I‘ve read this novel in German. It’s title makes more sense to me than the original one, it translates back to „The Dragon of Samarkand“, addressing both the central planet Samarkand in this novel, and the mysterious alien protagonist, the „Dragon“.
Dragons are usually around in Fantasy books, right? This one is the SF version of it, a kilometer large entity, capable of spitting large amounts of energy, having fits, and talking in riddles.
The counter part is Earth Central Security Agent Ian Cormac, who many readers have called a „James Bond in Space“. Looking back at the time it was published, that characterisation is correct: breathless action, explosions, fancy weapons, exotic places, and always humanity to be saved. Even the mad villain is there. Only trope missing is the Bond girl.
Cormac is deployed to investigate a huge explosion of an interstellar transmitter called the Runcible, ripping planet Samarkand out of the interstellar network and killing ten thousand people, and have his team install a backup transmitter.
Hurdles in his missions are first of all his voluntary disconnection from his brain link to the overall AI network – thus the original title „Gridlinked“. Cormac has been connected too long and lost parts of his humanity already. Now he wants to get clean, but that comes at the price of having to think for himself and physically ask around for help.
A second problem for fast resolution of his mission is his antagonist Arian Pelter, a violent separatist, who wants to take revenge because Cormac killed his sister.
Back in 2001, this fast-paced action thriller was praised for its cutting-edge technology. It has AI everywhere, not only as planet-governing entities but also in tiny weapons, and embodied in fighting golems. The previously clear distinction between living and machines is dissolved with biotech, the singularity is hinted at. And boys, that amount of weapons will surely satisfy every nerd discussion.
But action alone doesn’t rescue this novel. In those twenty years, it has become old in several aspects. One of them is the story‘s core, technology: The way AIs are understood, work oftentimes disconnected, need to be self-aware. All that hasn’t seen our development of the last twenty years, the breakthrough of AI after long years of negligence. AI networks in the cloud, and the Singularity have been discussed often times since then, and found innovative and far fresher novelisations. Compared to other samples of the time like Altered Carbon, this part of the novel feels ancient already. Move on, nothing to be seen here!
The novel alternates every twenty pages between Cormac‘s and his opponent Peter‘s POVs. What might drive forward the plot and keep up the pace, is broken every.single.time by a one or two side long exposition explaining yet another technology. I have to bring up Wikipedia, because that has seen life in the same year the novel was published. Those expositions were kind of narrated in an annoying voice which probably should entertain but let me start skimming.
Remember that Bond comparison? Even that old hero has seen a – lo, and behold – background story with character development and (gasp!) emotions. Cormac is far more traditional in that regard, and this also doesn’t stand the test of time. Homeopathic doses of emotions or character development on his side. Not that his sidekicks would have a character to speak of, they are all replaceable or die away anyway.
The plot is interesting but isn’t resolved at all in this volume. One would probably have to wade through the mindless muck of five books to see the end of it. As you might have guessed, I won’t do that at all and call it quits. The world has seen better, more intelligent Space Operas than this one.
There‘s a lot of quality in this book, just not the one that keeps me interested. I won’t give up on Asher, yet, and might try a newer book from him. A standalone, preferably, maybe the „Technician“?