Gridlinked - review
(An extract from my SFF blog)
Gridlinked was the first published novel by this author, emerging in 2001. Since then, he has published eleven more set in the same, far-future Polity universe, four featuring the same principal character as Gridlinked, as well as novellas, short stories, and some unrelated novels; an impressive output. I hadn't read any of these but had heard good things about them, so I eventually got around to reading the first of the series.
The novel starts in the twenty-fifth century when humanity has spread to many worlds using FTL ships, but has since installed interstellar matter-transmitters known as runcibles for routine travel. This empire (known as the Polity) is managed not by people but by Artificial Intelligences which vastly exceed human capabilities. They are linked via the AI Grid, to which some humans also have direct mind links surgically implanted in their brains. The Polity's interests are defended by the ECS (Earth Central Security) which sends agents wherever trouble arises. Their top agent is Ian Cormac, who has been gridlinked for thirty years - ten years longer than the recommended maximum.
At the start of the story, Cormac reluctantly realises that his extended time linked to the Grid has gradually been dehumanising him, so decides to shut down his link despite the instant access to information and automatic control of linked equipment this provides (which makes the title rather odd: "No Longer Gridlinked" would be more accurate!). Even without this, Cormac is a formidable operator, highly intelligent and ruthlessly logical, with his strength and speed artificially boosted, and is aided by his programmable self-propelled shuriken, a high-tech version of the multi-bladed throwing weapon.
Cormac is recalled from his latest mission against a separatist group led by Arian Pelter (during which he had killed Pelter's sister) in order to investigate an unthinkable event - the violent explosion of a runcible, resulting in the devastation of a large area of a planet. In solving this crime, he deals with an enigmatic alien being known as the Dragon, while being constantly pursued by a vengeful Pelter.
The story has many familiar SF elements: modified human types (including outlinkers who are specialised for life in zero-gravity space stations); artificial humans (golems) who are much faster and stronger than any human; physically boosted soldiers (sparkind); anti-gravity machines, anti-matter bombs and proton beam weapons. This is all combined into a page-turning thriller which maintains a brisk pace despite being over 500 pages long. It is quite a traditional story, filled with the basic optimism of a galaxy-wide humanity, but is none the worse for that. Cormac himself doesn't come alive as much as some of the other characters, the mercenary John Stanton being both better-developed and more likeable, and even Mr Crane, a highly dangerous "broken" golem working for Pelter, displaying more of a personality. Despite that, Gridlinked was a thoroughly enjoyable read and I'll be seeking out the sequels. The Polity series has been compared with Iain M Banks's Culture series, but judging by this first one it is less quirky and offbeat, being more of a straight-line action adventure tale.
On a point of detail, I was pleased to see that the book defied the currently fashionable orthodoxy by having both a prologue and infodumps. The latter appear at the start of almost every chapter in the form of extracts, sometimes amusing, from future histories and references; an approach previously used by Asimov in the Foundation trilogy and Herbert in Dune. These aren't suited to every story but can be very useful in some cases so shouldn't be dismissed as old-fashioned by the "show don't tell" evangelists. I do get rather tired of having to read a large part of a story before I can find out what's actually going on - assuming I even get that far!