The Departure by Neal Asher

Fascinating with no lull in action at any time.
The Departure book cover

I was very, very excited when I heard this book was coming my way. Not only because I was looking forward to reading it and have seen a lot of anticipation over its arrival, but because I know it’s not yet available to buy. And I wasn’t disappointed.

This is not a Polity novel. Anyone expecting that is probably going to find this book a bit of a shock. There are no snarky, gun-toting battle AIs, no planet-vaporizing weapons, and augmented humans are in their earliest phase of evolution. This could well be our world a few years from now. The story is predominantly set on Earth, partly on Mars and the Argus station, all under the dictatorship of the Committee. The top 20% of the population live a life of luxury, while those less ‘useful’ citizens are consigned to ZA - Zero Asset status - to starve in the wastelands of a once-fertile Earth. Say the wrong thing, object to your status, and you’ll find yourself being ‘readjusted’ or sent to the digesters.

Into this degenerating human society Alan Saul awakens in a crate due for incineration, with huge holes in his memory and a voice in his head - Janus. As he fights his way up to the Argus station and to the interrogator who destroyed his mind, he struggles to come to terms with the new and experimental hardware in his skull, wondering whether he’s more machine than man. Despite his rather ruthless determination for revenge, I had a lot more empathy for Saul’s character than some of Asher’s other creations. The human remnants of his psyche see him destroying those that the reader may well agree should be put down. Whilst not a moral crusader, Saul’s final aim could be seen as ultimately altruistic. He reminded me of Jeremiah Tombs from The Technician; on the edge of an identity crisis whilst struggling with something unfamiliar invading his head.

I was fascinated by the section set on the Mars base, of the Martian colonists’ struggle to survive when spiralling transport costs lead the Earth to abandon them. To be honest I would have liked a little more of the story to have been set there, so I’m hoping the sequel will do so.

There’s certainly no lull in the action as Asher paints Saul’s trail of destruction and the nightmare world he seeks to bring down. My only concern with this latest epic from Asher is whether it’s too much of a departure in more than title from his recognized fare. I haven’t read some of his earlier works, but after Orbus, The Technician and The Gabble, the lack of super-massive weapons of destruction, bizarre alien races seeking to resurrect themselves and the tech-heavy storylines, this seemed quite a contrast. Personally I don’t have a problem with it and look forward to the next instalment in the series.

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