The Skinner

The characters and plot of Neal Asher’s SF novel The Skinner didn’t do much for me; but the setting was amazing.
The Skinner takes place on the world of Spatterjay, which has an utterly ferocious ecology. Spatterjay is mostly sea; on the very first page we are introduced to “vicious plankton — which would make the experience of swimming for a human akin to bathing in ground glass”; and things go on from there. Asher takes great delight in imagining surpassingly feral and vicious forms of invertebrate life: mostly arthropods, molluscs, and annelids. As these creatures prey upon one another, Darwinian “survival of the fittest” goes into absurd hyperdrive. The result is a nightmarish cycle of devourers devoured in their own turn, without end.
At the top of the food chain are leeches (both in the sea, and on the sparse islands where people live) that grow to the size of sharks or whales, taking big bites of flesh out of their victims, or even swallowing them whole. But there’s more: if the leeches don’t kill their victims outright, they infect them with a virus that, in effect, renders those victims immortal: or at least the prey become so resilient, and able to repair injury, that they generally live on, providing yet more food for the leeches over the course of their extended lifetimes. This gives an exceedingly nasty twist to Nietzsche’s maxim that “whatever does not kill me, makes me stronger.”
The virus is also mutagenic; under circumstances of extended stress, it reprograms the DNA of the infected organism, making it more leechlike. This happens to human victims, as well as to other organisms. Viral proliferation, pointing towards a future in which the leech genome monopolizes the entire biosphere… It’s a nightmare beyond anything William Burroughs imagined…
Unfortunately, nothing else in the book matches this astonishing ecology. Even the human villains, sadistic nazis that they are, are dwarfed by the fantastic flashes of the novel’s background.

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