1/09/2011. Contributed by Patrick Mahon
The Departure (An Owner novel book 1) by Neal Asher. pub: TOR-UK/PanMacmillan. 498 page enlarged paperback. Price: GBP12.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-230-74672-5.
check out websites: www.panmacmillan.com and http://theskinner.blogspot.com
Neal Asher is a British Science Fiction author well known for his ultra-violent tales of far-future war between humans and aliens. ‘The Departure’ is the first volume in a new series of novels about ‘the Owner’, a character who has previously appeared in a couple of Asher’s short stories. It is a departure in more ways than one, as it is set much closer to the present day than his other novels, features no aliens and delves into the murky world of global geopolitics. So is it a successful departure?
The book starts in familiar-enough territory. Alan Saul breaks into a gene bank in Belgium, just ahead of a visit by a senior bureaucrat working for the totalitarian world government known as the Committee. Saul murders the bureaucrat and his bodyguard before assuming his identity. His plan is to infiltrate the Committee’s headquarters in London in order to identify and locate the person who oversaw Saul’s torture and near execution two years earlier. Then it’s payback time.
Saul is hugely assisted in his mission by Janus, an artificial intelligence to which his brain is linked through hardware put inside his skull by his ex-wife and former fellow research scientist, Hannah Neumann. She is still being forced to work for the Committee at their London HQ, so when Saul gains entry, he rescues Hannah before trashing the place. This turns out to be a pivotal decision because Hannah is able to upgrade the hardware in Saul’s head, using technologies she hasn’t yet reported to her Committee overseers. This means that Saul will potentially have an advantage over his opponents in the battles to come, once he learns how to use it.
During his time at the London HQ, Saul finds out that his torturer was a senior Committee member called Smith who is now in charge of the Argus Space Station orbiting the Earth. That becomes Saul and Hannah’s next port of call. When they get there, all hell breaks loose. They are ambushed by Smith, who has installed something similar to Saul’s old hardware in his own brain. The question is: will Saul’s more advanced version triumph, even though he hasn’t yet learned how to use it properly? Or will Smith’s greater experience with his less advanced kit enable him to kill his would-be assassin?
The novel includes a sub-plot based around humanity’s sole base on Mars. The Technical Director, Varalia Delex, has secretly sneaked out of the base to search for a colleague called Gisender who has gone missing. When she finds Gisender shot to death, Varalia guesses the truth. She knows that Gisender was trying to find out the content of a recent transmission from Earth, a message that was classified as top secret by the Political Director, Ricard, upon receipt. She realises that Ricard must have ordered Gisender to be killed once he understood what she was doing. So Varalia completes Gisender’s mission and finds out what the message said.
The answer is stark. Earth is in the middle of a resource crisis and can no longer afford to support the Martian outpost. They are being abandoned to their fate. Varalia feels that if they all pull together they should be able to make the base self-sufficient. However, it is clear that Ricard has taken a much harsher view. He intends to cull the less valuable members of staff and hope that a skeleton crew of the most useful will be able to tough it out until supply missions from Earth resume. Varalia is not about to let him get away with mass murder and so incites her colleagues to rise up against Ricard and his ‘security’ team, the representatives of the Committee on Mars. Can a team of intelligent but inexperienced scientists and technicians defeat the better-armed security team around Ricard?
Many of Asher’s trademark strengths are here in abundance. The technology is well imagined and the many fight scenes are portrayed in such detail that you could almost be there. I also really enjoyed the sub-plot based on Mars. I only wished that Asher had expanded this side of the novel a little more, given that it occupies just seventy pages out of five hundred, yet includes many of the most emotionally powerful scenes in the whole book.
Despite these strengths, I was disappointed by ‘The Departure’ I’ll highlight three main reasons.
The lead character, Alan Saul, is a deeply unsympathetic hero. The motivation behind his need for revenge is clear enough. The Committee forced him to use his genius for their ends until he became too unpredictable, at which point they tortured and nearly incinerated him. My problem is that Saul’s single-minded focus on revenge, combined with his surgical transformation by Hannah into a half-man, half-AI post-human, makes him appear arrogant, lacking in any compassion and more machine than person. Asher has written similar lead characters before but they have always had some redeeming, humanising feature that allowed the reader to empathise with them and wish them well. If Saul has such a feature, I must have missed it. I didn’t like him and, by the end of the book, I didn’t really care whether he won or lost.
Another problem is the way that Asher defines good and evil. Throughout the book, the evil characters are not restricted to the senior echelons of the totalitarian world government, many of whom undoubtedly deserve whatever they get. Instead, we are told that everyone associated with the regime is evil and deserves to die, especially if they fall into the hated category of ‘bureaucrat’. The good characters, by way of contrast, are those fighting against the regime. That automatically makes them good, regardless of how they act. For them, the end always justifies the means. So when Saul kills unarmed taxi drivers, cargo pilots and computer technicians in cold blood, this is not just excused but celebrated. ‘Nice to be able to clearly identify the bad guys,’ as Saul merrily tells himself at the end of chapter three, having just slaughtered seven more of his enemies. The problem is that the dividing line between the goodies and baddies just isn’t this clear. Our two principal heroes, Saul and Hannah, both worked for the Committee in senior scientist roles for years. Saul only stopped when the regime decided to kill him, while Hannah continued until he rescued her. How come it’s OK for them to collaborate with the regime but not for others to do the same, if the alternative is torture or death? Worse, half-way through the book, Saul is defeated by Smith, ending up in chains in the Argus Station’s jail facility. Who rescues him? Three of the hated minor bureaucrats, that’s who. Yet Saul, in his infinite arrogance, cannot even manage to thank them for saving his life and enabling him to continue his mission. I know who I viewed as the good guys then. It wasn’t Saul.
The third problem is Asher’s inability, as the book progresses, to stick to the story he’s supposed to be telling. He starts each chapter with a page of commentary from an omniscient narrator. At the start of the book, these introductory pieces are valuable, explaining how our present day world is supposed to have evolved into the setting of the story. However, as the book progresses, these commentaries have less and less to do with the story of Saul, Hannah and the Committee and more and more to do with the narrator’s political world view. For example, the introduction to the penultimate chapter includes the following text: ‘A belief was once prevalent in “modern” societies that the killer of humans, the murderer, is an aberration. The truth is that an aversion to killing anyone outside of immediate family is a product of societal indoctrination, whilst within immediate family it is merely the product of that contradiction in terms called “genetic altruism” ’. Now, if these words had been said by Saul, perhaps in dialogue with Hannah, I would not object. Indeed, it would be another good illustration of Saul’s character. Instead, it has been taken out of the story and written in such absolutist terms as to raise it from the status of commentary on this story to universal political truth. Consequently, by the end of the book, I was no longer sure whether I was reading a fictional story or a political tract.
Having enjoyed all the Neal Asher books that I have read so far, I was really looking forward to reading ‘The Departure’. This makes it all the more disappointing that I liked it so little. Unfortunately, the combination of an unsympathetic hero, dubious ethics and political grandstanding all got too much for me. The sooner Asher returns to telling stories that reflect the complexities facing real people in difficult situations, rather than writing polemics, the better as far as I’m concerned.
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