by Steve Penn
[ bookreviews ]
It is hard to know just where to begin with this book, and that is why I liked it. It's the sort of story that will irritate the sci-fi fans who like to see consistency and order in stories, as it mixes varying levels of technology without excuse. High-energy beam weapons rub shoulders with huge black powder blunderbusses and stone-spewing cannon. Antigravity cars and spacecraft are mixed with wooden sailing ships. It's almost as if Asher has taken two entirely separate books and shuffled them together. Well, not quite. It's more like he shuffled them together then dealt a good hand. What makes the two levels of tech work is that The Skinner shows different approaches to the same issues. The novel is set on "Spatterjay", an ocean planet divided between the Polity (the off-worlders with lots of sci-fi gear) and the Hoopers (the locals who have the wood and gunpowder). Both have means of gaining immortality, either through scientific modifications (re-animation, new bodies &c.) or through exploiting the unique fauna of Spatterjay, a parasitic leech that grants immortality and a steady increase in physical power to those it bites. Long lives (or existences in the case of Sniper, a war drone robot, and Warden, an AI) are a feature of the book, and the action revolves around finishing business that started seven centuries before during a war with an alien race. This sense of background holds the novel firm throughout and links central characters in a way that eludes some sci-fi. This background is steadily uncovered as one of the chief answers to the novel's questioning of immortality - what would you do with it?
Asher's exploration of this theme extends from the obsessed lawman Keech through the "Old Captains" (Hoopers thousands of years old with the strength of Titans) to the titular Skinner, changed by the parasite into a horrific monster. Asher can't resist dropping in a reference to Grendel when discussing the Skinner, though such anachronisms don't break the mood - in fact, they enhance it. The tales of the Old Captains possess echoes of Melville's Moby Dick, maybe because harpooning the beasts of Spatterjay by hand is more dramatic than zapping them! The feel of classic adventure is also a part of the second major theme of the book, "pioneers" - throughout the book we see various attempts to become established as players in the ongoing game. Asher reminds us that when the status quo is made up of immortals, the young often have a hard time getting anyplace.
Whilst the book works well mostly, some bits do fall a little flat, in my opinion. Asher's sentient hornets are cool but never really do enough, and the explanations of the exchange rate between Hoopers and Polity (a tiny amount of Polity cash is a fortune to a Hooper) never really wash. Still, a certain degree of fudging must be required to maintain the chasm of tech and culture between the two groups. The real strength lies in the natives of Spatterjay, from the Old Captains to the leeches, all of which interact well to provide a comprehensive view of a highly alien ecosystem (if you are willing to take an occasional leap of faith). Those are the elements that I felt made the story work, and those are the parts I'd recommend it for. The Skinner isn't perfect, but shuffled decks don't deal perfect hands often, and I think Asher only stumbles a little in the details, and never actually falls down.
8/10, or 10 if you like Moby Dick.