Paperback: 560 pages
Publisher: Tor (4 April 2008)
Another novel set in Asher's Polity universe, this one is pretty much a standalone.
Early colonisation efforts led a lone ship to the solar system containing the worlds Brumal and Sudoria, neither very hospitable, which both got colonised. However, the colonies collapsed into barbarism, and it was generations later that the two worlds finally regained enough technology to meet again. Sadly when that happened, war broke out. This war was long lasting, since ships could only reach the other world when the worlds came into conjunction, and that was years apart. Then, tipping the balance, a strange entity called the Worm is captured by the Sudorians. The technology they discover from investigating it leads to their construction of the massive dreadnoughts the Hilldiggers, so named because they're able to raise mountains where the Brumallian cities used to be. The war is, at last, over.
Elsewhere meanwhile, later colonisation has spread humanity across much of the galaxy, and the Polity has come into existence. Technology has taken off, and with the advent of AIs, now exploded. And now they have sent in an envoy, David McCrooger, to establish contact with this backwater. He expects trouble, but he's pretty confident. After all, he's not just a Hooper, he's an Old Captain, and thus almost unkillable.
Although this is a Polity novel, it's relatively unconnected to the remainder - they're there as background, but this is relatively standalone (though it does help to understand exactly how the Hoopers do get the way they are). It's much more McCrooger in a strange environment, and about four Sudorians, quadruplets, conceived during a strange episode some twenty years earlier, whose story intertwines during the novel. The theme is guilt - the Sudorian people committed near genocide at the end of the war - and the three Sudorian factions are bound together uneasily. Fleet still has the Hilldiggers, the Orbital Combine has the great defensive satellites and the Worm, and Parliament has the ground. When an attempt is apparently made by the Brumallians (who specialise in biological engineering) to destroy the envoy, Fleet is ready to take advantage.
The balance in this story is quite interesting. Those who have encountered the Hoopers before will have expected McCrooger to bounce gaily through, getting flattened and then, Hulk-like, getting up to the consternation of his foes. This certainly starts that way, but Asher has actually crooked the deck against him - this is obvious early on - and McCrooger actually doesn't have the unlimited bounce a normal Hooper would have. This is therefore at least partly about an immortal regaining mortality, and learning all about vulnerability again. The result is an odd feel: yes, there's the usual adventure, the usual fighting against the odds, but unlike many stories, the hero isn't gaining strength with every battle, but losing it.
There is, of course, yet another amusing AI drone. But this wouldn't be the