The Polity series by English science fiction author Neal Asher is a limitless thrill-ride of grotesque aliens, badass hardware, rogue AIs, and deadly secret agents. It’s got everything a science fiction fan could want from an action-adventure story, and that’s definitely by design.
“I wanted a universe—a future history, if you like—big enough to tell just about any science fiction story I’d want to tell,” Asher says in Episode 319 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And that’s how The Polity came about.”
The series is set hundreds of years in the future, when humanity has expanded throughout most of the galaxy, and a benevolent civilization called the Polity has brought peace and stability to thousands of worlds. The stories are mostly set on the periphery of this civilization, where Polity agents struggle to exert control.
“Stories are conflict, and inside the Polity there isn’t so much of that,” Asher says. “Within the Polity it’s pretty much utopian.”
In contrast to progressive visions of the future seen in Star Trek or the Culture series, the Polity is a libertarian utopia where all paternalistic laws have been abolished and the free market reigns supreme. But Asher says he’s not interested in sending any sort of message in his fiction. “I just wrote it as I saw it,” he says. “I’ve never thought that much about it. My aim is to tell a story and to entertain.”
He’s more outspoken on Twitter, where he regularly posts about politics. He says that social media has made him acutely aware of just how unwelcome his views are in the overwhelmingly liberal world of science fiction, to the extent that he simply avoids science fiction conventions altogether.
“I look around at the writers that I know of, that I see on Twitter, and the political opinions and all this kind of thing, and I’m just not one of the herd in that respect, so I keep out of it,” he says. “I can’t see myself sitting on a panel on anything like that and keeping my mouth shut, so it’s probably best if I don’t go.”
Listen to our complete interview with Neal Asher in Episode 319 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Neal Asher on Polity society:
“I’ve had a little look at that in some of the books. I mean, you have people taking up jobs as a hobby, as an activity. For example, there are taxis—I talk about them in various stories and so on—and you’ll have taxis which are just controlled by a city AI, or even an onboard AI, or sometimes there are people who will take the job of driving the taxi—something to do. I mean that’s an aspect of that kind of future that you have to think about is boredom. I cover that with the people living for an awful long time, they’re practically immortal. I deal with that with the ‘ennui barrier’—when people reach a certain age they’ve done too much, and they want to finish it. … Between 150 and 200 years is when it hits.”
Neal Asher on AI:
“One of the things I disagree with, which people go on about quite a lot, is the AI singularity, where suddenly everything’s going to be—it’s the ‘Rapture of Nerds,’ there’s going to be massive changes. And that kind of view, about how terrible it’ll be with the AIs getting powerful or whatever, is linked up to this idea of this Rapture of Nerds. I don’t think it’s going to go that quick. I don’t think we’re going to lose control. I don’t see it happening. What I’m leaning more to in the writing that I’m doing now—rather than the writing I was doing, say, 10 years ago—is I rather suspect that we will evolve with them. That the far future is going to be a point where you won’t be able to tell the difference between the AI and the human. I think there’ll be an amalgamation.”
Neal Asher on religion:
“The Line of Polity was the second book in the series, and [my US publisher] missed it out and published the next one instead. And the excuse given was that it was too big, but I’ve seen books at that size and bigger being published in America by them, so I thought, ‘Well, what’s all that about?’ And the only conclusion I could come to was that it was pretty hard on religion in that book, and maybe they didn’t want to alienate what they thought might have been an audience for it. I don’t know. … It’s very atheistic. In the book itself, the setting of it is a world called Masada, which is run by a theocracy, and throughout it—young writer again—I was attacking religion. It was all a bit paraphrasing Richard Dawkins, if you like, going through it. And that could have pissed people off.”
Neal Asher on his readers:
“There’s a motorcycle guy who races motorcycles, there’s an astrophysicist. A particular one I liked on this recent lot was a young guy who read my book The Skinner, which is about alien marine life. A lot of the biology in my books is weird, but it encouraged him to go back to college and study marine biology. It’s stories like that I love. … I’ll occasionally put questions out there [to my readers]. One was whether you could cause a fusion explosion using mirrors—you know, vast solar mirrors focused in on one point. Because somebody had argued that no, you can’t do that, and I’d actually put it in one of my books. And then I got the astrophysicist coming back saying, ‘Well, it’s possible.’ So I thought, ‘That’s good enough for me.’”