The Voyage of the Sable Keech
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006
Tor UK / Pan Macmillan
UK First Edition Hardcover
506 Pages; £17.99
Publication Date: 03-01-2006
Date Reviewed: 03-08-06
Horror is an odd literary tool. Writers can choose to accept it as a genre and write to the conventions of what we generally accept as the horror genre. But horror can also be an effect that a writer desires to create in a reader within the confines of another genre or no genre whatsoever. Or, writers can use the conventions of horror to achieve effects other than horror.
Writing within the science fiction genre, Neal Asher offers readers an unparalleled experience of horror in 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech'. This direct sequel to Asher's previous personal best, 'The Skinner', should only be read if you've read the first novel first. Yes, it does stand alone well-enough, but if you’re going to enjoy Asher's latest, you’re going to enjoy it a lot more for having read its predecessor, itself an outstanding novel. But 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech' is not simply a continuation of the story Asher told in 'The Skinner'. This novel is a fantastic literary creation. It may not appeal to every reader in the world. But those to whom it will appeal will encounter a reading experience like no other.
Asher uses horror as a literary tool to achieve a wide range of effects, and very few of them are the effects that we normally associate with the horror genre. Yes, there is a good deal of humor to be found here, and that is commonly associated with the horror genre. Awe is here, pure, raw, science fictional awe. That's also not unexpected. This is, after all, first and foremost, science fiction; alien planets, alien life forms, alien empires, mutated humans; yes, this is science fiction. But 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech' launches all the tropes of horror to create a lot of emotions within the reader that are not in the least bit horrific.
What’s most striking about 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech' is Asher's ability to create a sort of sweet, almost romantic wistfulness within paragraphs about oozing pus and gruesome gore. In this horror-drenched novel, you'll encounter no scares and little of the "Are-they-going-to-be-safe?" kind of tension usually associated with horror. You will find true friendships, strongly portrayed. Asher nails service for the greater good, he hammers down issues of trust, love and companionship. To a plank. Through living flesh. It's a singular accomplishment.
'The Voyage of the Sable Keech' is set on Asher's planet of Spatterjay, a water covered world that is constructed with an eye towards ecological detail not seen since Frank Herbert mapped out the life cycles beneath the sands of 'Dune'. Some ten years after the events in 'The Skinner', remnants of the lives touched then are once again stirred by the same forces. The alien Prador are back. A cult of reifs -- living dead resurrected by technology but hoping to achieve actual feel-the-wind-on-your-skin life -- has arrived, hoping to duplicate the feat of the now-legendary Sable Keech, the reif cop who was brought alive by Erlin, a youngish Hooper and Janer, the emissary of the Hive minds of intelligent wasps. It's all very much the stuff of science fiction, carefully layered.
As ever, Asher makes it seem simple and fun, but adds to the plot and the characters until the simple has become, while the reader was immersed in Asher's prose, much more complex. He's got the kind of skills that conceal themselves within deceptively easy reading. Easy, that is, if you can take Asher's non-stop onslaught of gore, fluids and streaming, slimy anatomical detail. There are very few paragraphs, even, in this novel that don’t include a description along the lines of, "he had been unable to resist the lure of a bile duct."
But as deployed by Asher, there's a curious and quite wonderful distance between the reader and the fountain of grotesquerie that he describes. Asher the writer is clearly not just immune to what he's describing. He surely must find it beautiful, because the pictures that he paints, though they maybe sketched in "the spill of ichor" and "bubbling hot internal gasses" are touched with joy, not horror. This is not simply life red in tooth and claw. This is life triumphant, exuberant. This is life at any cost, in any place, life done and undone and redone, life imagined and unimaginable. Asher's novel is almost an ode to joy, drenched in gore.
This is not to say that Asher takes himself overly-seriously. Far from it, which is why it is possible for the reader to take Asher very seriously. This is a book you can truly immerse yourself in. Generous humor helps greatly, such as when we encounter the crew of the Vignette. These Hoopers -- humans made immensely strong, nearly indestructible and potentially immortal by the Spatterjay virus -- are a crew of masochists presided over by a sadistic Captain. The joy here is that everyone is truly getting what they want, and yet, Asher works in a lovely bit of character development.
Then there's the case of whelkus titanicus. Mining the great tropes of science fiction, in this case combining Bambi with Flowers for Algernon, Asher creates a character whom -- or that, depending on how you feel about skyscraper-sized shellfish -- undergoes character development because her brain literally increases in size. Asher has a great deal of fun here, yet he creates a compelling and eventually powerful character where others might simply have seen a sixty-foot monster octopus with a shell. I suppose this is a bit late in the review to mention that Asher has a king-size imagination. It makes you hope you get invited to his next barbeque.
'The Voyage of the Sable Keech' offers readers wonderful plot turns, utterly memorable characters and a tour of a world that is dangerously beautiful. But more importantly, it offers an incomparable reading experience. Yes, there's a bit of work to be done before you get to the point where you can appreciate what Asher has done. You want to read 'The Skinner', itself a wonderful novel. You need to get past -- way past -- any reaction to the effects of horror, to the devices of horror with a feeling of horror. This is not a scary book, it's not a book to really gross you out. 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech' is a novel you can dive into with no danger whatsoever of ever being anything less than enthralled. In fact, your thralldom to this novel may be such that you'll want to check the back of your neck, to see if the novel itself has installed one of the spider-devices deployed by the Prador aliens. But even if you do discover such a lump in the back of your neck, you won't want to remove it. No, once you're plugged in to 'The Voyage of the Sable Keech', you'll want to stay there as long as you can.