Debatable Space, Philip Palmer

Orbit, 2008, 479 pages, C$14.99 tpb, ISBN 978-0-316-06809-3

I admire the audacity of the marketing experts who allowed Debatable Space to be titled as such. Surely they must have sensed the potential here for easy jokes by silly reviewers? Debatable as in arguable, as in mixed, as in two-and-a-half-stars our of five? One imagines the lolbookcovers: “Debatable Space is debatable”. Allowing a first novel to carry that title is like duct-taping a “kick-me” sign on a kid and sending him off to recess.

But then again, perhaps someone at Orbit had a buzz-baiting moment of candid honesty. For Philip Palmer’s Debatable Space has quite a few good things running in its favor, even if most of those good things carry along a number of less-pleasant aftereffects. It’s a dynamic, exuberant novel that lacks control and never quite knows when to cut it short. It’s a novel with the disadvantages of its very own qualities: It’s likely to be remembered as much for its problems as its virtues.

It doesn’t start promisingly, as the daughter of a tyrant is captured by pirates and held for ransom in a far-future universe where post-human humanity has colonized a fraction of the galaxy. The style is slightly sharper, slightly hipper than usual, but it still feels like a familiar story. The sexual tension and the gory violence is up to the moment’s excessive standards, but the rest is familiar, as if the author was merely playing with generic SF elements to tell a standard space-pirates story.

This impression never completely goes away, but fades quickly once the book delves deeper in its own plot. It turns out that the “daughter in distress” isn’t what she seems, and that the pirates have other plans in mind once the ransom doesn’t show up as expected. The flashier aspects of Debatable Space also become more obvious: The typographical tricks hearkening back to Ellison and Bester; the copious amount of sex and violence, the increasingly ridiculous odds faced by the characters; the intriguing references and concepts casually tossed off.

But Debatable Space has a streak of weirdness that makes it difficult to predict. At three junctures, the story is interrupted to cover the back-story of the kidnapped “princess”: Lena is revealed to be a long-lived contemporary of ours, with a biography crammed with every possible adventure and occupation, from mousy academic to hard cybercop to despondent girlfriend to dictatorial president and much much more. It’s too flamboyant to be taken seriously (a theme that characterizes Debatable Space as a whole), but it’s certainly fun to read. As the novel unfolds, it also becomes more interesting in purely SF terms: I was particularly taken with the vision of a remote-controlled empire combining the worst aspects of cultural imperialism and consequence-free proxy usage. The “Dyson Jewels” are also a cool addition to the Big Dumb Object repertory.

But even as Palmer does his damnedest to impress the peanut gallery, he also let slip a few curious inconsistencies. His future never quite holds up for scrutiny, let it be the incompatibility between his future’s advanced medicine and his stunted characters, or someone casually using a CD-Rom a thousand years in the future (“I slip the CD-Rom in the Quantum Beacon’s computer”… [P.250]) as if they weren’t already obsolete in 2007. Lena ability to escape media attention through her laughably numerous careers except when it suits the needs of the story also stretched the bounds of credibility.

In short, Debatable Space feels raw, prickly, audacious and visibly flawed. As entertaining as it can be (and Palmer’s writing style is vivid enough to carry along its own narrative momentum), it’s also too scattered and too far-fetched to be particularly credible. The author acknowledges as such in an afterword appropriately called “Debatable Science” (“Alby after all is a super-intelligent ball of flame with a lisp”… [P.478]), but it doesn’t make the novel any easier to recommend without reservations. But keep an eye on Palmer’s next few novels: with more control and fewer distractions, he could be part of the next generation of good British SF writers.

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