Red Claw is Philip Palmer's second novel. It is not a particularly good novel. Let us not mince our words; it is a desperately boring novel. It is boring in a way that is only made feasible by poor writing. In fact, this book is so poorly written that it seems to vindicate at a stroke the idea (which emerged during the discussion surrounding Dan Hartland's review of Neal Asher's Orbus) that, when it comes to action adventure stories, the SF-reading community is, at present, quite poorly served.
The novel takes place on the planet of New Amazon, where a group of scientists and space marines have been assigned to study the ecosystem before sterilising it in preparation for human colonisation. The ecosystem is not only bizarre, it is grotesquely brutal, and covered with gigantic carnivorous plants and animals that spend their time tearing each other to shreds before copulating with the remains. The planet is also blessed with acid rain and a myriad other fascinating ways in which the small pink creatures we call humans can be killed, maimed, bludgeoned, raped, and mutilated. In fact, New Amazon would be completely uninhabitable were it not for the military technology the humans have at their disposal. Which is unfortunate as this technology soon turns against the explorers, forcing them out into the wilds to fend for themselves. As the body count climbs steadily higher and the protective technologies become less and less reliable, the surviving humans learn that, while the ecosystem of New Amazon may be deadly, it is nowhere near as savage as the human capacity for deceit, tyranny, vengeance, and madness.
This synopsis makes Red Claw appear a good deal more coherent and thematically interesting than it is and so I should probably back up the opening claims I made about the book being poorly written. Let us begin with the plot.
Red Claw eschews traditional narrative forms—such as the three-act structure with plot arcs and over-arching themes—in order to take the form of a grim procession of set pieces. Each occupies the characters for a few pages before running out of steam, necessitating the introduction of another set piece that will, in turn, last a little while before being abandoned. The book then repeats this cycle five or six times before collapsing over the finish line at around the four hundred page mark. Red Claw should have been an entertaining roller coaster ride full of emotional peaks and valleys, but instead reading it is more like a long car journey through a desolate and flat landscape. The problem is not that Palmer fails to grasp the need for dramatic structures, it is just that what arcs the novel does contain tend to be either very short term indeed—playing out over a few pages at most—or chronically under-serviced and clumsily exploited for hundreds of pages at a time. This results in plotting that feels clunky, amateurish, and manipulative.
For example, Palmer will suggest a romantic link between two characters:
Sheena had a hunch, and brushed her hand over Jim's crotch, and her hunch was confirmed. "Later," she murmured, and Jim was thunderstruck. Later! Him! Sheena! He could scarcely believe his luck. (p. 182)
Only to promptly kill one of them off on the very next page :
A single plasma beam cut Sheena, Queen of the Noirs, in half. (p. 183)
The first scene exists only in order to give the second some emotional charge. But because Palmer keeps the couple's arc so short, and sketches it so inelegantly, it comes across as empty and manipulative. In isolation, this kind of graceless plotting would not be catastrophic, but Palmer's inability to marshal his own dramatic resources also applies to his treatment of the book's main protagonists.
Right from the start, Red Claw posits an intense sexual relationship between Professor Helms (intrepid and resourceful chief scientist) and Major Sorcha (tough and capable leader of the fanatical space marines). This relationship should have served not only to flesh out the two main protagonists, but also to supply the book with an emotional subplot. However, Palmer manages to bungle not only the depiction of the characters, but also of the relationship that unites them.
Helms is initially depicted as a hugely resourceful and intelligent scientist but Palmer then reveals that this fictional scientist we have just spent two hundred pages getting to know is, in fact, some other fictional scientist who has been mentioned a couple of times in passing. For the characters in the book, this is an Earth-shattering revelation. For the readers of the book, it is a dramatically pointless exercise in name-juggling, especially as Professor Saunders (née Helms) is depicted in exactly the same way as he was before his true identity was revealed. This is a development that is rather central to the book's plot, but it feels utterly arbitrary because it is emotionally empty, requiring Palmer to scramble desperately to justify the plot device by having one of the secondary characters maintain a diary in which he goes on at length about how important a person Professor Saunders is and how big a deal it is that he is still alive. Again, this plotting feels ad hoc and manipulative.
In the world of Red Claw, space marines are not merely disciplined, they are bred to kill and exist within social structures reminiscent of Sparta. At first, Sorcha's relationship with Helms/Saunders is depicted as unusual, but it is tolerated by pretty much everyone, including Sorcha's fellow marines. However, when Helms changes name to Saunders, Sorcha decides to have him killed, suddenly introducing a clash between love and duty that was not really present in the character prior to the identity change. This tension introduced, Palmer then promptly forgets about it and allows Sorcha to, just as suddenly, fall back in love with Saunders later in the book, setting up a frankly ludicrous re-enactment of the "love you wife" ending to James Cameron's The Abyss (1989). Had some space been devoted to Sorcha's inner conflict, then her willingness to openly admit her love for Saunders might have had some meaning, but as with Saunders's name change, Palmer limits himself to justifying his plot devices after the fact, thereby only highlighting their arbitrariness.
I could go on and on in this vein: from secret homicidal maniacs who are heavily foreshadowed only to be dealt with in a few pages, to fanatical soldiers who (shock horror) behave like fanatical soldiers when placed in positions of authority, right through to evil artificial intelligences who turn up in order to provide some short term peril only to disappear when they are no longer needed. 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. However, while the book fails as a narrative, it might still have had some value if its basic ideas had been compelling. Sadly, they are not.
Much like Neal Asher's Spatterjay novels, Red Claw makes much of its planet's ecosystem. Indeed, the best moments of the novel are the descriptions of how one thing will eat another and do terrible things with the remains before, in turn, being eaten in an even more horrific fashion by some other creature. However, considering how much of the novel is devoted to its creatures, the passages are, on the whole, rather hit and miss. The primary problem is that when a new creature is introduced it is frequently given the name of a known fantastical animal such as Gryphon, Cerberus, or Godzilla. This does, in fairness, seem plausible: what else are you going to call a giant lizard? But attaching recognisable names to weird plant/animal things carries the risk that every time the creatures are mentioned they will bring before the mind's eye not the creatures of New Amazon but the creatures these animals are named for. It is possible that a book with a more evocative prose style might have been able to overcome this technical difficulty, but, in this case, the nomenclature serves only to undermine Palmer's efforts to create a weird and exotic ecosystem. By the end of the novel, New Amazon resembles less a beguiling alien world than it does a Hollywood back lot.
Palmer's technical shortcomings are also evident in the book's action sequences. Lacking in wider emotional resonance for the reasons mentioned above, these scenes tend to be written in a way that is frequently about the gadgets themselves rather than the effect they have on the wider battle (or the people doing the killing).
So Sheena stood now inside a virtual dome surrounded by swarming Horde, and touched her finger against a black-with-pollen patch. Her finger-touch was translated into a signal, which was sent to the real dome, which proceeded to a) heat up and b) blast acid on the intruders. (p. 39)
The similarities between Red Claw's computer-assisted combat and video games are quite deliberate, but even when the action moves to space marines fighting for their lives, Palmer never manages to fill his action sequences with any sense of urgency or excitement. They are all written with the same detached and monotonic prioritisation of process over context, as though Palmer has placed his camera too close to the action.
And he'd charged up the plasma cannon he had taken from a dead Soldier, and fired it at his unwary companions. His close-quarters high-energy plasma blasts and explosive bullets ripped through the body armour of those hapless fools, and popped heads, and gouged huge holes in bodies. (p. 206)
As with most poorly realised novels, Red Claw does contain the basic ingredients for a good and interesting story. The idea of comparing the savage inner worlds of the book's characters with the ostensibly savage but actually quite delicately balanced ecosystem of New Amazon is a fine one, with roots in the Conradian tradition of seemingly civilised people going mad on the edges of the known world. Indeed, the subplot in which Sorcha wrestles with her feelings of love and the need to do her duty might well have formed the basis for an extended meditation upon the extent to which we are all institutionalised and broken into our society's values. Sadly, while these 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.
Jonathan McCalmont lives in the United Kingdom, where he writes, teaches, and edits Fruitless Recursion.