"No one writes SF quite like Palmer," boasts a bit of puffery on the back cover of Artemis. But that is a double-edged sword, surely? No one writes SF quite like M. John Harrison but then no one writes SF quite like Andy Remic either. As it happens, I agree with Eric Brown's assessment in the Guardian that no one writes SF quite like Palmer. I just can't work out whether that is a good thing.
The novel starts in media res with narrator Artemis McIvor throwing boiling water into her own face before immediately pulling back for her to explain how she came to this juncture. But she is not the only narrator because this is not just her life story, it is the edited highlights of her thought diary and as such the text is accompanied with footnotes that explain changes to the original brain dump. This is all preceded by a preface from the alleged current publisher, one Henry Exon, who notes:
We considered very carefully whether to delete some of the interpolations from this unnamed and now forgotten scribe before eventually deciding to retain them. However, readers should be aware that large sections of McIvor's manuscript were excised by this editor for reasons which in the eyes of posterity appear spurious; and all these deleted sections have now been lost. (p. 1)
This is par for the course for Palmer and lets you know what you are in for but is it effective? Ignoring the four footnotes on the title page, let's consider the first of our unknown scribe's interventions:
There are, so I am assured, not that I give a damn about such things, many cool things about me.1
Such as, for instance, my hair. Which is long and lustrous and, these days, vividly yellow-blond.
And the fact, I have a scary stare that can terrify the toughest of tough guys, even though I am slight and girlish-girlish looking.
1 I met the author several times during the editing of this book, and I can confirm the accuracy of this self assessment. She is, indeed, exceedingly cool. And courteous too. I recall how she complimented me on the niceness of the cardigan, which was at the time almost brand new. I also admired her lustrous blond hair, but I did not, however, thankfully, witness the "scary stare". —Ed. (p. 9)
The first thing to note is that the footnote is in the wrong place—it comes after the first sentence but refers to the whole paragraph. The second is that McIvor's narrative voice is more than digressive and longwinded enough in its own right. The third is that the only piece of additional information the footnote manages to actually convey is that the editor has met McIvor and this is of no immediate use to the reader. Instead Palmer starts his fast-paced SF action-adventure novel with an idle reminisce of unsurpassable irrelevance: "I recall how she complimented me on the niceness of the cardigan, which was at the time almost brand new." It is perverse but then that is one of the defining characteristics of Palmer's work. Initially, it could be excused on the grounds of exactly that incongruity as well as to establish the editor's character as a detached, lonely old duffer but as the novel progresses the footnotes continue to be supremely pointless and the character of the editor continues to play no part in the story. In fact, the example quoted above turns out to be relatively prolix and informative. The effect of these intrusions is trivially annoying, the sensation of having to constantly flick your fringe out of your eyes, but, by the end of the novel, this has grown into an overpowering desire to get out the scissors. It is almost as if Palmer sets out to alienate his reader before the book even gets going.
McIvor is throwing boiling water into her face as part of a plan to escape from the horrendous Giger Penitentiary. I'd say an elaborate plan but it isn't really, it is just convoluted and relies heavily on her "wanky superficial attributes—my looks, my superpowers and my ability to look good in almost anything" (p. 72). Yes, once again the protagonist of an SF novel has magical powers. So, given her superhuman strength, speed and regenerative powers (not to mention the quantum computer in her head), how did she even end up in prison in the first place? Well, she only has to escape because she has deliberately allowed herself to be arrested under a false identity for someone else's crimes. This is all so she can eventually meet the governor of the prison, kill him and rip out a computer chip in his brain that will bring her one step closer to getting revenge on Daxox, her ex-lover and one of the most powerful crime bosses in the universe.
Of course, with all those powers there is no reason she couldn't have cut out the middle man, avoided all the prison brutalization (she is repeatedly almost killed, she murders several inmates herself) and just attacked the governor head on. Palmer likes to take a circuitous route though. He also seems to like prisons. His previous novel, Hell Ship (also published in 2011), was predominantly set in a giant spaceship that functioned as a sort of sealed Noah's Ark of alien mass-murderers. This type of setting allows brutal people to brutalize each other which simultaneously being brutalized form the outside by the authorities. That description can perhaps be applied to the whole of the Debatable Space universe where Debatable Space (2008), Red Claw (2009), Version 43 (2010) and now Artemis are set. (Hell Ship is the only explicitly standalone novel but you can pretty much dive straight into Palmer's other books, a deliberate and welcome authorial decision.) It is a bloody, ridiculous space opera universe designed in equal parts to pay homage to and subvert pulp SF, a combination that often leaves the reader scratching their head. As an example, here is a list of some of the many inhabited planets mentioned: New Earth, Gorbachev, Rebus, Kaos, Llyria, Arcadia, Tolkien, Gullfoyle. The mix of the utterly generic and the blatantly fanservice is obviously done on purpose but what is the intent? With Palmer's many eccentric decisions you are often not sure whether the driving force behind them is blind love or piss taking.
Having recounted her escape from Giger, McIvor continues:
I've missed out, I must confess, some bits that aren't essential to the core narrative of my mission of revenge. Mainly everything to do with the love story, and my growing passion for Cassady.
I mean, who cares about all that shit? Hmm?
So let's just skip over all the muddly soul-searching hearts-in-torment stuff. (p. 68)
By this point, the reader knows enough not to take McIvor's words at face value. Sure enough, this is in fact a prelude to discussing her relationship with Cassady as Palmer attacks the story from a different angle, deconstructing not just SF but his own story. He does this again and again. Unfortunately, this just leads to incoherent characterization.
Fellow prisoner Cassady seems like a sweet person and virtuously works in the prison hospital and library. Because of this role, McIvor seduces her in order to use Cassady as a pawn in her escape plan. But why is she in there? Her pleasant presence is completely out of place in the penitentiary. Why does she describe the psychotic prisoners as her friends? How does she escape the extreme brutalization such as the endemic nightly gang rape? There is no explanation. (McIvor herself escapes by virtue of her superpowers, of course.) Once free, McIvor promptly drops her. She tells us that two years later, Cassady was killed in a bar fight, "an alcoholic and a drug abuser and a notorious violent troublemaker" (p. 70). So has heartless McIvor has destroyed an innocent creature? Well, no, Palmer belatedly informs us that Cassady is in prison bang to rights for multiple charges if piracy and murder. It is all smoke and mirrors: Palmer's characters are the way they are when he tells us they are that way, when he tells us they are different then they become different. When McIvor half-heartedly attempts to dissect her true feelings about Cassady, it feels like lip service rather than revealing a real underlying personality; Palmer gives the impression of complexity rather than the reality.
Similarly, McIvor's own back story makes no sense. Of her teenage years we are told: "After a series of unfortunate incidents, I got a job in a bar; and before long I was dying of boredom. And I wanted excitement. Adventure. Romance!" (p. 110). This is exactly the sort of job your average eighteen year old who runs away to the big city ends up getting but then your average eighteen year old doesn't have superpowers. I would have thought adventure and romance would be quite easy to come by when you are young, extraordinarily fast and strong, can hack any computer and have long and lustrous hair. Instead, on a whim McIvor steals a jewel from a patron in a high tech heist and subsequently mutilates a fence and murders his men when they try to double-cross her. Typical teenage behavior. This brings her to the attention Daxox which she tells us is the start of her journey from "shy librarian's daughter turned into ice-cold blood-crazed killer" (p.120) but her actions are hardly shy and retiring beforehand. These unprompted gangland events occur literally the page after she has bemoaned the lack of excitement in waitressing and there is no attempt to reconcile the two. McIvor is undoubtedly an unreliable narrator but it is impossible to discern Palmer's purpose. Unless we are to assume that she lies about everything, that the whole novel is a fantasy, something has to be real but everything that might be real comes into conflict with everything else.
Note also the internal inconsistency of "ice-cold" and "blood-crazed" in that sentence—that is Palmer in a nutshell. Killer is right though, McIvor is casually responsible for literally hundreds of murders before the story begins and hundreds more over the course of the novel. She is aided in this carnage by the fact she is essentially invulnerable:
The bullet went through my body armour and lodged in my heart. I stopped breathing. I thought for a moment I was going to have a stroke . . . then I stripped off my body armour and injected myself with adrenalin to restart my heart. Later on I rejuved the entry wound and glued the skin together. (p. 109)
So too was the protagonist of Hell Ship. So too was the protagonist of Version 43. I have not read the previous two novels but I wouldn't be surprised if the pattern held true. This saps a huge amount of tension from the books: there is always a reset button. As if that wasn't enough McIvor also has the gift of luck: "I am a lucky so and so. About ten per cent more lucky than a normal human being" (p. 262). Because of the way Palmer's universe is configured, this gives her another unique superpower, one that just so happens to be required by the plot. Hmph.
The first review of one of Palmer's novels to appear at Strange Horizons received a comment from someone called Carl which began:
BANG!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! awesome book. reading it was like cooking your brain in the oven and then sauteeing it in a chipotle cream sauce.
Stylistically it was as refreshing as a blended corona cigar and a glass of scotch after a long day!!
Better than any review I've read, Carl captures the aesthetic essence of a Philip Palmer novel and answers that basic question beloved of blog readers: who are these novels are for? Well, if you find a cigar refreshing, this is the book for you. Likewise, this book is for you if you've ever drunk a single malt and laboriously thought: "It was the real McCoy, hand-distilled. It slid down like velvet, if you've ever eaten velvet, which I guess you never have, nor indeed, ever should. Fuck! What I mean is, it was good stuff" (p. 114).
Carl's comment was appended to Paul Raven's review of Debatable Space, a review that appeared back when Palmer was still an unknown quantity:
About a fifth of the way through, I had a false epiphany. "It's a spoof of high-concept space opera," I thought, "a satire and a black comedy rolled into one!" I started watching out for the punchlines . . . perhaps the silliness and tedium was a mask, a red herring to disguise the deep meaning that was merely waiting for its moment to pounce! But it never did.
This was exactly the same experience I had reading Palmer for the first time with Version 43. Which poses a question: since Artemis is irritating, incoherent and this is not the first time I've found Palmer guilty of these crimes, why did I persist? This wasn't a commission so I had no professional duty to keep reading. Why finish the novel then?
The answer is twofold. Firstly, Hell Ship was unexpectedly brilliant. The cover quote from Brown mentioned at the beginning of this review comes from his review of that novel and continues: "His novels resemble the pulp epics of EE "Doc" Smith rewritten by Eugène Ionesco, with logic replaced with absurdity and the rigours of science ignored . . . Palmer's gonzo brand of SF may not be to everyone's taste, but aficionados of bizarre space opera will be amazed and delighted." Having read Version 43, I was indeed amazed and delighted. Secondly, respected author Lavie Tidhar recently wrote an appreciation of the Debatable Space novels which stated: "what slowly emerges—what fascinates about these novels—are the underlying moral principles at play. Palmer brings a way of looking at the universe that is—almost obsessively—concerned with both morality and evil." So some people who aren't obviously insane think there are hidden depths to these novels. This was enough to keep me reading; I was hoping against hope that all the silliness and tedium of the first half of Artemis was a red herring.
It isn't. Deep into the novel Palmer references two monumentally digressive 18th Century novels: Tom Jones by Henry Fielding and Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne. Is it a wink to the reader? Palmer quickly abandons such out of keeping subtlety and resorts to screaming in the reader's face: "I am an ENTIRELY reliable narrator. Trust me" (p. 337). The flashing neon sign might be there but there is nothing behind it.
Artemis is not just irritating and incoherent but grotesquely stupid and morally incontinent. Tidhar's justification for the depth and moral sophistication of the novel turns out to be feeble: "In Palmer's universe, there is no God. Morality does not come from above; it is a fiction, a narrative, a product of human agency. And so is evil." That isn't Palmer's universe he is describing, it is ours. He continues: "What Palmer argues for is that morality does not come from God. It comes from us." Wow, what a radical viewpoint! In fact, Palmer doesn't argue for this, he takes it for granted (as well he might). Laughably Tidhar goes on to describe this position as profound. Perhaps worried he hasn't got his point across, Tidhar repeats the supposedly defining feature of Palmer's universe for a third time: "Underneath the humour, the non-stop, bloodied action, the never-ending grotesqueries, there is a deep anger. The universe, Palmer tells us, is neither just nor caring. And hell is what people do to each other." Again, the supposed moral philosophy is facile but Tidhar does identify the key trait of the novels: anger. Palmer has said on his website that the novels were written from a position of anger—"The Iraq war. The incompetence of governments. The prevalence of lies, including climate change denial. The undeniable evidence that scum rises to the top"—and this manifests itself on the page as a sustained cathartic temper tantrum. In fact, the best way to understand Artemis is as one long series of set pieces of the immensely privileged McIvor throwing her toys out of the pram. To see these thoughtless, childish novels held up as exemplars of moral thinking within the genre is deeply worrying. The universe of Debatable Space is not one where moral choices are important but rather one in which they don't need to be made; McIvor is a mass murderer but that doesn't matter because the universe is full of cartoon bad guys for her to kill. Anger is converted into hedonism. Nothing is worthy of consideration or reflection, all that is important is impulse. Punch punch, stab stab, crash bang wallop; the novel is nothing but noise.
At the start of Tidhar's piece he notes that he "first became interested in reading the works of Philip Palmer" on the basis of Jonathan McCalmont's review of Red Claw for Strange Horizons. This had to be based on the "so bad it is good" principle since McCalmont's review concludes:
Red Claw feels like a book that was written without any planning or forethought. It is a monument to sloppiness. A novel entirely free of affect . . . Sadly, while [various ideas] are occasionally hinted at, they are never fully fleshed out or properly integrated into the plotting or the characterisation. This results in a novel that is just as weak conceptually as it is narratively and technically. Red Claw is nothing short of a catastrophe.
McCalmont's most damning criticism comes at the beginning though: "it is a desperately boring novel. It is boring in a way that is only made feasible by poor writing." This holds true for Artemis. So yeah, stylistically Palmer doesn't write like anyone else but alas the results are all too familiar. I hope he abandons the Debatable Space universe, a setting that seemingly locks him into his own worst tendencies, in favor of the freedom to explore his ideas and exuberance in a more profitable space.
Martin Lewis lives in East London. His reviews have appeared in venues including Vector, SF Site, and The New York Review of Science Fiction. He is the current reviews editor for Vector, and blogs at Everything Is Nice.