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Debatable Space by Philip Palmer
Review by John Berlyne
Orbit Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9781841496207
Date: 07 August 2008 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /

I was extremely impressed by Debatable Space when it first came out in January and to mark the mass market edition of Philip Palmer's energetic and punchy début, we're rerunning my review in this issue. Recommended.

A book said to be about space pirates is bound to grab my attention, and Philip Palmer's frenetic début novel Debatable Space certainly does that! In fact, Palmer's book, a much anticipated release from Orbit, not only grabs one's attention, it does so with jagged teeth, and then proceeds to shake viciously. Seldom have I read anything so relentlessly energetic, inventive and shamelessly ambitious -- all highly laudable qualities.

The core of this story concerns a happy band of very likable vagabonds under the command of one Flanagan, a character whose richly drawn back story tells of a previous career as a well-known blues musician, a slave, and rebel leader. Flanagan's team are equally exotic -- a wolf-man, a cat-woman, a hundred-year-old man trapped forever in the body of a 10-year-old boy, a being made entirely of light and fire. This eclectic mix typifies Palmer's approach -- for almost every SF convention you can think of is tossed into the mix here, and this provides a considerable amount of combustible fuel that doesn't half propel this novel forward.

Flanagan has a seriously grand plan. He kidnaps Lena, the mother of the Cheo -- essentially ruler of all human space -- and holds her for ransom. This scheme is, it turns out, considerably more complicated than we are initially told, and the consequent revelations -- both forward and backward in the timeline of the novel, consistently topping one another -- are the very building blocks of what we tend to think of as "operatic". Epic human themes are in play throughout the narrative of Debatable Space -- this is a high drama of revenge, jealousy, guilt, familial tensions, regret and … er … occasional genocide. A broad scope of human emotions and conditions are explored and examined.

Lena, who serves as the second main protagonist and POV character (though it seems everyone gets a chance to be the POV character at some point!) is just a brilliant piece of back story writing -- born in 2004, she relates her story with chilling pragmatism and hugely entertaining candour, wild and implausible though it often is. Palmer employs techniques and devices that allow Lena's narration to appear embellished -- which gives wonderful insight into this most vain and haughty of women, but we also experience the searing pain, the spectacular highs and lows, the gut-wrenching twists and turns this woman has experienced in her long, long life -- all of which add to the essentially operatic feel of the novel.

Palmer handles time and space with an almost devil-may-care attitude -- at times huge swathes of both pass by in a single sentence. This bold and unpretentious approach allows Palmer to examine Lena's life in near-contemporary times, and then to speculate rather cannily on how her world (being essentially our world) develops, before finally having a heap of fun employing sheer fantasy physics for the far future stuff. There are one or two critical issues arising from this, however -- occasionally Palmer will throw in a simile that doesn't quite compute, such as comparing a compressed space bomb explosion to the sound of a popping crisp packet. Additionally, as Palmer ramps up the action, he tends to play the "get out of jail" card a little too readily at times, with Flanagan and his crew managing to overcome impossible odds with alarming, sometimes ludicrous ease and regularity.

None of this though affects the terrific energy and wonderful ingenuity on display in Debatable Space. This is one of those rare books that holds your focus on every page, and feeds your imagination as it does so. It has a slightly -- and very welcome -- anarchic and wild feeling to it, perhaps best illustrated by some of the typographical tricks Palmer includes, clearly in homage to Bester, one of a number of SF influences the author acknowledges. It is very clear, however, that Palmer is a new, fresh, entirely original voice in British science fiction, and one that looks like he will be around, like Lena, for some considerable time.

Recommended.

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