Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher
Dark Intelligence by Neal Asher is a book about revenge. That in itself is nothing new, of course, but this time the protagonist is driven in his revenge not against another human being, but against an Artificial Intelligence (AI). In a Sci-Fi Universe a hundred years after a war spanning whole systems, our protagonist Thorvald Spear is resurrected. Instead of living the remainder of his life in peace and prosperity, he’s going after the one that killed him and his whole unit, the black AI known as Penny Royal.
The AI had bombed the plant Thorvald and his men were on, killing him and thousand others for no apparent reason. We’re following Thorvald through his search for the AI in hiding and the Neutral Zone between the two hostile forces, now a lawless land governed by crime bosses, is thrown into a whirlwind that will change the balance of power, with the black AI at the heart of everything.
Thorvald Spear is a driven man, but it becomes clear early on that his memories don’t fit together. From the start, the story is about more than revenge; it’s about finding out what really happened and what the goals of Penny Royal are.
In his search, Thorvald Spear employs the services of one of the crime lords of the neutral zone, Isobel Satomi. In her desperate attempt to gain power over her enemies, she’d gone to the rogue AI herself. But her demand brought her more than she’d bargained for, as she slowly turns into a bioengineered weapon. When Thorvald cheats her (so as not to get cheated himself), she’s on the hunt for both him and Penny Royal, driven by her growing predator’s instincts.
As with the other series I’ve read by Neal Asher (Reviews upcoming), it’s a story with main characters that transcend humanity. Isobel is slowly turning into a weapon of mass destruction while Thorvald has given himself the best implants possible to be able to do much more than a normal human would. He has to, as his hunt for such a dangerous quarry would not be possible for a mere human.
Still, that leaves us with no one to really connect with. The characters are pushed into the background in this opening book of a new series, with frequent changes in PoV that can make you dizzy. I’d have liked a bigger focus on Thorvald. It wouldn’t have hurt to make him seem more human either. While the PoV of Isobel is interesting in itself with her slowly losing her humanity (if she ever had any) and succumbing to the predator she’d turning into, she’s not someone you can easily like.
I’ve already mentioned the whirlwind this book seems to be and want to emphasis that again. The frequent switches in PoV, with everyone seemingly hunting everyone else, felt like one big and often useless goose chase where the characters arrive somewhere only to then have to leave again without having accomplished much. A chase like those you can see in some cartoons, where you have a corridor with a lot of doors and both hunter and hunted frequently appearing in different constellations, achieving nothing.
This isn’t helped by the feeling that everything is orchestrated by the black AI. It becomes clear early on that the AI has its hands everywhere, for reasons only apparent to a vastly superior intelligence. What is its plan? That question drove me through the book. Penny Royal is without a doubt the most interesting character in this lineup, but its intentions are shrouded in mystery.
Even after reading the whole book, I can only speculate about what’s actually going on. The book feels like a giant set-up for the rest of the series. While this is nothing bad in itself, the ending of this book leaves many questions still open and to me felt too constructed and orchestrated. I’ll explain my issues in a spoiler on the next page, as I don’t want to take anything from those that haven’t read the book yet.
What I liked most about this book was the world-building. While a space war, humans against aliens, isn’t that original (and the Prador aren’t anywhere near the top of my favorite-alien-species-list) I loved Neal Ashers idea of a human race being governed by AIs. They took over the human race ages ago, but instead of (like we often see in Sci-Fi) oppressing the humans, they use their vast intelligence to co-exist with humans and form a vast empire where humanity prospers. These AIs are definitely better as the leaders than any human could be and I love how they are shown as beings doing what’s best for everyone, not just their own kind. And their prowess in battle is not to be underestimated, as the Prador had to experience firsthand.
Concluding: I haven’t read much by Neal Asher yet, but Dark Intelligence fell flat in contrast to the Owner series. It lacks a protagonist a reader can really get behind, it is mostly a wild goose-chase from one planet to the next and back again, and its ending seemed abrupt, feeling orchestrated, and seems to open more questions than it answers. Despite all that, it’s a good book. Especially the world-building in regard to AIs was a treat. The story strings you along and has definite high points, Isobels struggle against the predator she’d turning into being one. The mysterious black AI does its best to keep everything confusing for much of the book, and that keeps you interested, if you like not knowing what the hell is actually going on for a long time. Such mysteries are the life-blood of many books, and they work here, but the ending left a bit to be desired.