Philip Palmer published his first novel, Debatable Space, in 2008 and has produced a new SF work every year since. His style is inventive, exuberant, and engaging. His universes are reminiscent of Iain M. Banks's Culture sequence for their scale and scope and the savage and twisted experiences inflicted upon their populations. Palmer attacks his subject matter with the same whimsical humor as his contemporary John Scalzi and a good dose of the late Douglas Adams's love of outlandish and improbable plot twists.
Version 43 (2010) is a return to the Debatable Space universe with different characters and a completely standalone plot. A cyborg cop is sent from Earth to investigate a crime on far distant Belladonna: the death of five hospital staff members in an unlikely and exceptionally unpleasant way. Version 43 visited this lawless crime-ridden planet three times before but retains only the basic summary of what his previous incarnations encountered there. Death is the usual end for each version of these once-human cyborg police agents and if they survive to complete their missions all extraneous information is tidily wiped from their brains.
When we first encounter the cyborg there's not much evidence that he was once human. Eschewing common courtesies and local laws alike, he doesn't so much investigate as juggernaut his way through the crime scene: questioning the local gang lords, the local cops, and a variety of suspects. Undeterred by any doubts of his hastily-formed theory Version 43 storms through Lawless City with the reluctant help of hospital administrator cat-girl Macawley and local cops Sheriff Heath and Sergeant Aretha. But his unstoppable force is abruptly brought to an unexpected halt—with concomitant devastation all around.
Then Version 44 is initialised.
Once again the cyborg ploughs into the now familiar territory of Lawless City and this time his suspicions take a new direction. He questions the ganglords, the mayor, and the other remaining suspects. He embroils Macawley, Heath, and Aretha in another raid on the hospitals. And once again his activities are brought to a halt amidst significant collateral damage.
Cue Version 45.
While events in Lawless City are building to a hysterical pitch, the reader is also aware of another story, taking place side by side with the progress of the versions of the cyborg cop. The Hive Rats, a spacefaring menace of devastating proportions have set themselves the goal of wiping out the human race and their improbable combinations abilities make them undefeatable. We read of the Hive Rats in conversation between six voices, the central minds at the heart of the Hive Mind being who are variously aggressive, obedient, thoughtful, intelligent, frivolous, and treacherous. The Sixth voice was once human himself and is torn between admiring the inexorable Hive Rats and taking courage from humanity's own relentless aggression.
The novel spirals gloriously into madness. The cyborg comes to learn of conspiracies within conspiracies, shadowy figures behind the crime lords and the mayor, and strong depths of feelings in himself for the enigmatic Sergeant Aretha who knows about his human past, now wiped from his cyborg brain. There are battles of immeasurable devastation, there are double crosses and tripled crosses, there are secret satellites and fleets of battleships.
Reality itself starts to tear and warp as we approach the truth of the original murder, the weapon used and the motivation for the crime. The prose is fast-paced and dialogue-driven, only occasionally employing exposition or reflection, and the reader is hurled through the whirlwind of events and can only cling on for the ride, wondering where this hurricane of plot will touch down. It ends, inevitably, with a bang and the survivors are left gasping in the rubble.
There were a couple of irritating inconsistencies early on. A character is described as aged twenty-three (on page 41) and as seventeen (on page 47). The Second is described as the predator of the Sand Rats, who will become the Hive Rats, eating them by millions (on page 74) and as regarding the rats as too wretched even to eat (on page 143). Those were easy mistakes to make—and, as it turned out, unimportant to the plot—but distracting ones.
I found Version 43 completely compelling. The original crime had an anchoring effect in the wildness of the plot and the cyborg's personality was sensitively conveyed despite his frequent deaths and reboots. At times everyone except the cyborg did appear thinly characterised in comparison. We only see Macawley, Heath, and Aretha through his eyes and their own motivations and plotlines are buried under the remorseless progress of the cyborg through his own plot.
Iain M. Banks always had problems with endings and I wonder if Palmer's specific brand of epic science fiction might pose a problem when creating satisfying conclusions to his plots. Debatable Space had a strong ending but Red Claw (2010) ended when it ran out of characters to torture. Although Version 43 very definitely ends, some aspects were inconclusive: the cyborg's original human identity for one.
Hellship (2011), Palmer's most recent novel, also has problems in this area. Having created an aggressive genocidal species, the Ka'un, Palmer lets them run amok in a multiverse of civilisations: wiping out alien races and capturing a specimen of each to keep on a their world-destroying slave ship. Everyone and everything falls before the Hellship while inside the slave specimens enact their own gruesome battles and tortures.
We see the Hellship from three points of view: Sharrock, a recently captured heroic humanoid fighter; Sai-ias, a gas-breathing tentacled giant alien pacifist—and Jak, an Olaran "trader" who is the last representative of a species and culture almost as unpleasant as the Ka'un.
The plot is unfortunately repetitive. Sharrock fights, is horribly injured, fights some more. Sai-ias tries to make peace with her situation and to sooth Sharrock, and alternately succeeds or fails as the years wind on. No one can die, although they are sometimes taken away to a different part of the Hellship and reappear missing large chunks of their memories. The aliens either follow Sai-ias's pacifist example and make a ritual of the passing days and centuries, or they battle each other and are chosen to do the work of the Hellship in carrying out more genocides and atrocities.
Palmer is inventive in the range of his aliens' bodies but they are unfortunately not as unique or interesting as personality studies. On the Hellship only a few stand out: either as grotesqueries or for the vile inventiveness of their scatological insults.
Jak, the trader/hunter bonded to a computer following the Hellship, has a more complex background in a hegemonising culture with a ruling female class who possess all the power, wealth, and status. Jak, though generally accepting his socially approved role as a tool of female privilege, occasionally bemoans his lot in life such as when contemplating the fact that only females are biologically capable of having orgasms. But he nonetheless manages to engage in a significant amount of athletic sex before the rest of his species and his universe is wiped out. I'm not sure how much of this was intended as comic relief and how much of it is even a semi-serious contemplation of society. SF at its best reflects something about current cultures and mores through its possible futures but all of Jak's Olharan hegemony ultimate only exists as something for the Hellship to devour.
There are lists towards the end of the book of races and societies that have fallen prey to the Hellship but there doesn't seem much point in reading about them since they've all been erased. The Ka'un destroy, that's their modus operandi. Even though they get a bit coy near the end of the novel and pretend for a few chapters that they have some kind of excuse, no excuse could be credible for the trail of devastation they have left in their wake. The sheer scale of the traumas and horrors the Hellship has wrought makes any kind of ending hard to imagine. The Ka'un seem so indefatigable that any end to their atrocities might have appeared contrived but the ending Palmer has chosen is excessively so.
Hellship's subject matter seems to drag it down. Where Version 43 was wildly inventive, Hellship is relentlessly negative. In the former new options and new possibilities were opening, in the latter everything is being killed off. The murderous Ka'un can count the plot among their victims.
Palmer's an author to watch for the imaginative way he approaches both SF and storytelling and until Hellship I'd have said that he wasn't boring. Perhaps it will appeal as a specific kind of horror torture fiction to a different kind of reader; it left me wondering what he was trying to do or say with this particular work.
Palmer produces a new novel every year and so far appears to have alternated imaginative expansive universes with claustrophobic horrorfests so it's likely his next novel, Artemis (due in 2012), will have a more engaging outlook.
Rhiannon Lassiter is an author of science fiction, fantasy, contemporary, magical realism, psychological horror, and thrill novels for teenagers. Her favorite authors include Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Mahy, and Octavia Butler. Her own novels explore themes of identity, change, and becoming. Rhiannon lives and works in Oxford, United Kingdom. Her ambition is to be the first writer in residence on the Moon. Find out more at rhiannonlassiter.com.