Sunday, 13 May 2012

The Departure ... from form

Back to Asher-land. This time with the first entry in a wholly new series of novels based around a character who appears in several of his short stories, The Owner. No sign of the Polity this time round ...

On an increasingly overcrowded and resource-strapped Earth, the ruling world government, the Committee, is planning a "final solution" to stabilise the planet. In orbit, a massive satellite network has been built that will allow its tyrannical controllers to exterminate the viciously oppressed majority judged surplus to requirements by the Committee. Meanwhile, an ignored Martian colony is informed by the Committee that it is to be mothballed until events on Earth have stabilised and that it, too, is at the limit of its resources, and that only a managed depopulation will save it.

In the build-up to the planned events on Earth, Alan Saul, a rogue scientist, awakes in Calais on a conveyor belt feeding him into the town's incineration plant. Escaping from his immediate predicament with help from Janus, an internet-bound artificial intelligence that mirrors his own mind, Saul quickly and deliberately becomes a fly in the ointment for the Committee. After tracking down an old colleague and girlfriend, Hannah, Saul seeks out the black market and the technology that will allow him to fuse his organic mind with that of Janus to massively enhance his powers. Suitably "powered up", he travels to Minsk to hijack a spaceplane to, in turn, commandeer Argus Station, the hub of the Committee's satellite network. The latter proves a substantial challenge, and Saul's ruthless determination to succeed whatever the cost, as well as his ambiguous fusion with Janus, lead Hannah to question what he has become.

While I've never been entirely won over by Asher's charms, I've always found his novels and stories to be at least enjoyably trashy reads (even for science fiction!). Every so often he's surprised me with something more substantial, but even when he hasn't, I've always left satisfied with a baroque slice of sub-Banks adventure.

Here, not so much. Which is doubly unfortunate since he's actually tried something new here. Leaving his Culture-esque Polity universe, he's struck out on a completely new course, albeit one that's previously been touched upon in some brief short stories. We don't actually reach the point in time that these stories dealt with, by the climax of The Departure firmly establishes Saul as The Owner.

So what went wrong? Better to start with what didn't go wrong - since it's the smaller list. What's still good here - if a little overdone - is Asher's robustly violent science fiction action. Particularly so when Saul co-opts Argus Station's legion of repair robots as an impromptu army capable of some inventive, non-repair-related mischief. While he does revel in it too much for my liking, he does write his action scenes well.

Where Asher first goes wrong for me is in his presentation of the Committee. While it sits not uncomfortably within the well-worn trope of oppressive authoritarian regimes that populate dystopias, Asher can't help but use it as a stand-in for the EU, like some demented UKIP demagogue. For all is many flaws, the EU is nothing like the Committee in terms of action or outlook, but whenever he can, Asher squeaks in some sort of parallel. Admittedly, UKIP-ophobe that I am, perhaps I'm a little over-sensitive, but it's difficult not to get annoyed by Asher's stream of miscued political asides.

I was also a little miffed at how he handled his Martian subplot. At first it seemed like this would assume equal prominence to the events playing out on Earth and in low Earth orbit. But Asher only devotes a small fraction of the novel to this, and it's a pretty dull fraction at that - largely just a much smaller and much less significant insurrection on a limply imagined Mars. Worse, Asher commits something of a science fiction cardinal sin for me by having the uprising on Mars led by Saul's sister. Did he learn nothing from Star Wars pivoting galactic-scale events around a single dysfunctional family?

More seriously, he also makes something of a mistake with his central character, Alan Saul. Asher's narrators, even the white hats, are often rather gruff characters who're not entirely sympathetic (and he even has a habit of rehabilitating his ostensible black hats). But here he goes off at the deep end with a "hero" who's entirely unsympathetic. While arguably the closest thing to a "good guy" here, Saul is pretty much an Objectivist tyrant, concerned far more with his own ambiguous need for self-determination than anything else. Asher was probably aiming for a conflicted grey hat, and - to be fair - he does imbue Saul with occasional self-consciousness and second thoughts, but to me the novel played out as a battle between a faceless collective despotism and an ugly individualist despot.

All that said, this is seemingly the first novel in a planned trilogy. It may well be that Asher's treatment of Saul here is simply setting the stage for subsequent developments in character. But that's awfully hopeful of Asher given that characterisation has never been his strong suit. Still, I will almost certainly be continuing to read the saga of The Owner when these latter titles appear. I may leave this somewhat disappointed, but The Departure is still a lot less of a disappointment than my last science fiction read.

No comments: