Friday, 26 September 2014

'The Departure' - Neal Asher (Tor UK)

The Argus Space Station looks down on a nightmarish Earth. And from this safe distance, the Committee enforces its despotic rule. There are too many people and too few resources, and they need twelve billion to die before Earth can be stabilised. So corruption is rife, people starve, and the poor are policed by mechanised overseers and identity-reader guns. Citizens already fear the brutal Inspectorate with its pain inducers. But to reach its goals, the Committee will unleash satellite laser weaponry, taking carnage to a new level.
This is the world Alan Saul wakes to, travelling in a crate destined for the Calais incinerator. How he got there he doesn’t know, but he remembers pain and his tormentor’s face. He also has company: Janus, a rogue intelligence inhabiting forbidden hardware in his skull. As Janus shows Saul an Earth stripped of hope, he resolves to annihilate the Committee and their regime. Once he’s discovered who he was, and killed his interrogator . . .

Neal Asher is one of those authors where I really feel like I should have read more of his books than I actually have done (three or four so far, in case you're wondering). I have a natural aversion to long running science fiction series if I haven't been reading them from the start, too much time and investment required, and this is the case with Asher's 'Polity' works. (Apropos of nothing, I have absolutely no qualms diving into long running fantasy series; that's how I roll).
A bit of birthday money and what looks like a completed trilogy ('The Owner' trilogy) looked like a great way to address this, I've been in the mood for a little space opera just recently, so I did the only thing I could. I started reading :o)

'The Owner' books are a 'departure' (pun not intended originally but I'm running with it) from Asher's 'Polity' books, taking place on an Earth reminiscent of 'Blake's 7' with a totalitarian government stamping down hard on the general populace. I couldn't help but wonder if Asher's politics were showing a little too clearly in the plot (with some of the background prose perhaps being a little too opinionated in terms of the actions of government) but the overall affect is compelling with Asher killing off vast swathes of humanity with almost gleeful abandon (in marked contrast to the chilling statistics delivered by an increasingly impersonal Alan Saul) using weaponry apt for such a vicious regime. The Shepherds make me shiver a little just writing about them. There is a lot of scope here for full on 'sci-fi violence' and Asher makes the most of every chance he gets. The body count is astronomical although the heavy numbers all happen 'off the page' as it were. What you do see though is hard hitting enough. No-one is safe from the guns of the Committee or Saul's robot army. Certain characters are guaranteed to make it through but don't get too attached to any of the supporting cast, that's all I'm saying…

A key theme of 'The Departure' is Saul's transition from man into a post-human man/machine hybrid. For the most part Asher handles this transition very well with some interesting insights into just what it means to gradually surrender your humanity. Saul's conflict with Director Smith is also a high point as far as this theme goes with Asher showing the fight on two fronts with blows dealt in cyberspace and some stunning sequences taking place between opposing armies of robots on a space station (worth the price of entry). Metal stuff gets blown up and/or ripped to pieces by other metal stuff and there are times when you can't ask for much more than that. Where Asher fell down for me, exploring this theme, was that there were times where he made Saul a little too impersonal. I can understand the approach but some of the resulting descriptive passages came across as rather dull, I'm thinking of Saul's view of the Argus space station which I ended up skimming just to get to the good bits.

On the whole, 'The Departure' is a fast paced affair with a mix of big explosions, an 'evil empire' and a flawed anti-hero; more than enough to make me want to read the next book in the series. Having said all that though, 'The Departure' is also a book that can feel like it's talking in a monotone at the most inappropriate times; I'm hoping for good things from 'Zero Point' but will approach it with some caution...

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