The Skinner is part of Neal Asher’s “Polity” universe. However, while it exists in the same future history as many of Asher’s other works, it is quite separated from most of them in time and location. Thus, while some knowledge of Asher’s previous work in this setting will add some context, it is not at all necessary to understand or enjoy the book.
The book is set in the far future on the human-occupied world of Spatterjay, just beyond the authority of the star-spanning A.I.-ruled human Polity- there is a Polity outpost on the planet, but outside its confines the local humans, known as “Hoopers,” rule. The planet is noteworthy for being the source of a virus, borne by most of the local humans and transmitted by the bite of a common local organism, that can transform a human being, making him immortal and gradually, over time, stronger and more resilient- someone who has the virus for several centuries is virtually unkillable by normal means.
The book begins when three visitors meet on their way to Spatterjay. The main character of the story is Sable Keech, a reanimated corpse kept alive and moving for the past 700 years by Polity technology and his relentless drive to hunt down the legendary “Spatter” Jay Hoop, a war criminal who collaborated with humanity’s enemies in the ancient Prador War. Along the way he is joined by Erlin, who contracted the virus on her last visit to Spatterjay and has returned in search of an old friend among the Hoopers, and Janer, agent of an insect hive mind on a mission unknown even to him. Each of their goals requires to them to venture beyond the safety of the Polity and into the savage expanse beyond. The resulting story takes Keech and company across the watery surface of Spatterjay, battling for their lives against human assassins, the deadly political machinations of the alien Prador, a psychotic war criminal, the planet’s relentlessly hostile ecosystem, and- perhaps most disturbingly- whatever Jay Hoop has become.
I found The Skinner to be a highly enjoyable read. The central story of Keech’s pursuit of justice- and the deadly plots of those who committed the ancient crimes he seeks to punish- is exciting and involving. The grim and violent nature of the story and setting allows Asher’s talent for intense, visceral action to come to the fore, and he does an admirable job of bringing to life conflict with humans, aliens, and nature. Spatterjay is a fascinating environment, full of intriguing creatures, and the brief glimpses given of Polity and Prador society are enough to intrigue the reader and spark the imagination without distracting from the main story.
My only major criticism lies in the area of characterization; in particular, I wish the character of Sable Keech had been explored more thoroughly. The idea of a man so driven that he is willing to spend 700 years in pursuit of justice even after being reduced to what is essentially a walking corpse is an intriguing one, and I would have liked to have known more about him. However, the book does have some great secondary characters. I was especially fond of Sniper, a bad-tempered Polity war drone gone freelance.
Though the story is for the most part action-adventure oriented (verging on military science fiction in parts), the book is also an interesting exercise in combining far-future science fiction with elements of horror. This aspect of the book may appeal to fans of Alastair Reynolds, though Asher’s style and mood is more grisly and less gothic than Reynolds’. Asher lets the darker parts of his imagination run loose here, and the story is full of disturbing concepts and images- the relentlessly vicious native life of Spatterjay, aliens who use remote-controlled human bodies with their brains removed as servants, the bizarre transformations wrought by the Spatterjay virus in hosts who “go native,” and the quasi-undead Sable Keech himself. At times, the horrific elements combine nicely with the more traditional science fictional element of speculation on future societies- for instance, Asher’s depiction of a horrendously brutal prizefight between two Hoopers provides a disturbingly plausible idea of how a society of nearly unkillable people might come to view violence.
Despite the dark and horrific tone of the story, the book is not unrelentingly grim or despairing. There is a good bit of dark humor in the book, especially from Sniper. Further, while Asher fills his story with ghastly events and some truly vile people, there are nonetheless lights peaking through the gloom, moments of hope and human decency. The result is rather touching at some points, something that caught me by surprise.
With The Skinner, Neal Asher brings together elements of space opera and horror to great effect. If you enjoy intense action-oriented science fiction or are interested in something with a different take on the horrific, then I would strongly recommend this book.