No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, January 31, 2008

#11: Debatable Space -- Philip Palmer

I had the most joyful time imaginable. And yet, for all this, despite experiencing statistically more moments of pleasure than any other person so far in the history of humanity, there were times when I became bored.
I was tempted by the skull-and-bones motif on the title page: pirates, arrr! And Debatable Space is a pirate novel, with revenge, bloodshed, hostage-taking and wealth beyond your wildest dreams.

Set centuries in the future, Debatable Space features an interstellar empire administered (ruthlessly, by the Cheo) from Earth; Doppelganger Robots, operated by earthbound workers but physically present on colony worlds; an Alien Menace, the Bugs, more or less quarantined in Debatable Space; Lena, a tough heroine masquerading as the daughter of the Cheo, who has a self-programmed but occasionally sarcastic AI embedded in her brain; Flanagan, a grizzled space pirate with a Cunning Plan; Flanagan's crew of ne'er-do-wells and reprobates; and Flanagan's secret weapon, which is not only Frightful but Funny.

This was an enormously fun read: the setting, and Flanagan's party, reminded me strongly of Delany's Babel-17, and there's one scene which might actually have been inspired by the cover of the Sphere edition of that book: space in daylight!

Palmer is certainly aware of his genre. Debatable Space is a loving tribute to SF, name-dropping Aldiss, Asimov and Pournelle, dedicating planets to Kornbluth and Pohl, writing space opera with a joie de vivre that's seldom found in British SF. I thoroughly approve of the afterword in which he discusses the physics of some of his flights of fancy -- and if the soundtrack isn't quite as fab as Justina Robson's Natural History, it's still engaging.

Perhaps because of the sweeping scale -- this is space opera at its grandest -- and the sheer sense of fun, I found myself nitpicking. You can't hiss a sentence with no sibilants, dammit. If you're going to transcribe the verbal idiosyncrasies of each character, be consistent. And if you're writing about a future more than, say, fifty years from now, be careful which character thinks in terms of CD-Roms and deflating crisp packets ...

Lena is not entirely likeable, but she's fascinating, though her ongoing psychological problems are a gloomy prognosis for the future of therapy. I'll forgive her a great deal, though, for her habit of quoting Gerard Manly Hopkins at moments of exceptional joy. She's surely met her match in Flanagan, who manipulates, flatters and charms his way into her affections and out the other side.

There's something hollow, something not quite developed, at the core of the novel. I didn't really engage with any of the characters; writing this review just over a week after reading the book, I can't remember much about the ending. But I do remember enjoying the book very much: it's a good read, and shows great promise.

This was the first of three novels I read on holiday to feature 'House of the Rising Sun'.

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