Fiction Reviews

The Departure

(2011) Neal Asher, Tor, £12.99, trdpbk, 498pp, ISBN 978-0-230-74672-5


Billed as 'An Owner' novel, The Departure is the first of a new series by Neal Asher, set in the collapse of a high-tech future in which the Internet has given birth to an intrusive bureaucracy, which in turn has spawned a totalitarian society run by and for an elite of civil servants known only as the Committee. With everything geared to producing more power and wealth for the upper echelons, social policies have become increasingly ruthless, and the tools of repression are more violent and ever more casually used. Major productive exercises like industrialising the asteroids, settling Mars and building gene banks are being turned off, not because they’re too costly to run, or too costly relative to the returns, but simply because they’re costly. Whole sectors of the populace are being cut off from government services, such as energy and food distribution, because agriculture and industry are not just in recession but in collapse.

At the outset we meet Alan Saul, who doesn’t know who he is, but retains the skills of a master assassin and saboteur and is motivated only by a compulsion to hunt down and kill the torturer who removed the rest of his personality and memories. As he pursues an increasingly murderous course, in which a tactical nuclear blast in London is a minor distraction caused by someone else, flickers of his past return to him but what’s far more important is the growing power of his interaction with machines. On page 87, for example, after he programmes the robot guns of a police stronghold to turn on the staff, and after a page graphically describing the consequences, "Saul's mouth was dry and he felt slightly sickened at the carnage he had achieved…" Make the most of that moment, there aren’t many. "…but those feelings were dominated by the other colder and more ruthlessly cruel side of him." By the time he recovers full memory of his torture, on p.372, "His definition of self seemed a hazy thing, but that knowledge of self was total. Smith had tempered him all too well in the fire."

I am not entirely sure what that means, but if there's irony in the choice of name – if we are meant to think of the victim whose personality is destroyed in 1984 – it’s not obvious to me. I once knew a chap in the Navy whose only answer to any social or political question was to detail the make and calibre of the weapons he would use to silence those who disagreed with him, and if he’d written SF, this is the sort of SF it would be. After 372 pages following a litany of weapons used or improvised by a character whose 'definition of self' is still hazy, I was longing for a Damascene moment when Saul might realise there was more to life than this. But what’s actually happening at that point is that he and Smith are fighting in cyberspace for control of a space station’s robot workforce, each using them to slaughter the other's supporters.

The space station is a leftover from the asteroid programme, and since the cover illustration and the other strand of the novel are set on Mars, I’m not giving too much away in saying that the Departure of the title is literal. I will not reveal who the lead character on Mars is, but the parallel situation there is that supply ships have stopped and the armed struggle is between the elite and the staff who have been judged to be expendable, and it reaches a similar outcome. When the two groups of victors (the 'Owners' of the series title) meet in the sequel, I have the feeling that there will be more conflict to come.

Duncan Lunan

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