Fantasy Book Critic

Book Reviews, Author Interviews, Giveaways and more…

"Debatable Space" by Philip Palmer

Posted by cervantor on PM00000020000000031 1, 2008

Official Philip Palmer Website
Order “Debatable SpaceHERE (US) + HERE (UK-January 17, 2008)
Read An Extract
Read The Book Swede’s INTERVIEW with Philip Palmer

If you’re new to the world of publishing (speculative fiction), especially the business side, one name that you might see a lot of is literary agent John Jarrold who represents over forty clients including Ramsey Campbell, Peter Crowther of PS Publishing, Paul Kearney and Mark Newton, an editor of Solaris Books. For me personally, I got in touch with Mr. Jarrold because of Ian Cameron Esslemont (Night of Knives) and Stephen Hunt (The Court of the Air), and have been in contact with the agent since then. Most recently, John’s been hyping a couple of his debut authors for the start of 2008. One is Robert V.S. Redick whose novel “The Red Wolf Conspiracy” (February 1, 2008) has already been getting a ton of pre-publicity and which I’ll be reviewing in the near future. The other—“Debatable Space” by radio/TV/film/script writer Philip Palmer—isn’t getting nearly as much press, but it should…

Let’s be frank here. From just the cover art, the book title and the synopsis, would you guess that there’s anything different about Philip Palmer’s science fiction novel “Debatable Space”?… Probably not. In fact, you might not even give the book a second glance. Fortunately, that’s what I’m here for and I can tell you that despite the generic packaging, “Debatable Space” is anything but a generic science fiction novel. Instead, the book is like the result of some mad genetic experiment that somehow spliced the comedic wit of Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) and Terry Pratchett (Discworld) with the uncompromising bravado of Richard K. Morgan (Altered Carbon, Black Man/Thirteen), the high-octane adventure of a Neal Asher (Cowl, Hilldiggers) novel, and the outrageousness of a videogame script. In other words, “Debatable Space” is zany, satirical, smart, action-packed, bold, and a whole lot of fun, but it comes with a warning. You see, Mr. Palmer brings a wholly unorthodox writing style to the book, which might turn off some readers. For instance, the entire novel is told in the first-person, but instead of one point-of-view, there are several. Also, there aren’t any chapter breaks with the novel divided into eleven ‘Books’, which alternate between the story’s present events and excerpts from Lena Smith’s Thought Diary. Finally, the author loves to play around with the font, sometimes dedicating a whole page to a single sentence, word, or even one GIANT letter! In short, Philip Palmer brings an unconventional approach to his debut which takes some getting used to, but once you’re comfortable with the writer’s little quirks, it’s hard not to enjoy everything that “Debatable Space” has to offer, including a crazy plot, crazy characters, and a crazy imagination.

Focusing on the plot, “Debatable Space” may start out on a conventional note when a band of space pirates kidnap the daughter of the Cheo, but that’s about as predictable as it gets. From there, we learn that Lena isn’t the Cheo’s daughter after all. She’s actually—minor spoiler here—the Cheo’s mother and is nearly a thousand years old. Also, the pirates didn’t kidnap Lena for a ransom. Instead, they want to stage the biggest coup in human history and—another minor spoiler—they want Lena Smith to lead the charge. And that’s where Lena’s Thought Diary excerpts come in. For while one part of the book gives us a front-row seat to the unfolding of Captain Flanagan’s incredibly resourceful plan of vengeance & rebellion—we’re talking daring getaways, impossible odds, epic battles and one miraculous escapade after another—the rest is an autobiographical accounting of Lena’s history explaining who she was, who she is now, and what it would take to manipulate her. Admittedly, there’s bit of an odd contrast between the two plotlines, especially since the diary excerpts tend to slow down the action and interrupt the book’s pacing, but in all honesty the story just wouldn’t work without Lena’s memoirs. After all, Lena Smith is the key, not just to Captain Flanagan’s ambitious plan, but to the novel as a whole and her thought diaries are essential. Plus, out of all of the wacky characters in the book—this includes the grizzled Captain Flanagan who’s an atheist and one of the most accomplished composers of his era; Jamie, a 120 year old computer gamesplayer trapped in a 10-year old body due to voluntary arrested development; a bioengineered half-man, half-beast w/three eyes; and Alby the sentient flame beast—Lena is arguably the most interesting and it’s only fitting that she gets the most face time.

Of course, while Lena is being treated to some excellent character development, the rest of the cast gets the short end of the stick and if the book has an Achilles’ heel, it’s the characterization. Fortunately, Mr. Palmer makes up for it in other areas, most notably his vivid imagination which ranges from the nutty to the puerile and to stuff that’s really not that far-fetched. Some of my favorite ideas included a crime task force that uses mental warfare to psychologically destroy its targets; the flame beasts who are basically invincible, are familiar with every single detail in human history, and are addicted to soap operas; and the Doppleganger Robots, which allows a human being on Earth to experience a completely different life on an alien planet. Additionally, I was impressed by the flexibility that Mr. Palmer demonstrates as a writer. For instance, the author ventures into hard SF territory with his extrapolations on emergence, a Dyson Sphere and the Heimdall Quantum Beacons which allows instant interstellar communication, while a couple of the book’s minor plotlines—including a patented plague that targets a specific race and age group—could be construed as allegorical commentary on current events. Lastly, I really appreciated the way the author explored immortality from a psychological angle and personally loved all of the musical elements in the book 🙂

In conclusion, Philip Palmer’sDebatable Space” is one heck of a trip. It’s ambitious, original, a self-contained story, laugh-out-loud funny, gleefully violent, and wildly unpredictable. Unfortunately, the novel’s just not getting the kind of attention that it deserves, and I think part of the reason is that the publishers just aren’t sure how to market the book. In fact, I’m reminded of Sean McMullen’s criminally underrated Moonworlds Saga (Voyage of the Shadowmoon, Glass Dragons, Voidfarer) which Tor has been trying to pass off as epic fantasy even though there’s so much more to the series. Like those books, “Debatable Space” is much more than a typical science fiction novel and I think readers would be making a huge mistake in overlooking Philip Palmer’s excellent debut …

NOTE: Included at the end of “Debatable Space” is a small excerpt for Mr. Palmer’s next novel “Ketos”, which is a standalone story set in the same universe. The excerpt is not much to go by, but it seems like the author might be taking a more serious approach with this novel. Of course, if “Debatable Space” is any indication, then I’m way off base 😉


5 Responses to “"Debatable Space" by Philip Palmer”

  1. Chris, The Book Swede said

    So glad you enjoyed it! I’ve been trying to do my bit to pimp it, but I agree it hasn’t been getting the attention it deserves. Excellent review 😀

    My copy didn’t have a bit from Ketos… Damn!

    The Book Swede

  2. Chris, The Book Swede said

    PS: Any plans to interview Philip? 🙂

  3. Robert said

    Chris, glad you liked the review 🙂 The excerpt was only like three pages, so you didn’t miss too much. Btw, did you review the book? Maybe it’s just me, but I couldn’t find a review from you… As far as an interview, it’d be cool to do one, but I don’t when I’d get to it at this point. I have several interviews already lined up, which I need to start working on 😉

  4. gav(NextRead) said

    Great review.

    Much more in depth than My review!

    The UK edition doesn’t come with the preview 😦

    It’s definitely worth a read 😀

  5. Robert said

    Thanks Gav! I think it’s interesting how every review has different insights, so I believe the more there are, the better 🙂 The preview really isn’t long btw, so you didn’t miss much 😉

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