Monday, 19 September 2011

Book Review | The Departure by Neal Asher

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Visible in the night sky the Argus Station, its twin smelting plants like glowing eyes, looks down on nightmare Earth. From Argus the Committee keep an oppressive control: citizens are watched by cams systems and political officers, it's a world inhabited by shepherds, reader guns, razor birds and the brutal Inspectorate with its white tiled cells and pain inducers.

Soon the Committee will have the power to edit human minds, but not yet, twelve billion human being need to die before Earth can be stabilized, but by turning large portions of Earth into concentration camps this is achievable, especially when the Argus satellite laser network comes fully online...

This is the world Alan Saul wakes to in his crate on the conveyor to the Calais incinerator. How he got there he does not know, but he does remember the pain and the face of his interrogator. Informed by Janus, through the hardware implanted in his skull, about the world as it is now Saul is determined to destroy it, just as soon as he has found out who he was, and killed his interrogator.


I have my problems with Neal Asher's politics. 

Perhaps you're already wondering what in the world I'm going on about. If that's the case, do yourself a favour and skip the next bit, because by the dead, it's got to be better not to know.

So where were we? Ah yes: Neal Asher and his contrarian politics. Well, truth be told, he makes no secret of them. Take this tirade:

...the restriction imposed on public travel - quickly becoming the privilege of the government bureaucrats only - had started way back with numerous bogus crises used to divert the public eye from what was really fucking over the planet: too many people. That was a problem no democratic government could attain office by offering to solve, and one that would only be cured by Mother Nature applying her tender mercies, or by some totalitarian regime applying Nazi-like final solutions. It seems that, here and now, Earth had both. (p.60) 

Long story short, Neal Asher is a global warming denier - a real right-winger - and thanks to the mainstream success of his various sf series, uppermost amongst them The Polity, he's a man with some standing, and a very visible platform from which he often espouses the tenets of his particular faith; his faith as opposed to the facts and the science that stand strident against his beliefs, I mean.

None of which makes Neal Asher a bad person, and certainly not a bad writer... only misguided, in my view - of course in my view; after all we're talking politics here, and few things could be further from the truth than politics - only misguided, as I was saying, and (here's what really bothers me) not a little irresponsible. Because it's one thing to use your standing as an author to publicise those things you have authored -- another entirely, I think, to abuse your position of power to pitch your particular idea of the facts, such as they are, to those folks who admire you for your fiction. 

So I have my problems with Neal Asher's politics. But truth be told, I had no issues at all with Neal Asher's novels... not till I read The Departure. It was my first of his works, and though I am wise enough never to say never, it will, I expect, be my last.

And not for the reasons you might foresee -- though, you know... those too.

The Departure is the first novel in a new series from the Daily Mail favourite: the origin story of one Alan Saul, so-called Owner of the Worlds. He begins, in the grand tradition of protagonists all through the ages, an amnesiac, bereft of his personality, his memories, and by and large his very humanity. Exactly how he came to be such a blank slate is the primary concern of the first third of The Departure, during which act the reader is also brought up to speed on the state of the world in the 22nd century.

Brace yourself, folks: for even according to Neal Asher, a hundred-odd years from now it's not all raindrops and lollipops for Earth and us mere mortals. Never one to show rather than tell, however - and here we arrive at that aspect of The Departure I found most problematic - at the outset of each chapter, Asher outlines a thankfully brief lesson in the inner workings of his near-future milieu. In the first, we are instructed how "as politicians worked diligently to weld together the main blocks of world nations into a coherent and oppressive whole, and their grip on people's everyday lives grew steadily tighter, government increasingly monitored, censored and stifled the Internet." (p.1) In the next, we learn how "the latest news about Mars began getting shunted into second place by the latest scandal about a paedophile footballer or the latest religious fanatic with an overpowering urge to convert unbelievers into corpses," (p.26) and so on and so forth.

This paranoid, deeply pessimistic perspective is the not the sum total of what Asher aims to pass off as world-building in The Departure - there are a legion of other, equally egregious examples (some still more insidious) - but so surfaced, and so tied into the narrative which eventually comes to accompany these thinly-veiled invectives, there's really nowhere else to look, however much you might like to. In short, Asher so foregrounds his politics that it proves quite impossible to avoid them.

Again I should stress: it's not the politics that bother me, strictly speaking - though of course they do - so much as the awkward, obvious way in which Asher presents them. There are no real rules for writers to abide by, as it is often said, but it is also said (at least as often) that if there was just one, it would be: show, don't tell.

In The Departure, Neal Asher flies in the face of this guidance at every turn, and in so doing exposes the essential sense behind it, because these moments - these many, many moments - add nothing to the narrative next to what they subtract from it. Rhythms are interrupted, themes are obscured, belief is regularly beggared... which isn't to speak of the barely functional prose and stilted dialogue which seems to me telling of Asher's haphazard approach:

'I have attained my first goal,' he said emotionlessly. 'I now know who I am, so it is time for me to attain my next goal.' His faced showed extreme emotion, raw hate. 'Now I must show these fuckers they've really made an enemy.' (p.103)

With this ho-hum identity crisis finally behind him, Alan Saul promptly declares war on The Man, because "justified by his vision of the greater good, anything was permissible, even murder." (p.14) Thereafter, what little character there is in The Departure diminishes into the middle distance to make way for what amounts to Total Recall meets The Terminator in a universe painted "mostly shit-brown and battleship-grey." (p.47)

And I expect that will appeal to some. The bare bones of the premise attracted me, even, despite my misgivings - rather than that I might herein find fodder with which to reinforce them - but the loathsome way in which Asher opts to flesh out his skeleton characters and narrative left this particular reader, at least, distinctly dissatisfied. Carelessly composed and, alas, not at all apolitical, The Departure is for the larger part practically intolerable. By all means look beyond the right-wing agendas Asher serves up with such relish... treat them merely as inappropriate appetisers, but you will likely find all that remains is an excruciatingly violent and unapologetically amoral novel, such that the experience of reading The Departure seems "part of a journey through some lower circle of hell: just canyons of concrete and the partially dismembered dead, bloody splashes and body parts." (p.85)

Saying that, I did not despise the sequences set on a Mars base being downsized in the most nightmarish way you can imagine. These lamentably occasional interludes seemed to me substantially more interesting than Alan Saul's one-note origin story; in fact they brought to mind certain elements of Gardens of the Sun and The Quiet War by Paul McAuley. Markedly superior works of sf, needless to say -- and not because they were without ideologies of their own, nor because those beliefs more closely aligned with mine, but because there was rather more to them than dubious politics and gratuitous violence garbed in genre fatigues.

If only Asher could reign himself in a bit, and focus on those things that are actually meaningful in terms of character and narrative, I expect the inevitable next Owner novel - particularly given how The Departure concludes - could and should be much improved over this meaningless misfire. Hope springs eternal.


The Departure
by Neal Asher

UK Publication: September 2011, Tor

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  1. I don't blame you for not wanting to read Asher's other work based on this one. I've read just one book by him, "Prador Moon," which is apparently a prequel of sorts to his Polity universe (though I think it was written 7th or so). I enjoyed that one, but I didn't really see too much politics (other than some stuff about AIs apparently in charge of humans).

    I've got a copy of "Gridlinked" that I'm pondering reading, but I probably won't in the end--I've been really turned off from Asher, and besides, it's hard to find his books in America anyway, so I can just be lazy and let the rest take care of itself. :)

  2. I still have this to finish - I put it down around half way through because I just wasn't enjoying it. I've read the original Owner stories (Proctors, The Owner, and Tiger, Tiger) and they are great, but this origin story did nothing for me.

    I'm a huge fan of Neal's Polity novels and I don't really pay much attention to his politics (though I am aware of them), but this one did come across as too much. Nothing like his Polity novels (though The Line of Polity is heavy handed with the religion-bashing aspect).

    Not sure if I can actually be bothered to read it - I'll wait to hear more on the sequel(s) first.

  3. A good novel written with a political slant should at least present an interesting discussion and examination of the issue, even if it ultimately serves to strengthen their own argument. Such novels would interest me even if I disagree with their politics.

    I suppose that assumes that the stance taken isn't based on blatant misinformation and that the message is delivered with more subtlety than a sledgehammer. And has a story worth a damn. Sounds like this book fails on rather a lot of levels.

  4. Politics aside, from the snippets of prose you supply, I think it's safe to say Asher just isn't a very good writer... That alone is enough for me to take a pass on his stuff.

  5. Says more about the reader that your turned off a writer because of his views.I read asher and enjoy his books on a pure fantastical basis. to review a book by first letting us all know that "im not a right winger honest guvna just incase you thought I was for reading asher,PHEW !" is puny in the extreme.The whole point of reading a good book or a book in general doesnt have to be your fave author ,is not to have the writer tick all your political boxes so you can think what a clever guy you are for holding your own views but its to conjure subjection and question theres and your own thoughts and create more.I always take it as a deficiency in a reader to review in such a way.

  6. It's a particular relief to hear you had problems with The Departure as well, Mark. I know you've been a fan of Neal Asher in your time... in fact I don't mind saying your recommendations were in part why I took the plunge in the first place. This may have been exactly the wrong place for me to start reading him, however. It seemed like the perfect opportunity, too! We live and learn.

  7. Niall - it does seem the perfect place to start being a new series and all, I'm just fairly disappointed with how depressing the future world is. I can usually deal with most of Neal's heavier handed stuff, but this one has the addition of being a complete let-down from my previous experiences with Neal's novels and Owner stories.

    I think the sequel should be better, given the title is Zero Point and that it is focusing on more advanced technology. I think. I hope...

  8. "If only Neal Asher could REIGN himself in a bit", and you are bad-mouthing a new and important writer ? Since you seem not to know, I'll explain; 'rein in' for horses (and by extension authors, and other people) 'reign(ing)for monarchs. Are you OK with 'monarchs' ?

    His dystopia seems a very plausible extension of current political trends, to me: cf 1945 America with present-day America, or the current EU/EZ with the Third Reich. We have clearly (in America and Europe) moved further into dystopia during the last half-century

  9. I'm intrigued, do you have as much problem reading banks' culture novels where we get socialist smugness rammed down our throats on every page, or is it only when the author is right wing? Also the first quote you highlight doesn't support your point, over population is one of the great unspokens re global warming in that if we continue to multiply our energy needs increase exponentially.

  10. I find the owner trilogy intriguing as it gives a new perspective on a dystopian future compared to other books I have read. So I do not see why that should be any reason for criticism it only makes me think, as to how the author may be right in some cases and how he may be wrong in others which is what I look for in a book.

  11. It's embarrassing to me that the folks of my ancestors have turned into socialist fools. Adam Smith must be writhing in his grave.