Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

June 18, 2009

Philip Palmer – Debatable Space

This is a peculiar book. It’s got a really stunning idea at its heart, which is a corollary of quantum entanglement communications: the idea that, denied anything but perfect virtual telepresence on an alien world, humans could well turn into despotic psychopaths, lording it over their own colonial subjects.

However, for reasons best known to himself, Palmer has chosen to cloak it in the trappings of a comic space opera – the kind of story usually described as a Zany Caper and lovingly wrapped in a cover by Josh Kirby (mayherestinpeace). The story opens with a ragtag bunch of misfits pursuing a career in piracy and kidnapping – IN SPACE! Complete with a kidnapping victim who isn’t what we think… but then that was the pirates’ plan all along, and it turns out they’re not just pirates but revolutionaries, and the story unfolds from there.

The end product reads as though Terry Pratchett, at the point when he first sat down to write The Dark Side of the Sun, had instead been hit by a stray particle of inspiration intended originally for the creative imagination of Alastair Reynolds. The first comparison I thought of was Rob Grant; or taken a little further, darker, more intense, it might have been Deathstalker. It’s almost certainly significant that all these examples are very British writers.

Palmer’s very good at pacing his revelations out, and we get a good idea of the backstory through the self-absorbed maunderings of Lena, the kidnapping victim, who is less an unreliable narrator than a flagrantly incompetent liar with intermittent flashes of self-awareness.

On the other hand, it’s hard to care. The characters aren’t exactly two-dimensional, but I’m up to page 346 (I write these reviews as I go along) and the only one I couldn’t summarize in a twitter-length is Lena. This is quite likely deliberate, of course – it’s absolutely standard for the comic-space-opera form that the characters don’t matter any more than the set, and what’s important is the mad hijinks and narrow scrapes.

The science is mostly based around string theory, though “rubber band theory” would probably be a more accurate name. This isn’t a criticism; I appreciate a good line in technobabble, so long as nobody cares if I skim-read it and get back to the interesting bits. The military strategy, on the other hand, is devastatingly incompetent. Sacrificing millions of soldiers to win a battle, without any narrative explanation of why a sneakier tactic wouldn’t work? That’s one thing. Doing so when you’ve already established that your civilization has more than enough skills and resources to build throwaway robots by the million? Oh, dear.

What we never see, throughout the whole book, is any of the Enemy. The Cheo (and yes, that is derived from “CEO”) we see at a distance in Lena’s diary-excerpt flashbacks, but only her descriptions – nobody else so much as gets a line or a name. Having finished it now, I get the impression Palmer was aiming to do a character-focused piece all about Lena, but didn’t know how to write anything SFnal except Red Dwarf episodes. That’s an unfair and sweeping generalization, I freely admit, but it’s abundantly clear from the tenor of his writing, and especially from his afterword, that he’s new-come to SF writing. I’m not sure how far his reading stretches; he namechecks Verne, Asimov, Orwell, Heinlein, Bradbury, Sturgeon, and “a host of others for creating the genre that is now the playground for a whole new generation of writers”, and more interestingly he names a couple of planets after Pohl and Kornbluth.

“It is a novel full of exaggeration and hyperbole. Spaceships travel amazingly fast, antimatter missiles are thrown like water bombs, some humans are genetically modified to swim like dolphins or run like panthers, the battles are astonishingly vast in scale, and anyone who doesn’t die horribly in combat can live for centuries in a state of perfect health and simmering libido.”

See, that’s someone who’s just discovered SF imagery and really wants to share it with everyone, but doesn’t realize that there are thousands of people in his own country alone who read hundreds of SF books a year and might well read nothing else. It’s so sweet!

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