Part of his long-running Polity series, Neal Asher’s most recent novel Jack Four evinces fairly typical science fictional concerns about personhood and bodily integrity through the use of tropes including cloning, genetic mutation and the violent alien other. Its protagonist, the titular Jack Four, is an illegal clone who finds himself equipped with unexpected self-awareness and the knowledge and memories of a person who he presumes is his genetic original. Narrowly escaping being sold to the imperialist, crustacean-like prador, he embarks on an adventure that will eventually lead him to the man whose memories and physical attributes he shares.
This set-up naturally raises questions about the integrity of the self. Who is the “real” Jack? Whose memories and experiences should be privileged? What does selfhood even mean if there are two (or, actually, more) Jacks walking around the universe? It is threatening to bodily integrity too: the clone-Jack is commodified, sold to the prador for his impressive physical potential; the act of cloning, of doubling, has reduced a human being to an item to be traded away.
This commodification, this troubling of the concept of the self, is part of a larger pattern in the novel of bodies being treated as disposable and malleable. Jack Four’s progress through Asher’s universe is marked at every turn by violence, sometimes extremely graphic. He is regularly patched up by an apparently miraculous machine called an autodoc: a device that, it seems, can be used essentially to dissect a person and reassemble them while they remain alive and in some cases conscious. Similarly, another important character in the novel is infected by something called the Spatterjay virus which makes the bodies of its carriers virtually indestructible. The upshot is that it’s possible for people in Asher’s world to take massive amounts of damage without any real consequences. This is something of a tension-killer; but the lack of tension is also the point. In a universe where there is no limit to the amount of damage that can be done to a body, violence becomes meaningless, routine; the body simply an object to be treated as carelessly as that status suggests.
What, then, of Asher’s monsters, his sadistic prador, his fearsome, once-sentient gabbleducks? They, too, speak to the terrifying malleability of the body in Asher’s futuristic universe: how can sentience take such forms! The gabbleducks in particular, remnants of a civilisation that deliberately chose to lose its intelligence, feel like some ghastly intimation of humanity’s future. And the cruel, authoritarian prador, armoured and many-legged, are textbook Others; fear of the monstrous body projected onto easily-villainised aliens.
All of which would be much more interesting if Jack Four were not so immensely tedious. Violence in a novel, even ultraviolence, is one thing; violence in place of meaningful character interaction is quite another. At times the book feels like one long fight scene, and Jack doesn’t even have a proper conversation with someone else until at least halfway through the book (the front half being dedicated to his escape from the prador ship he’s delivered to at the start). It’s not as though he has a rich inner life either, beginning the novel as essentially a blank slate and gaining very little in the way of personality as the pages wear on. It’s hard to care about the ideas here when the protagonist is so very dull.
This is a shame, because there are the glimmerings of a fascinating world in the background of this novel: a world in which the boundaries of the human are troubled and contested in the best traditions of cyberpunk. I haven’t read any of Asher’s other work, and to be honest, on the strength of this novel, I probably will not. A missed opportunity? Perhaps. But there’s much better science fiction out there.