The Skinner – Neal Asher (2002)
‘Welcome to Spatterjay… where sudden death is the normal way of life
On the planet Spatterjay arrive three travellers: Janer, bringing the eyes of the hornet Hive mind, on a mission not yet revealed to him; Erlin, searching for Ambel – the ancient sea captain who can teach her how to live; and Sable Keech, on a vendetta he cannot abandon, though he himself has been dead for seven hundred years.
This remote world is mostly ocean, and all but a very few human visitors keep safe inside the island Dome. Outside it, only the native hoopers dare risk the voracious appetites of the planet’s wildlife. But somewhere out there is Spatterjay Hoop – and monitor Keech will not rest until he brings this legendary renegade to justice for hideous crimes committed centuries ago during the Prador Wars.
Pursuing rumour, Keech learns that Hoop has since become something monstrous, his body roaming free in an island wilderness, whilst his living head is confined in a box aboard one of the old captains’ ships. Janer, the eternal tourist, is bewildered by this place, where the native inhabitants just will not die, but his bewilderment turns to anger when he finally learns the Hive mind’s intentions. Meanwhile, Erlin thinks she has plenty of time to find the answers she seeks, but she could not be more wrong. For one of the most brutal of the alien Prador is about to pay the planet a surreptitious visit, intent on exterminating all remaining witnesses to his wartime atrocities…
So, as the fortunes of these recent arrivals converge, major hell is about to erupt in a chaotic waterscape – where minor hell is already a remorseless fact of everyday life… and death.
Blurb from the 2003 Tor paperback edition
The world of Spatterjay lies on the boundary between the AI-controlled safer worlds of the Polity and the rest of known space. It has an AI warden and a runcible (matter transmitter portal) connecting it to other Polity worlds, but has not yet been fully subsumed into the Polity system.
Spatterjay is a dangerous world, boasting evolved predators billions of years older than our own. Its dominant life-form is the leech which not only gouges lumps of flesh from its victims, but infects them with a virus which repairs the wound, thus maintaining a self-sustaining food supply. The side effect of this is that infected organisms, including humans, are virtually immortal. Infected humans, though, which comprises of all Spatterjay’s permanent residents, must consume off-world nutrients to combat the transformative effects of the virus, which produces gross mutations of the body and mind.
Three offworlders have now landed on Spatterjay, and their goals become intertwined. One of them, Erlin, is on the trail of Jay Hoop, one of the founders of the planetary colony, and a criminal wanted by the Authorities for trading in ‘cored’ humans. These bodies, cleansed of their resident personalities, were sold to the crablike Prador and employed by them as slave robots.
There are obvious parallels between the environment, Hoop’s activities and the slavery trade in Europe and America, although Asher doesn’t really exploit this comparison other than to make the obvious moral points.
Over the centuries Hoop has been transformed by the Spatterjay virus and has evolved into a legendary monster, The Skinner, so called because he flays his victims.
AIs, self-aware self-evolved military defence robots, hornet hive-minds and the secret machinations of the Prador are all thrown into the mix to produce a satisfying and colourful novel.
Asher has also worked hard at creating an interesting alien ecosystem with whose predators Humanity has to contend on a daily basis. As in ‘Gridlinked’ each chapter is prefaced by an excerpt from a side story, here telling a tale of predators and prey beneath the Spatterjay oceans.