Debatable Space

Debatable Space
Philip Palmer

While prepping for the Halting State review, I came across a short piece in The Guardian that talked about both that and this book. It was the first I had heard of Philip Palmer, even though The Guardian thinks he’s a major new voice in SF. He’s also from the UK; anyone keeping tabs on the current scene will know that a frightening proportion of the newest, hottest SF is coming from across the pond. (Apparently science fiction is yet another thing we don’t make here anymore. The US has kept epic fantasy production at home but is outsourcing space opera. I would demand a Congressional investigation if so much of the British stuff wasn’t so good.) Since I’ve been on a tear lately of reading brand new stuff, or at least reading old stuff that is new to me, I bumped Mr. Palmer’s book to the top of the list. (It’s about time to settle down with something old and familiar. Asimov perhaps, or a cookie cutter fantasy trilogy.)

If nothing else, Philip Palmer is utterly fearless. He mixes New Wave with the Space Opera Renaissance, adding a dash of Hard SF and creating a saga that starts out small, but opens up layer after layer until it spans a millennium of future history. But he does it, much like Frank Sinatra, His Way. There are wild technologies, gargantuan space battles, bizarre aliens, and all of the usual stuff that one would expect. There is also some avant-garde literary experimentation. But unlike most science fiction, none of the former is the centerpiece of the story. Instead, Palmer is most interested in getting inside the heads of his characters, which he does through a shifting first person viewpoint, and seeing how they react to the situations surrounding them.

Palmer immediately calls out Ringworld in his afterword; like Niven’s Known Space, Debatable Space is full of whimsical and crazy stuff on a foundation of hard science. But he doesn’t linger on the aliens and the technology like Niven, instead leaving just tantalizing glimpses. Likewise, any reader expecting the space battles to be intricate tactical affairs, ala David Weber, will come away disappointed. Crap blows up in ungodly amounts, but the space battles aren’t really the point. One bit of technology does stand out: the question of how to communicate across a galactic empire. Even when FTL is finessed one way or the other, there remains the problem of just how people talk across the light years.  The answer in Debatable Space makes it fairly clear by the middle of the book what will have to happen before Captain Flanagan gets what he wants. In this way, I was reminded more of Dan Simmons than any other author. In fact, the more I thought about it, Debatable Space has more in common with Hyperion than perhaps any other book. Palmer never mentions Simmons, and I haven’t searched interviews to see if he does elsewhere, but both have the same Full Speed Ahead mentality, doing insane things basically because they can. In both books, the authors take no prisoners, brook no dissent, and all but dare the reader to put the book down.

And so, when one goes into this expecting a pirate story and finds himself deep in the head of an old, psychotic, self-centered, hot woman, what is there to do but press on?

I haven’t yet come to terms with Debatable Space. It is eminently readable – brisk and engaging. I plowed through 200 pages in one day’s commute, which is higher than my average, and kept reading compulsively even when I was scratching my head. The characters are strangely sympathetic, despite not being Good People. Flanagan is no doubt the crowd favorite, since everybody loves heroic blues musicians, but he also chops people’s heads off. His best friend is a sentient ball of fire who loves bad jokes and soap operas. The other characters get weirder from there. Also, this book has possibly the foulest mouth of any I have read, which is saying something.

The plot is the best part of the story, I think, though to describe it here in any detail would remove half of the fun. It starts out simple, but quickly grows into something much larger and wilder than is ever hinted at during the opening act. Things are propelled by, not twists perhaps, but revelations that unlock layers of increasing complexity. There are also long, detailed passages where we learn why these people are as crazy as they are, but that don’t directly drive the plot.  This, I suppose, is where my own questions come in. Were I to write the story, I would spend less time delving into a batty old woman’s psyche and more time on exploding spaceships, but then it would be just like all the other books that blow up countless spaceships. Palmer made his choices, we either go along for the ride or find something else to read.

It’s difficult to boil all of this down into a one paragraph recommendation. Readers looking for safe, familiar fare may want to stick with the US mainstream. Readers who don’t like New Wave, aren’t interested in psychology, or don’t want to explore nooks and crannies of crazy people heads should probably stay away. However, someone looking for new, high-risk high-reward stuff should definitely pick this up. I can’t guarantee that it will be anyone’s cup of tea, but it will certainly be a new experience.

Rating: Paris St. Germaine. PSG was purchased by oil sheiks who have brought in expensive, skilled players in a bid to revitalize a boring team in a boring league. (Not to say that SF is boring, but I hope this gets my point across.)

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