The Departure by Neal Asher
The Departure by Neal Asher is the first book of the Owner series and was the first book I’ve read from Asher. I’d heard good things and The Departure didn’t disappoint me. Both its world-building and the protagonist are rare gems and well worth a trip into this dystopian future governed by bureaucrats starving the planet like a huge swarm of locusts.
The protagonist, Alan Saul, is a lost soul hellbent on revenge and driven by a need to find his own memories. He does not care who or how many will suffer from his actions. In fact, he shows a distinct lack of emotions throughout the book, only strengthened by the physical changes he undergoes. In the end, he’s more than a human in both body and, most importantly, mind.
His was the first autistic character I’ve seen in my years of reading SFF. He was the first in such a prominent role and that is both boon and curse. Even before his changes, he’s not an easy man to identify with. Possessing a genius intelligence and traits of aspergers, he’s not your run-of-the-mill guy in any way. While that didn’t bother me for most of the book, by the end he’s left the real of humanity and become something more. And how do you identify with a godlike being?
His quest for revenge and his memories leads him through a world at the abyss, where the people in power are looking for drastic ways to lessen the human burden on the plant. Billions will have to die (most of them the so-called Zero-Asset Citizen, unneeded in a civilization build on robotic labor), and plans are already in motion to kill them. Alan Saul is definitely not the messiah these people wanted, but he’s the one they needed. Or rather, his quest brings him into a position where he can decide and he’s not yet so far removed from humanity as to leave them all to die.
The book has a rather high body count, so it’s not for the squeamish. In fact, the first thing we see our protagonist do is kill in rather gruesome ways. And while the book certainly doesn’t revel in blood, Saul doesn’t particularly care how many he has to kill to get his way. In the end, it’s a full blown, one-man war, where Saul’s mastery over anything electronic leads to a massive showdown over the clouds.
This was when the book lost a bit of its appeal. Alan Saul is so proficient in his hacking (for lack of a more encompassing and fitting term) that a reader cannot really comprehend what happens. His hacking borders on the realm of magic in that we know he can do it, but how is beyond us. We have to take the book’s word for it. And thus a war of the mind is being thought and we’re feeling left out, seeing the outcome without understanding how. It simply happens.
Not that I’m complaining overly much. It’s a high task to write a protagonist so far removed from humanity and still make us care about him. Still make the book itself comprehensible, the decisions fitting. It works here for the most part, at least for me.
Concluding: It is, all things considered, a powerful book. A bleak future of very black fighting against a dark gray and the small man cowering when debris of their war ravages the earth. It’s a book about a broken man gluing himself together and,how his actions shape the whole world and even beyond. It’s a book that made me want to know more, experience more, and isn’t that what a book should do? Make you want more of it? Definitely worth a look especially when you’re interested in genius characters, as nearly everyone involved has an IQ far removed from a normal person.