Science Fiction Though the Decades

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

2011: The Departure (Asher, Neal)

Body count trumps page count (2/5)
From September 20, 2011

I've read nearly everything in the Asher catalog from the blazing guns and gore of The Skinner (along with the proceeding Voyage and Orbus), the shoot'em up fiesta of Gridlinked and (along with the proceeding four Cormac novels) and the razzle-dazzle action of Prador Moon (and the other Polity novels and stories) - all totally twelve books. The Departure is my unlucky thirteenth book by Asher. This is NOT a prequel to the Polity universe but it does share some of the same technology.

Asher does one thing and he does it well - action. He's done it again and again and again and again. He's become a one-trick pony IMHO. It's the ONLY thing he does now: guns and guts in space, guns and guts on Spatterjay, guns and guts in orbitals, guns and guts everywhere else. The Departure is everything BUT that... now we guns and guts on EARTH! How's that for a change!

After the year 2120 there are 18 billions people on the earth, thousands more in orbit and 163 colonists on Mars. The formation of an authoritative world government has the people's freedom suppressed, the appetites unsated and their anger piqued. Using 90% of the planet's revenue simply to maintain the global dictatorship, the availability of food, power, water and even space is severely limited, except for those who hold the seats of power or are deemed to be a Societal Asset. Everyone else is declared as "Zero Asset" and are largely ignored, gunned down, gassed or trampled by mobs, looters or stampedes.

The Departure has a fantastic beginning. The first hundred pages felt like Asher was going in a new direction, something along the dystopia lines of mystery/noir akin to Richard Morgan's Altered Carbon): a lone man (Alan Saul) infiltrates government compounds, assuming the identities of VIPs, murdering key staff and uncovering secrets all the while attempting to become closer to his one-time torturer- Smith. With his memory largely destroyed by the torture process, his escape remains a mystery to him but some things slowly come to light as his equally as mysterious internal AI outlines his life before and after the escape two years prior. Occasionally shifting scene to Mars, a rebel uncovers a message from Earth announcing that no Mars missions will be made to relieve the staff and they must live on their own for the next 20 years, even though a 5-year expectation would have slim chances of survival. Marshalling forces, colonists and scientist Var launches attacks on the Earth-sanctioned government and their lackeys.

Eventually, the original plot lapses into all too familiar territory as the body count begins to escalate, the weapons become more profuse through the pages and the string of coincidences becomes a tad bit too ridiculous. If you thought the gridlinked Cormac had number-crunching power to hack systems, just WAIT to you read all the fanciful things Alan Saul can do. If you thought the offal peeling off the walls in Orbus was gory, just you WAIT for all the zero-gravity brain splatters, oozing shotgun-created orifices, decapitating headshots... the list seems to never end, ad nauseum. Throw in a cast of one-dimensional characters and *poof* you have yourself the most over-the-top Asher novel ever produced! The extent of characterization of Alan Saul can be summed up in one or two lines: he was a genius, he had a girlfriend, he has a sisters and now his hobbies include dismemberment, impaling and vindictiveness.

It's all WAY over the top. Nearly every page features a gun of some sort or a corpse (usually the prior resulting in the latter). The most notable scenes include shooting a woman point-blank in the face and bowel-releasing corpses lining the space station. By Saul's hand alone, the body count must reach something along the lines of 500. Add in the rest of the bodies which seems to explode, decompose, fester, whither or ignite in his presence, then the total is scores of millions. Over the top? Oh, quite so!

The radical future earth is kind of interesting but is largely overshadowed by the continual killings. I mean, I expect that sort of thing from an Asher novel but it seems like he's not going to grow as an author and produce anything intellectually substantial, like spin-the-wheel-and-choose any Iain Banks novel. The dystopia in the 498 pages just doesn't engage the reader the least bit- it's just a maniacal killing spree on par with a Rambo movie. 


  1. 2theD, What I don't understand, is your understanding of the world today. In case you hadn't noticed, life is cheap these days. Look at the scenes we see on the news every day, they are horrific, and believe me from my experiences, they are the 'sanitised' version of what actually happens. The more people that populate the Earth, the cheaper life becomes. Supply and demand. I personally feel that Neal Asher has captured the essence of how most hard working, tax paying, intelligent, under appreciated, 'drone class' people feel at the moment. Look at the protests that are springing up across the world at the way banks have taken the value of living down for the majority, but manage to maintain the lifestyle of their workers with unjustifiable bonuses. Hmmmm....
    Also, take into account the 'disorder' that was unleashed across England last year. When people are not happy they often rebel. Violently.
    If you are not into visceral reality in Science Fiction, maybe a change of Genre would suit you better.

    1. IAWTCE.

      The truth is, The Departure for me was brilliant and horrifying, specifically because it is a plausible future. The worst part is that it's probably the most plausible future.

      Read it again. The part you should take away is not the violence, but the utterly nonchalant manner in which it is dispensed by everyone within that society.

      I like this book simply because it DOES show the psychological element to the violence - noone is as horrified as we would be, for they were born into a world where sudden death was a constant possibility. You don't grow up in a world like that with lofty ideals...

    2. If the middle class see themselves as victims, then their mindset will be that of a victim. I witness social disturbances on a weekly basis in Thailand... not on a yearly basis which you've seen in England. The underprivileged are blocking highways, occupying the city center and fighting the military, voicing out against industrialism... something which didn't occur 20 years go. The people are having a voice, they are making a change - I only see positive things coming from these "disturbances". If the populous don't like what's happening, then the end result of a global dictatorship can't occur. When people react this grandly, this strikingly, this deeply, then their voices are heard not only in the lower, middle, and upper class, but also in the government, in the neighboring countries, and around the world.

      "Drone class" is a misnomer denoted by the "drone class" themselves - if they think they are drones, then they can visualize it and rise up from it. The same goes for all those negative things you hear about happening in the world. If you want to focus on the negative, then the only thing you'll see is the negative (kind of like Murphy's Law). I choose to see the positive, the change, the social progress - this makes a positive person the?

      I don't berate Asher for th world he's envisioned (like many, many of the other reviews out there), I just find distaste in the wanton horror unleashed all across the pages. Horror can be subtle, as can emotion and humanity, but taking the easy route to blood-filled hallways is a cop out. This manner of horror actually works in Orbus, but when the setting is more terrestrial the whole production seems farcical, over-the-top.