Gridlinked begins well, at least. In his debut novel, UKer Neal Asher makes a creditable effort at standing alongside his countrymen Pete Hamilton, Alastair Reynolds, and Richard Morgan, establishing a textured and vivid future that straddles the ever-popular line between the new space opera and the violent dystopian post-cyberpunk noir of a thousand Ridley Scott disciples. The Polity is a benign (as such things go) autocracy, a group of colonial worlds ruled by the Earth Central AI and accessible to one another via the instantaneous transport of the runcible network. The polity generally allows its citizens and subject worlds great freedom, with the curious result that those who rebel against it tend not to be downtrodden proles and the like, but disaffected members of the gentry, who find their life of privilege and entitlement not as it should be.
Earth Central Security agent Ian Cormac is pulled away from an assignment on Cheyne III, where he's been mopping up (literally, considering the condition of the bodies of anyone he kills) a separatist cell, in order to investigate the sabotage of the runcible on the remote world of Samarkand. What Cormac doesn't know is that the psychotic leader of said cell, one Arian Pelter, has a thirst for vengeance that makes Star Trek II's Khan look like the Dalai Lama. And Pelter, with the assistance of nifty killer android Mr. Crane, is pursuing Cormac with a single-minded determination that goes beyond obsession.
All this would be exactly as badass as it sounds if either Cormac or Pelter were allowed to develop into interesting characters. Notice I didn't even say "likable," though that's generally a helpful (if not strictly required) attribute if you want your readers empathizing with your hero. I'd have taken just plain "interesting." But Asher struggles even with that. Like many first-time novelists who are into the "gritty" hi-tech future thing, Asher devotes the lion's share of his creativity to that future, and less than he should to fleshing out any of the people inhabiting it.
Cormac particularly suffers as a protagonist, because a key element of the plot is that he has his gridlink — his mental connection to the EC AI — removed prior to launching his investigation, by the "prime human agent of Earth Central," one Horace Blegg. Cormac has been gridlinked for decades, at least ten years longer than is considered healthy. He's being unplugged, he is told, for his own good, in order to rediscover his humanity. It's an odd diagnosis, since there's no indication given that the EC disapproves of Cormac's approach to wiping out separatists, which, one could argue, lacks something in the humanity department. And as a plot element, it seems to grow more and more superfluous as the novel goes on. If Cormac ever underwent anything you might call a character arc throughout the entire book, I missed it. It's not as if he ends up by the climax behaving much differently than we see him behave when we first meet him. His personality is static. He's a loyal and dutiful agent through and through, carrying out his assignments with pure professionalism. What's he actually like as a person? That remains shrouded, not only in mystery, but something quite like indifference.
My guess is that Asher's real reason for having Cormac lose his gridlink is that retaining it would then render it implausible that Pelter could stalk Cormac completely without his knowledge. So why then is that part of the plot so weak on suspense?
Well, as I said, poor character development lies at the root of all this book's failings. Don't even get me started on how unbelievable Horace Blegg is, let alone inconsistent. Late in the book, Asher has Blegg for no reason start cutting off his Y's when he speaks ("Y'know...Y'have..."), something he doesn't do in early scenes. In fact, the only characters who really generate any reader empathy are two supporting players: Pelter's hired gun John Stanton, and Stanton's lover, ship pilot Jarvellis, who scheme together to rip off Pelter. But the villains' motivations are weak and unclear when not plain obtuse. Pelter's vendetta plays more like the petty histrionics of a perpetual adolescent and narcissist than someone who's got any kind of meaningful axe to grind. Pelter isn't so much out to avenge Cormac's murder of his sister as he is to get his own back after Cormac humiliated him personally, putting him in a position of having to beg for his life. You can get a really mean bad guy for your story that way (and Asher does), but not a frightening one. Even Cormac, once he learns he's being stalked, doesn't seem too concerned.
Similarly, the bizarre alien life forms who figure in the destruction of the runcible — the massive, pseudopod-laden being calling itself the Dragon, and the equally ineffable energy being called the Maker — remain cloaked in obscurity. Who exactly are they, where are they from, what do they want, and why do they do ya like they do do do? Beats me. And good luck figuring out the ending. Let's see, we have Dragon telling Cormac that the Maker destroyed the runcible because it's insane. But what are these things? We have Dragon aiding Cormac to kill Maker, although Dragon's powers seem nearly godlike, and Dragon aiding Pelter, whom he hopes will kill Cormac after Cormac kills Maker, because Dragon's pissed at Cormac for some reason...
Asher strives for narrative complexity, and it's precisely because it's clear, even from this debut, that he's no slushpile hack but a writer with a lot on his mind that makes this muddle such a letdown. Basically, I hold the Neal Ashers of the world to higher standards. But with Gridlinked bogged down by characters impossible to care about, tedium eventually sets in. Asher has gone on, with several sequels and other novels set in the same future, to some degree of stature in British SF, though many of his books still remain unreleased in the US. I sincerely hope this means he's since smoothed some of his rough edges, and become the top-flight purveyor of edgy industrial space-op I know he set out to be.