Neal Asher, The Departure

The Departure is the first of a planned new series by British science fiction writer Neal Asher. This installment is the origin story of a character called The Owner of Worlds, who has previously appeared in a couple of Asher stories.

The fellow who becomes The Owner is Alan Saul. The Earth he lives in, sometime early in the 22nd century, is packed to the gills with humanity, the vast majority of whom are jobless, hungry and poverty-stricken. They are herded like so many sheep into ghettos by their violent overlords, the worldwide governmental body known as The Committee and its Inspectorate and Enforcers. The Committee for decades has been systematically putting into place policies intended to result in the deaths of most “zero asset” persons, in order to direct the resources to the rulers. At the same time the rulers have been moving into impregnable fortresses at various spots around the globe. Thought police and high-tech torture chambers keep would-be revolutionaries in check, while death-dealing robots and genetically modified cops and soldiers do the same for the general populace.

It is a grim dystopia.

Saul wakes up, or is reborn, actually, in a coffin on a conveyor belt headed for the human recycling plant. He is able to converse via implant with an artificial intelligence, the first of its kind, named Janus, which rescues him and helps him figure out who he is. Then two years pass, which we learn about only in brief snippets of flashbacks, during which he learns that he was a brilliant scientist and engineer who implanted all kinds of cybernetic devices in himself, then was tortured nearly to death. He has vowed to find out who his torturer was and kill him, and then bring down The Committee.

With Janus’s help he rescues Hannah, the surgeon and former lover who helped him install all of his modifications, from a military/government lab/clinic/security installation, to help him in his quest. He is captured and tortured again, gets away, somehow downloads Janus into his own modified brain, and becomes a godlike cyborg. The mayhem he has raised along the way grows even greater in scale.

In a parallel subplot, we follow the efforts of a woman named Var to battle the evil forces of The Committee on Mars. Thought not cybernetically modified like Saul, she is extremely clever and ruthless as she pursues her goals, which started out as simple revenge for the murder of her friend but soon grow to include taking over the station.

Asher is well known for his graphic depictions of violence, and in The Departure he liberally splashes the gore around. Nobody who gets shot just falls over and dies; the blood splashes over every nearby surface, their brains spatter the walls, bits of flesh and bone go flying off in all directions. Saul and his robots break spines, twist heads off and nail appendages to the walls.

The story in The Departure has potential. It’s built on a grand scale and its main characters are well conceived. Parts of the climactic battle are pretty exciting. Many of his existing fans will no doubt lap it up. I was unimpressed. The only characters who are developed at all are Saul and Var, who despite being well-conceived are barely more than one-dimensional. The villains are all comic-book megalomaniacs. Hannah is little more than a foil for Saul. We never meet a single one of the planet’s billions of zero-asset persons.

And the writing is not good. Even allowing for the fact that this is a U.K. edition that employs alien idioms and rhythms, I found it an excruciating read. Much of the prose seems to have been written by a committee of bureaucrats. I think that may be a device in some cases, but it doesn’t excuse the awkward, convoluted and just plain bad writing. Here’s a sample of typical dialog:

“I have attained my first goal,” he said emotionlessly. “I now know who I am, so it is time for me to attain my next goal.” His face showed extreme emotion, raw hate. “Now I must show these fuckers they’ve really made an enemy.”

Every chapter opens with a passage in italics that lays out some of the book’s back-story and the philosophy of … well, I wasn’t sure whose philosophy and views these reflected. The passages are written like a textbook or a political treatise, but who is speaking? The author? The Owner himself? Some future historian? It seems merely to be an expedient way of filling in important details and background, instead of doing the hard work of integrating it into the story itself.

One really great thing about the book, and most Asher books, is the cover art, which accurately depicts something from the story; in this case it’s the Mars base where Var’s part of the story is set. It helped me visualize the base from Asher’s descriptions. For me, though, The Departure stands on its head the old advice about not judging a book by its cover. I would not have finished this book if I hadn’t been reviewing it.

(Tor, 2011)

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