War with the Crabs
By Cheryl Morgan
I’ve suddenly realized why I like Neal Asher’s Prador so much. Sure they are giant crabs, so I have a good excuse for eating their Earthbound brethren. But the main reason I like them is because they are like Daleks who have discovered Libertarianism. The Daleks, of course, were deeply into collectivism long before The Borg. "I Obey" is one of the most common Dalek phrases, and they mean it. Their mission to conquer the galaxy is far more important to them than anything else. Individual ambition is anathema to them. The Prador say "I Obey" lots as well, but what they are actually thinking when they say it is this, "I obey for now, but one day I shall be ruler of the galaxy and then you will all obey me!" The Daleks are coldly, calculatedly evil, but the Prador are a perfect expression of childish selfishness and greed. They are such very human bad guys.
Asher’s latest Polity novel, Prador Moon, takes a step back in time to the point when mankind and the Prador first encounter each other. As such it is a first contact novel. However, that part of the book is fairly perfunctory. It goes like this: humans meet Prador, Prador meet humans, you will now fight to the death. And so they do, in typical Asher fashion. Night Shade’s back cover blurb, in a moment of significant understatement, describes the Asher style as, "over-the-top violence and explosive action." That was just the first book. Asher has been trying hard to out-do himself ever since.
So what is the book actually about? Well, a large part of it is an amusing hard SF tale of how those cunning humans can manufacture absurdly deadly weapons out of the simplest of components. I can’t describe what they do here, partly because it would be a massive spoiler, but also if I did I’d probably find concerned politicians asking questions in Parliament about the sort of dangerous information that is available to children on the Internet. (Those of you who have read the book may detect a touch of irony here, but I don’t expect many politicians to have much idea about whether or not you can buy matter transporters online.)
The other element of the book is the contrast between the human and Prador societies. Both are in fact dictatorships of some sort. The Polity is a close relative of Iain Banks’ Culture, except that in The Polity the fact that the AIs are in charge is openly acknowledged. Consequently there is political opposition. A common theme of Polity novels is the existence of groups of "Separatists" — people that might be characterized as freedom fighters or terrorists, depending on whose side you are on. In practice the Separatists are generally presented as selfish, and heavily infiltrated by criminals and murderous psychopaths. They are much more reminiscent of the IRA than of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo.
There is, of course, no dissent in Prador society. If there was any it would be ruthlessly suppressed, and in any case obedience is generally enforced using pheromones and, where necessary, the use of mind-control technology. Instead the Prador plot against each other constantly. The goal of this plotting is not revolution and the creation of a democracy, but rather to supplant one Prador ruler with another. In response Prador adults routinely kill any of their offspring who show too much ambition and intelligence (a habit they may have picked up from Margaret Thatcher who did something similar with uppity Cabinet ministers).
The important point here is that, as far as the Prador are concerned, it is every crab for himself. They have no conception of cooperation, only obedience. The humans, on the other hand, have this odd habit of becoming fond of each other. Not only will they band together and cooperate without being forced to do so, they will actually risk their own lives willingly in order to save their friends. The Prador cannot understand this at all.
At first sight the humans of The Polity are a free and democratic society fighting against a vicious and brutal dictatorship. Look a little closer, however, and you will find that the humans are willing citizens of an (apparently) benevolent dictatorship and are strong believers in mutual cooperation. The Prador, in contrast, are the ultimate rugged individualists who will do anything to advance their personal interests (including enslaving and eating their own children). Asher is no Ken MacLeod — he doesn’t spend page after page having characters debate politics — but he does present some interesting ideas.