Sunday, July 10, 2011
Review: The Departure
I’m a huge Neal Asher fan and after reading his Cormac series he has firmly cemented a place amongst my top five favorite science fiction authors. When the guys at Pan Macmillan South Africa wanted to know if I wanted an ARC of his forthcoming novel, The Departure, I thought they were kidding. They were serious! I couldn’t believe my luck and jumped at the chance of getting my hands on something the rest of the world will have to wait two months for.
Waiting for the package to get here was pure torture especially since it also contained a review copy of China Miéville’s Embassytown. When it finally arrived I was ecstatic, but it also meant I had to make a tough decision. Which one do I read first? I opted for Embassytown and left The Departure on my bookshelf, planning on reviewing it in August. Each and every day its beautiful Jon Sullivan cover called out to me. With a huge amount of willpower I managed to resist its sirens’ call until just a few days ago when I finally caved and decided to read just the first page. One page couldn’t hurt right?
The Orwellian intro had me utterly hooked right from the start. I simply couldn’t stop reading until I reached the end. Like an addict trying to ration out a limited supply I forced myself to take things slow and over the course of four days I completely lost myself in the far too plausible 1984-esque future Neal brings to life.
This is not a Polity novel even though much of the technology seems familiar (albeit in a more primitive form). The Departure, the first novel in the Owner trilogy, is set in the twenty-second century and Earth is not a pleasant place. The world is controlled by the Committee, a totalitarian world government, who rules with an iron fist. Personal ownership is a pipedream. Everything belongs to the state. Access to food and other resources are severely restricted. Zero Asset citizens, those deemed useless to the state, starve while the upper echelons of the Committee live in luxury. The Committee has the population under constant surveillance. Say the wrong thing or act in the wrong way and you’ll find yourself sent for ‘readjustment’ using pain inducers and other, more painful, methods. Those who are earmarked as dissidents or those who are no longer deemed useful are simply killed and recycled in digesters so no resources (and food sources) go to waste.
The protagonist, Alan Saul, is born in darkness. He’s woken by a mysterious voice inside his head while inside a crate bound for incineration. He has huge gaps in his memory, and aside from his name, the only thing he remembers clearly is the face of his interrogator. In order to discover more about himself and the reasons for his interrogation he has to go up against the might of the Committee and its enforcers, the Inspectorate. He vows that he’ll destroy them and all that they stand for.
Meanwhile on Mars, Var discovers that she and the other residents of the Antares base are viewed as disposable. The Committee has decided that the Mars missions are a waste of money. The spacecraft necessary for returning them to Earth have already been recycled and they are essentially left to die. Under her leadership they must band together to overthrow the current leader of the Antares base and find a way to make the base self-sustaining in order to survive.
Unlike with the Cormac novels, where the supporting characters were often much more likeable and important than Ian Cormac, Alan Saul is a well-fleshed out central character that you quickly grow very fond of. He is a very strong character that takes center stage and absolutely dominates events with his brutal ruthlessness. He reminded me a bit of Mr. Crane from the Cormac novels. He is just as deadly (maybe even more so) and he doesn’t hesitate to take lives if he feels it is warranted. As events unfold you get a better understanding of his motivations and while his methods might be harsh it’s never done out of malice. He almost acts like an avenging angel for the common people. It is interesting to witness his growing abilities and his metamorphosis from a comparatively ordinary man into the Owner (which features in some of Neal Asher’s short stories). Not having read any of the short stories I’m particularly interested to see what he ultimately becomes.
As a counterpoint, Var is a much more gentle character. She is put in a very difficult position where she has to fight to survive. The scenes on Mars are superbly done and you really get the sense of what a future Mars colony could be like. I’m sure that Mars will play a much larger role in the second novel, so it will be very interesting to see where things go from here.
The ending gives a good sense of closure while still setting things up nicely for the next novel. Since it’s not a cliffhanger ending the yearlong wait for the next installment will be slightly more bearable.
The Departure makes Orwell’s 1984 look like a utopia in comparison. The future Neal imagines is far more disturbing due to the Committee’s absolute disregard for human life. They possess both the technology for constant surveillance as well as the weaponry to extinguish human lives by the millions, something the government in 1984 never had.
This is an absolute must for all Asher fans and would also be an excellent introduction for those new to his work. I was engrossed throughout and cannot wait to read the next novel in the Owner trilogy.
A word of warning: This is not a novel for the squeamish. People are killed in horrific and brutal ways, so be prepared for blood and gore - lots of it!
The Departure is currently available for pre-orders and will be released on the 5th of September. Order your copy now!
The Rating: 8/10