COWL by Neal Asher
Tor UK, 2004, £17.99, 406pp
ISBN 4050-0137-2

This reviewed first appeared in The Alien Online

See also my review of Gridlinked and The Technician

Not content with wreaking death and destruction across the vastness of space, Neal Asher, the Steven Seagal of space opera (copyright: me, now), has decided to let rip his own particular brand of mayhem through the depths of time as well. With nods – or rather, in some cases, head butts – to Ian Fleming, H.P. Lovecraft and maybe even Hubert Selby, Jr. along the way, is anyone safe from this madman?

The plots of time-travel novels are generally harder to handle than a barrel full of crack-addicted monkeys, so given that Asher’s previous works are already widely noted for being twisted (if not especially complex), über-violent and ultra-fast-moving, you might expect Cowl to be the same. And you’d be right: it’s a fast, furious, bouncing-off-the-walls car-crash of a book, with all the twisted metal and confusion you’d expect such a description to entail.

The real difference between Cowl and Asher’s previous novels is that it doesn’t take place in the universe of the Polity. It’s a stand-alone book, which is probably a good idea – a chance for Polity-watchers to catch their breath and mull over some of the deeper plots I think I glimpse in those books that need to be allowed a little time to stew before they’re quite ready...

Cowl sees characters from throughout human history being caught up and dragged back in time by ‘scales’ from a gargantuan, atemporal and ravenous horror called the torbeast. The torbeast is the pet of a less gargantuan but still hideously awful experiment in post-humanity known only as Cowl. Cowl has established a fortified base of operations at the moment of life’s beginning on earth and is attempting to carry out a twisted plan to destroy humanity before it has even begun. He is at once aided and abetted by his creators, two groups of far-future humanity called the Heliothane and the Umbrathane (roughly translated: the lords of dark and light) who have been (will be?) savagely at war with each other in the future.

Into the midst of this war (although in a sense we would all be in the midst of it) are thrown two inhabitants of a hellish 22nd century, snagged by the scales of the torbeast. Polly is a drug-addled teen prostitute caught up in a business deal about to go badly wrong. To ‘help’ her carry out her side of the deal she has been given a top-notch piece of military AI hardware by a man who may well be insane. Tack is a clone – one of many – of a long-dead CIA killer, powerfully enhanced and inflexibly programmed to follow orders. He is an enforcer for U-gov, an evolved United Nations that, through violence, murder and technology, is barely holding together a high-tech, violent and murderous 22nd–century earth.

On the opposite side of the deal-about-to-go-badly-wrong from Polly, Tack is doing exactly what he is told to do – he’s just about incapable of anything else. When the deal goes badly wrong (as these deals so often do) and the torbeast intervenes Tack winds up pursuing Polly back through time, as both of them bounce around the past like a kitten in a washing machine.

I have to say, Cowl is not a book likely to win over any new readers to the science fiction cause. This is only a minor criticism, more of an observation in fact, in that people who say they don’t like science fiction because it’s ‘unrealistic’ or ‘unbelievable’ are not going to be dissuaded by stories of world-eating monsters dragging whores and hitmen back in time to the Cambrian era as part of a escalating time war between two future civilisations and their seemingly invincible creation. Trust me, I saw a friend’s face as he read the back cover of Cowl.

Asher does give a pretty convincing farrago of technobabble for his time-travel, playing with paradoxes and temporal cul de sacs throughout but these are largely window-dressing for the action of the story. Some of the details may spin your head a little bit but are hardly in the Greg Egan league. The historical interludes are very well done, most especially the pieces set in human eras. I do get a sense of a sort of “Savage beast of the week” list setting in after that, which is less interesting, but Asher does have a weakness for savage beasts. The meeting with Henry VIII in particular gives a grubby sense of life being rather nasty, brutish and short back then, and does no favours whatsoever for the monarchy - you can really see how the concept of the “divine right of kings” must have petered out.

The Heliothane and Umbrathane civilisations never manage to leap off the page at you but the often rather enigmatic fragments of them we do see show just about as much as is necessary to grasp that these people are both powerful and power-hungry (in more ways than one) - not to mention the fact that a ruthless strategy of survival of the absolute fittest is no basis upon which to build a civilisation. Cowl is the apotheosis of the Umbrathane and Heliothane ethos, a ruthless, amoral surviving machine, but he’s not a very nice person at all. In fact, physical appearance aside, he’s barely even human. Tack initially suffers from the same problem but... Ahh, but you’ll have to see for yourself.

Cowl doesn’t see any improvements in Asher’s major weakness, which is in writing sympathetic, rounded characters; he still prefers his cold-blooded killers and taciturn, macho types. There is some hope, however, in the arc of Tack and Polly’s development throughout the book, which is a fairly interesting idea, although it’s rather soggily done. To be fair, the book’s setting isn’t one to exactly invite any intense emotional soul-searching, but a little more conversation and a little less action might have leavened what can sometimes seem a rather unrelenting sequence of narrow escapes and gun battles.

On the other hand, fans of gun-toting, blood-spattered, technoporn action-adventures festooned with some occasionally head-spinning ideas are not going to be disappointed. No, sirree. Cowl is Neal Asher doing very much what he does best: pumping out the thrills amidst an interesting background of sexy technology, appalling beasties and some even more appalling people. It’s a good, red-blooded read for that well-earned, relaxing beach holiday this year – because although I enjoy Asher’s books I find they do bear a slight similarity to fast food: they’re bright and flashy, they smell good and sometimes you simply can’t resist having one, but ultimately they’re somewhat unsatisfying.

You couldn’t live on Neal Asher books, and you wouldn’t want to, but sometimes you just want one.

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