Neal Asher’s PRADOR MOON is an interesting and enjoyable science fiction novel, providing a useful introduction to his Polity universe. Given the combination of hard science fiction and humoristic elements, the story is not exactly space opera but rather a mix of cyberpunk and space operetta.
I found this book to be an enjoyable read, with some interesting ideas, but a little flat. The monstrous aliens were a little too bad and caricatural, like something from a Kilgore Trout novel: giant violent man-eating cannibalistic intelligent crabs. The adults are constantly killing off any promising children, and otherwise controlling them all by means of all-powerful “pheromones”. Their aggressivity and social rigidity makes it impossible to understand how the Prador could have developped advanced technology in the first place (like the Klingons, only a thousand times worse). This aspect of the plot read like a parody of first contact stories, although the details of the social system are quite interesting and inventive.
I liked Neal Asher’s humour, and his parodic undermining of the conventions of “hard” science fiction, including the comic use of philosophical terminology. For example the first contact scene with the Prador who declares: “I am Vortex, first-child of Captain Immanence”. Or the ship called Occam’s Razor which required only the bare minimum of human participation. Or the absurd but strangely appropriate proverbs that the human shell spouts after being cut off from its guiding AI.
The whole framing for the story is provided by Edward Lear’s nonsense poem, THE OWL AND THE PUSSYCAT, which is used for chapter headings and for the conclusion. It also gives its name to the stargate technology, called “runcibles” (which sounds like a comic reply to Ursula LeGuin’s ansibles). “Prador”, a contraction of predator, is a cute name for such a nasty species. We realise at the end that even the title PRADOR MOON is a joke. The runcible technology is well set up and well exploited, driving the plot forward and participating in the humourous sub-text:
“The first transmission ever conducted had been unbuffered. A pea was sent, in deference to Iversus Skaidon’s obsession with the poem “The Owl and the Pussycat” by Edward Lear—a beautiful pea-green boat, though later «pea-green» being assigned to a particle tentatively identified as a tachyon. Other terms were also later assigned: travellers became quince and the gates became runcibles. The pea came out of the receiving end where the Einsteinian universe ruthlessly reapplied its rules. It exited at a fraction below light speed and caused an explosion that vaporized most of the surrounding base, killing numerous researchers. Luckily, Moria felt, they decided not to make the test using an owl or a pussycat… or a boat”.
Some of the ideas were interesting: the description of Moria Salem’s experience of brain augmentation, and of her apprenticeship with the AI’s was well done, as was some of the alien technology and its defects.
I found PRADOR MOON interesting and enjoyable to read, although a little flat, but it grew on me in retrospect. It has a tightly-knit, fast-paced plot, with a wealth of “sense of wonder” ideas and plenty of action. I proceeded to read James Corey’s LEVIATHAN WAKES just after this novel, and found it lacking in ideas compared to PRADOR MOON, slow-moving, long-winded, and without the saving humour. In comparison, PRADOR MOON is short, terse, rapid-moving, full of ideas, and quite entertaining.