Review | The Departure by Neal Asher (Tor)

Title: The Departure
Author: Neal Asher
Publisher: Tor UK
Format: Hardback
Release Date: September 2011

Reviewed by: Mark Chitty

Buy from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com
The beginning of a new series from a master of space opera

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 . . . 

It's quite apt that this novel is called The Departure. Not only is it a departure from Asher's Polity Universe (where all but one of his prior novels are set, the exception being Cowl), but it's a departure from the typical space opera Asher has treated us to over the years. The big question is: is this departure successful, or not?

Before I go into my review of the novel, I need to give you a little background on what I was expecting. The Departure is not Neal's first venture into Owner territory, he's written four short stories (Proctors, The Owner, Tiger, Tiger, and Owner Space), and I love them all - if you read my review of The Engineer ReConditioned you can see just how highly I rate them (the fourth, Owner Space, is from the Galactic Empires anthology). I knew that The Departure was going to focus on the early days of the Owner, not the future depicted in the other stories, but I enjoyed them so much I had massively high expectations for any Owner novel. I think that's where the trouble began, and why it ultimately took me two attempts and over a year before I managed to read it.

The Departure is the story of Alan Saul, a man who, on the way to his death, awakens in an over-populated world ruled with an iron fist by the Committee. With next to no memory and an AI named Janus inside his head, he vows to rediscover who he is, learn what truth he can, and take revenge upon his torturer and, in turn, the Committee themselves.

There is nothing subtle about The Departure, that's for sure. From the totalitarianism of the Committee, to the all out, in your face violence, this novel delivers plenty of action with some great set pieces. Alan Saul is a great character to read, and his progress throughout the novel is satisfying, especially the way he's tied to Janus. It's an interesting concept, and put into Asher's hands it evolves rapidly to encompass every aspect you could imagine - and some you probably can't.

While the main focus is on Saul, there is another thread running throughout the novel, one of the Antares base on Mars and the events after the discovery by Var that it is being abandoned by the Committee, but not without them sending instructions to their subordinates running the base. It's interesting to see the struggle between the sides as they try and gain control of the base, and how they need to look to the future to survive the isolation.

Despite the typical Asher action and all else I enjoyed, The Departure was a difficult book. Perhaps it's because I enjoy his Polity novels so much, and this is big change to what he's given us before, or perhaps (and more likely) it was my high expectations. I found much of the book to be either black or white, with very little shades of grey to keep things interesting. When you have a completely evil organisation at the heart of a story I think the task of telling an interesting story is harder, though Asher tries damned hard to do so, not entirely succesfully.

At the end of the day The Departure worked for me, but not as much as I would have hoped. It works as a starting point for the Owner series, establishing the good guys, the bad guys, and setting events in motion. Now the setting up is done I expect much more from the sequel, Zero Point, and I won't be as forgiving if it doesn't meet the expectations I have.

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