Wednesday, 3 October 2012

'The Departure' - Neal Asher


The Departure, by Neal Asher, has been sitting for quite a while on my reading pile. Or rather, my imaginary reading pile, since I did not actually buy it until recently. It took me this long to get used to the idea of no more Cormac, Spatterjay, or Old Captains. You see, The Departure is the first book in The Owner series. Tough time when my two favourite SF writers decide to do a major reboot. Once again, I'd like to thank myself for my generosity in providing me with a copy of The Departure.

The Owner universe is very different from the Polity one, gone are the benign AIs and Earth is in the hand of the totalitarian Committee. The population is divided into different categories based on their perceived usefulness, with the members of the Committee at the top, and 98% of humanity are so called Zero Assets (ZA). Basically, they are not worth anything, and are considered a drain upon resources. The overpopulation is serious enough that the ZA category are systematically killed by the Committee, but ironically their own inefficiency and waste is huge. At least there are no crab like aliens trying to eat them.

To me there are three things that Neal Asher excels at, action, world building, and creating likeable, slightly psychotic, characters. Lets see how much of the above is still true in The Departure, and The Owner universe.

When it comes to action, and blowing shit up in creative ways, no one is even close to Neal Asher. The pace is relentless, and the first chapter kicks off with some quality infiltration work, assassination, and equipment which would make Bond green with envy. It's just the starter, and the rest of The Departure is pretty much a smorgasbord of violence.

The world building works for me, but it's not really what I wanted. No killing drones bristling with weapons, no huge leeches, no other crazy nightmare creatures, and no Mr Crane. The furthest we go is Mars, and the scariest we have is some robots, which to be fair, would make me wet myself I I ever met one. It's just not quite same, which I guess is the purpose of switching to a new universe. Neal Asher does do a good job, and the hopelessness of the ZA population is clear, and we also have some interesting exposition at the start of every chapter. I do hope it never comes to this, but I can't help feeling the timing of The Departure is good considering the events in our own reality.

Last, but not least, are the characters, which means I should probably mention something about the plot as well. Vengeance. There, that covers the plot. Our protagonist is in a rather unfortunate situation, he does not remember who he is, only the face of the man who tortured him. On the flip side, he seems remarkably good at killing people, and also highly intelligent. The very capable AI, who goes by the name Janus, is also a fortunate resource. So off he goes to exact just retribution, and maybe even topple a government or two on the way. Comparing our new protagonist to agent Cormac wouldn't be unfair at all, although this new chap has some serious issues with authority. Both are highly capable individuals with a past shrouded in mystery. To me the biggest difference is the lack of interesting supporting characters, which our new man could have used. He is very focused, not very emotional, and maybe a little boring. A humorous sidekick, preferably a seahorse shaped drone, would have lightened things up a little.

At first I was not sure what to expect, and what I got was not quite what I wanted. Halfway through, The Departure was just another good action packed SF novel, but as Neal Asher revealed more and more where he was really going with the Owner series, my fascination grew. The Departure shows us a glimpse of what to expect in the future, and the potential of what could come next really excites me. It's the foundation of something new, and I want to be there when the rest of the building comes up. As soon as I finished The Departure I bought the second novel, Zero Point.

The Departure weighs in at 352 pages, and is published by Tor.

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