Cowl – Neal Asher (2004)
‘In the fourth millennium, the Heliothane Dominion rules triumphant in the solar system. But some of its enemies have escaped into the past, where they are still capable of wreaking havoc across time. By far the worst of them is Cowl, an artificially forced advance in human evolution – more vicious than any prehistoric beast.
Innocently embroiled in this galactic conflict and fleeing for her life, Polly finds herself dragged back through time, era by era… towards the very dawning of life on Earth. meanwhile, her relentless pursuer, Tack, discovers that the ‘tor’ fragment imbedded in his wrist is of crucial value to the mysterious Heliothane – a truth that is soon brought home to him with bloody abruptness. As a twenty-second-century, vat-grown, programmable killer employed by U-gov, he is no stranger to violence, but his harrowing journey into the Heliothane’s lethal universe is only just beginning…
All the while the torbeast, Cowl’s pet, is growing vast and dangerous and shedding its scales wherever its master orders. Scales that are themselves organic time machines designed for bringing human samples from all ages back to Cowl.
Then the beast can feed…’
Blurb from the 2004 Pan Macmillan Tor paperback edition.
Abandoning his Polity universe temporarily Asher takes us on a trip forward and back through time.
In the far future the Heliothane and the Umbrathane are at war. A human genetic experiment, Cowl, has travelled back through time in order to make his own genetic pattern the dominant one in the possible futures he will create by travelling back to the dawn of multi-cellular life.
In the nearer future, Nandru, a soldier, has encountered a monster and somehow obtained a scale from its hide. Knowing that the authorities are after him he drugs a young prostitute, Polly, and provides her with an implanted AI called a Muse. The monster is Cowl’s creature which is feeding on life in various timelines. The scale, which Polly picks up and which binds to her arm, is a tor, a one-way time-machine which will take the bearer back to Cowl at the Nodus, the beginnings of life on earth.
Tack, a cloned and programmed assassin, is sent to retrieve the tor and although he manages to kill Nandru, Polly’s tor jumps her into the past. Nandru, in dying, managed to upload his memories into the Muse and can converse with her.
Tack has also been infected with a tor, and is kidnapped and reprogrammed by the Heliothane to be sent back in time to kill Cowl.
If that isn’t complicated enough, things get far more complex and the main characters all get embroiled in the machinations of Cowl, the Heliothane, the Umbrathane and Cowl’s sister, Aconite.
It’s a fast-paced, page-turning yarn, but not much else. One’s belief is stretched by Polly managing to bump into both Henry VIII and the Emperor Claudius while time-hopping. Also, Nandru – who seemed quite happy to have Polly killed at the start of the novel – is a far different kettle of fish when he’s an AI, and is friendly toward her.
Similarly, Tack does a complete U-turn when he is eventually released from his programming.
The question one has to ask – given that this is a stand alone novel by Asher separate from his Polity novels – is whether this is trying to say anything.
Perhaps there was a lost opportunity in not examining more deeply what an evolved human may become.
Certainly there are points raised as to whether – in our contemporary global society – we are weakening the race by keeping our weakest members alive, producing stronger antibiotics and therefore creating drug-resistant diseases.
Cowl is a survivor, a ruthless sociopath. Perhaps, in order to survive, this is what humanity needs to turn into.
Asher does not go far enough in examining the choices we need to make as a species. Can we be both strong and compassionate? Does one automatically preclude the other? Being strong as a race we would need to make difficult choices about our weaker members; those who cannot contribute fully. Should they be allowed to have children themselves? These are areas Asher could have examined more intensively, while at the same time showing us a little more of the personality of Cowl who ultimately comes across more as the movie monster hissing alien rather than the hyper-intelligent evolved human that he is supposed to be.