Friday, January 23, 2009

Shambolic fantasy

Here's my review of Debateable Space by Philip Palmer, as published in the BSFA's magazine Vector last month:

Space pirate Flanagan declares war on the evil chief executive officer of the human universe by kidnapping his daughter. The “Cheo” has already allowed thousands of his offspring to die, so what makes young Lena so special? Well, for one thing she's not nearly so young as she seems...

Philip Palmer's Debateable Space is a sprawling space opera set over hundreds of years. It's lively, exciting and packed with ideas, yet the author's afterword might be about another book entirely.

Palmer says this is rigidly hard sf. He quotes books on quantum theory and emergence and mocks the teleportation booths in Niven's Ringworld. Yet while the physics might be extrapolated from the real thing the story is shambolic fantasy.

The huge incidents described don't see to have much consequence - plans either work or fail, the characters just keep buggering on. At one point, for example, an army fills the years on its way to a battlefield by breeding thousands of reinforcements. We start to get to know some of these individual children, who are then abruptly sacrificed without a second thought - born and killed off in the space of a few pages. Only one parent is traumatised by the loss.

The textual cleverness doesn't help. Different typefaces convey different voices. There are gaps in the text to spell out when people are thinking or flying. Kidnapped Lena is editing her own story, even as we read it. At one point we're told to skip through an infodump to get back to the action. At its most annoying it takes three pages to spell out the word “Antimatter” in giant letters and seven pages to say, “You are prey”.

This all gives the sense of brash effect with little substance behind it. Characters rarely seem changed by their experience. In fact, there's little differentiation of character other than their being pissed off or horny. The cast are crude sf archetypes - a space pirate rock star, a sexy cat woman, a socially inept geek, an alien made out of fire. They're clever but also shallow and cruel. There's no wit or kindness and any surprises come from Flanagan out-manipulating people or having to commit appalling acts of violence (with the noblest motives).

Lena is no better - spoilt, selfish and resentful of the long past. She's had an eventful life fighting international criminals, creating the links between the stars and becoming the first President of Humanity. I'm not sure we're meant to believe all of this - the book doesn't say she's lying as such, but she's been pivotal to the major developments in civilisation for 200 years, yet without ever getting the credit.

Lena first made her name through a radical interpretation of emergence theory. But her life's work (until that point), a mash up of hard physics, psychology, history and pop culture, was ridiculed by the academics. Palmer's book likewise mashes up all kinds of wild ideas into one brash and teaming narrative. But there's little subtlety or insight, it's an excess of explosions and mad violence.

It's fun and exciting, with some great twists (and some which feel too much like cheating). But ultimately this is a brash, adolescent adventure. And that would be fine if Palmer didn't seem to think he's written something else.


Le Mc said...

Had to look up the word "shambolic": adj. Chiefly British Slang
Disorderly or chaotic: "[The country's] transportation system is in a shambolic state" (London Sunday Times).

[Probably from alteration of shambles.]

Anonymous said...

Interesting review, Simon - sorry you hated that darned Afterword so much. My new book RED CLAW is due out in August - hope you enjoy it.

0tralala said...

Hi Philip. Aw, I didn't hate the afterword - it just seemed to be describing a different book. Like you'd written Star Wars but were describing 2001. As I said, I enjoyed the story itself. And look forward to Red Claw.