Jovian Separatists,” from Callisto. Although he’s older than the young soldier he looked like when Cormac trained with him, but he could easily alter his appearance (as can anyone in the future the novel describes) medically and/or with the use of chameleon cloth.
Carl and the Separatists he works with want to kill any ECS agents or Sparkind (an unit designation) and obtain potent warheads called CTDs to aid them in their Cause. Carl sets up a trap to kill the two Golems, Yallow and Olkennon, other members of Cormac’s unit, but Cormac manages to survive. Much of the novel depicts his relentless efforts to track Carl down before he can use the warheads. The action is intense and exciting, and Thrace makes for a great nemesis.
Asher makes a reference to another outstanding science fiction author, Peter Watts, whose Starfish and Behemoth involve humans genetically modified to live in the Earth’s ocean depths. Asher names a hotel at which Cormac, Dax, and the boys’ mother, Hannah, stay the “Watts Hotel,” after Peter Watts. It’s another place where Cormac sees, or believes he sees, the scorpion war drone, through an underwater portal in his room. It’s one more nice touch to Shadow of the Scorpion that makes it, for me, a very good read (as I’ve read and reviewed Starfish for this site).
Shadow of the Scorpion is fast-paced, with plenty of action, as are Asher’s other scintillating Polity books. Whether you’re already a Polity and Neal Asher fan or are a newbie who enjoys well-written sci_fi, you’re sure to enjoy this fine, action-filled novel. I can hardly wait for the next forthcoming Polity novel, Orbus, to hit bookstores.