The Departure by Neal Asher
Published by Tor UK, September 2011 (Review copy received)
ISBN: 978 0 230 708730
Review by Mark Yon
Neal’s latest novel is a departure of sorts: away from his Polity series, and the start of a new series, but a place he has written of before. The Departure is the first of The Owner novels, though Neal’s story collection The Engineer (and its later revised version, The Engineer Reconditioned) tell three stories of the Owner Universe.
Whilst the short stories tell of events much later, The Departure sets up the basics in the origin of the stories. Set in the 22nd century, Earth is being run by a global authority known as the Committee. Its enforcers, the Inspectorate, rule a rapidly growing population with ruthless efficiency, often involving torture and death. The general populace are controlled by human enforcers and robot Shepherds, a Wellsian type machine that can both capture and shred people.
Things in this dystopia are generally not good. A too-large population using too many of its finite resources without the luxury of expansion means that life for many is arduous. The idea that ‘Power Corrupts’ is important here, and there’s clearly something rotten in the socio-political structures of the 22nd century. The world government administrators live in luxury, whilst the ZA (Zero Asset) people, who contribute nothing to the economy, exist on a bare minimum with limited health care and facilities.
To this we have Alan Saul, assisted by an artificial intelligence named Janus. Having being tortured by the Inspectorate, his past is a mystery and much of Alan’s past is unknown to him, or at least fragmentarily remembered at best. His mission objective is to bring down the corrupt organisation. He helps who he thinks is his torturer/interrogator, Hannah Neumann, but actually finds that they are former lovers and colleagues. Saul now discovers that he was a key player for the Inspectorate, but one who was experimented on and tortured before being dispatched by Political Director Smith for disposal.
When Janus’s presence in cyberspace is uncovered, Saul has to download Janus into the experimental hardware created by Hannah in his head, where the two become merged, if at first, rather schizophrenic. Now being hunted by the Inspectorate, Saul/Janus and Neumann attempt to get to Argus Space Station, and off planet. He finds that Smith is now in charge of running Argus and so Saul must try and kill Smith first in order to bring down the Committee.
Another of the consequences of the overpopulated and under-resourced Earth is that the limited space exploration other than travel to Argus, is confined pretty much to Mars. There, Varalia Delex (Var) is a colonist at Antares Base who finds that a colleague has been deliberately killed by the security forces there. The reason for this is that the security staff has received from Earth, an order which effectively cuts Mars off from any future support from Earth in the foreseeable future. Facing a difficult future, Ricard, chief administrator of the station’s present Inspectorate, attempts to introduce a means of ensuring survival for a few, but not all, of the base’s inhabitants. Var leads the rebellion back in order to remove the enforcers and keep her colleagues alive.
Earth is overpopulated and running out of basic resources, whilst unable to afford further space exploration. This leads to a base on Mars being left without support or resources and an uncertain future.
It’s all pretty fast, dramatic stuff. We have city riots, shootings, space planes destroyed, the deliberate bombardment of the Earth from space, and combat in space aided by construction robots. As you might therefore expect, the body count is very high (though that is something that you rather expect with Neal’s books.) This is definitely not one for the faint hearted in that respect, with body parts flying around and blood splashing many a wall.
Similarly, like many of Neal’s other books there’s also lots of cool gadgets: the robot-like Shepherds ensuring control, spider guns (robotic tanks), readerguns (that can recognise their targets before shooting them), space planes with scram jets and lots and lots of lethal guns.
In fact, this is a book with lots of Asher trademarks: rapid pace, great action, messy consequences. The political aspects of the tale showing the decline of a global network are quite well done, though rather unsubtle. Neal does tend to hammer home the message of “corporate greed = bad” quite a lot, as well as blaming the world’s ills on left-wing measures.
Having watched riots and unrest in my own country over the last few weeks at the time of writing this, though, some of the early scenes here are eerily reminiscent of what could happen. If, as some suggest, SF reflects the time it was written, then perhaps this book fits the bill.
On the downside, though well told, when it is simplified to its basics, this book in a series of set pieces does little more than set up things for what will happen in the next book. It is an opening arrangement, with the result that that some aspects of the story are started and not resolved here.
The characters can be a little nondescript, though they are easy enough to work with, and have the advantage of the reader not having to spend pages reading about determining the meaning of life. (Though that’s not to say that there isn’t a little bit of that on the part of the main protagonist and his co-opted ex-lover.) Some may also quibble with the eventual god-like status of Saul and how quickly that occurs.
Nevertheless I must admit I am quite pleased to read something that Neal has done away from the Polity for a change. It seems to have given him a new lease of life. I am sure fans of his previous novels will enjoy this new series just as much, and will find much to enjoy here.
Mark Yon, August 2011.