Debatable Space by Philip Palmer

Reviewed by Paul Raven

Debatable Space cover

I had high hopes for Philip Palmer's Debatable Space. A new science fiction novel from Orbit? A novel from a new author represented by none other than John Jarrold, an agent who knows his genre onions? A novel billed by the press release as "ideal for readers of high concept space opera," no less? And it arrived just before the holidays—perfect timing. This would be a fine book to savour in front of an open fire for a day or two, I thought.

Hence I was rather disappointed that I had to force myself to read beyond the novel’s first third.

Debatable Space is Palmer's first published novel, and I have made allowances for that in my assessment. However, he's a very experienced television screenwriter with a slew of gritty detective and thriller series credits to his name, and I wonder if this isn't the root of some of my problems with the novel: Palmer's writing is, well, televisual.

His characters are swiftly delineated with a few physical characteristics and behavioural tics; the action is sketched fast, as brutal and fleeting as it is implausible; the action scenes are short and brisk, with cuts between viewpoint characters replacing cuts from camera to camera. It's a style of writing I associate more with blockbuster franchise authors, in some ways—with characters rarely raised above the status of avatars, and action that doesn't so much advance the plot as fill the gaps in it. Which isn't inherently negative, but the point is that Debatable Space comes across as more novelization than novel—the book of an eye-candy action sci-fi series that never got filmed.

So, space opera of a kind, perhaps, but not what I've come to understand the term as meaning. Especially not with the addition of "high concept"—a descriptor that I tend to associate with writers like Adam Roberts, Ken MacLeod, or Karl Schroeder.

Instead, Palmer has taken modern space opera tropes and welded them to a pulpy adventure narrative wherein the heroes survive against increasingly impossible odds time after time. It's a bold idea—an alchemical marriage that isn't entirely without precedent—but, for this reader at least, it flops. It's plain from his lucid afterword that Palmer is familiar with science fiction in the written form, and indeed that he's familiar with some of the big hitters of yesteryear. But the paucity of name-checks for contemporary writers (with the arguable but worrying exception of Michael Crichton) is telling.

So, what happens? Captain Flanagan—space-pirate captain, former legendary musician—and his misfit crew capture a lone space yacht with a single passenger named Lena. Lena is widely believed to be the daughter of the Cheo—cruel corporate fuhrer of Earth and the rest of the Galaxy, with the exception of the Debatable Space that gives the book its title—and so Flanagan and company send a ransom note once they've seized her, losing a valued crew member and old friend in the process.

But Flanagan knows Lena's secret—she's not the Cheo's daughter, she's his mother. She's also the oldest human being alive, a pioneer of life extension methods, an ex-scientist, life coach and self-help writer, politician, moral crusader and socio-economic reformist. Nowadays she wanders the galaxy alone, recording her thought diaries—of which, more later.

Flanagan is a canny operator, a man on a mission driven by an admittedly dark past, but his angst is unconvincing on the page, and it's late in the game before we get an inkling of the source of his perfectly channeled rage.

His crew are cardboard comedy sketches at best, sellotaped together with bluster, sexual stereotyping, skiffy clichés, and contradictory juxtapositions: the centenarian computer-game obsessive trapped in a ten-year-old body by his own choice (he glories in his immaturity! he wants sex! but isn't equipped for it!); rough-and-tumble anthropomorphic posthumans (they're almost human! but different!); the junkie genius (he's really clever! but he's screwed up!); the tough independent woman (she's a woman! but she doesn't cower in fear behind the first aid kit when it comes to a fight!).

And let us not forget Alby, the sentient flame beast—one of a species of sentient flame beasts that are (possibly) as old as the universe itself, that can move at the speed of light and are arguably powerful beyond measure ... but which have come to such a state of ennui with their existence that their greatest thrill is the newly discovered sphere of art that is human soap operas. You can always tell when Alby's speaking, by the way. He has a lissssp.

About a fifth of the way through, I had a false epiphany. "It's a spoof of high-concept space opera," I thought, "a satire and a black comedy rolled into one!" I started watching out for the punchlines. The forlorn hope that I would find some (or just one all-redeeming punchline at the end, perhaps, the one that would explain the irony in one neat flourish and tie it all together) was the only motive that could force me to read through the second half of the book. By that point, you see, a dread was slowly settling over me—the dread of encountering the next section devoted to Lena's thought-diaries.

Writing an entire novel in the first person is a stylistically brave and challenging exploit to undertake, particularly for one's début, and in the sections set in the "present" of the multiple viewpoint characters, Palmer doesn't do too badly. But Lena's thought-diary sections fall foul of two cardinal sins of novel writing; one general, and one specific to science fiction.

The general rule is "keep the plot going." And while there may be a way to make lengthy retrospective soliloquies seem action-packed and interesting, having a bitter and twisted egomaniac recount the triumphs and tragedies of her centuries-long life in rambling screeds is not it, whatever genre you may be writing in. You know those people at parties who decide to tell you their life story after a few drinks too many? You know that desperate urge to flee that's only held back by your inculcated sense of politeness? That's what reading Lena's thought-diaries is like. It makes you want to apologise to the book, tell it that you're terribly sorry, but your girlfriend's probably looking for you, and you should really be leaving soon.

The science fictional rule is "avoid infodump and vast chunks of expository back-story." Obeying this principle to the letter would involve excising Lena's diaries almost entirely, and cutting the length of Debatable Space by about half in the process. Because that's pretty much all it is; Lena's diary, in addition to partially explaining why she and her son are such pathological screwballs, explains the chronology of the fictional universe Palmer has created.

How did we get from the early 21st Century to this crazy posthuman future where mankind has populated numerous star-systems? Don't worry, Lena will explain it all. After all, no one could explain it better; it was mostly all down to her, you see—and boy, did she ever get screwed over by circumstance in the process, despite her fortitude, her contrition, and her willingness to learn from her mistakes. For example, there was this one time ... [fade to distance]

"[...] I never killed my political enemies; I merely discredited, undermined and humiliated them.
And it was during this period that we launched the second wave of space colonists. I was forced to say goodbye to my beloved son [...]
And when he had left, I became acutely aware that my life's work had to be finding a way to secure the future of those colonists who risked so much for an uncertain step forward for mankind.
[...] I was ready for the challenges thrown at me. I was the right person, at the right time, in the right job." (pp. 350-1)

I think Lena herself is an attempt to create a character of monstrous pathos—a different kind of anti-hero, in that we're supposed to love her for her plucky courage and forgive her guilt and insecurities, because she isn't actually a bad person as much as she is a very neurotic one. I also think the history of humanity she relates is supposed to be the more subtle satirical component of the story that elevates Debatable Space a step above ridiculously implausible space-western territory. I know for certain that Palmer would have stood a much higher chance of achieving both of these goals if he’d not mashed them together into one character.

I think that Palmer knows it, too, if only subconsciously, because there are a number of occasions where Lena starts apologising for going on a bit. For example:

Feel free to skip ahead, by the way, if this section is boring you. I know it's complicated and hard. So, if you have one of those sad grasshopper minds which can't sustain abstract thought for more than a few seconds, or if you're a child of MTV with a channel-hopping finger and no stamina, then please, just skip! (p. 79)

Way to flatter me into continuing, huh? That doesn't signal great confidence in her narrative on Palmer's part, however it was meant at a conscious level. Even deep in the fourth quarter of the novel, Palmer (through Lena) seems to be doubting his own writing:

So much has happened to me in my long long life. The details are still clear, but the overall story seems vague. I did this, then that, then many other things—but why? What was my purpose? What was my journey? Do I have an arc? The truth is: I simply do not know." (p. 377)

I kept reading, firmly believing that there would be a point to it all, a redemption. I tried to enjoy the novel for what it was, on its own terms. Perhaps there would be some cunning Wolfean use of the first-person unreliable narrator ... hey, maybe Lena wasn't the Cheo's mother at all! Maybe she was an egocentric madwoman making up stories about herself while she tramped around the depths of space!

That would explain it—from an insane narrator, you might expect epic self-pitying soliloquy, skipping over awkward but important details while fleshing out pointless tangents. That could justify this relentless barrage of "me, me, me, me" back-story tucked in between the improbable ultra-mega-kaboom battle scenes and oh-so po-mo space-western movie dialogue of the "present" thread.

Yes—perhaps the silliness and tedium was a mask, a red herring to disguise the deep meaning that was merely waiting for its moment to pounce! But it never did—although there is some half-baked philosophy at the end about how it's okay to grieve and forgive yourself for past mistakes.

When a story starts to bore me, I start actively looking for flaws and holes to pick at. Every sf novel has them, if you want to be a pedant about it—technological hand-waving is nothing new (or even rare). You can get away with it if the story moves swiftly enough. You can get away with it if the reader is willing to forgive you.

Palmer deploys some classic space opera technological advances and big ideas, but they're often throwaways or useful fudges that make Martin Sketchley look like Alastair Reynolds. We don't need a page and a half about the technology behind "Dyson Jewels" just because we're flying past them momentarily. But conversely, regenerative tech that can (and frequently does) heal or replace broken spines, severed limbs, and destroyed eyeballs within a few days could do with being more than a magic cupboard.

And while we're talking about technology, Palmer's extrapolation is remarkably inconsistent. I mean, come on—it's the 23rd Century, and humanity has populated the stars using quantum gate technology and nanofactories for raising test-tube populations light-years from Earth. And yet, after all this, people still communicate by email? They still record digital video onto "DVD-roms"? No one under fifty calls them DVD-roms now, for goodness sake!

Later, Lena mentions that Einstein had "proved" that matter cannot travel faster than the speed of light. Now, I don't consider myself a hard sf purist by any stretch of the imagination, but when an author feels the need to waffle on in great detail about quantum gates and emergence theory through the mouth of a character who is (by her own repeated assertions) an expert in these fields, I don't expect the classic journalistic mistake of suggesting that science ever "proves" anything.

But again, I probably wouldn't have noticed a one-word error like that if I hadn't been so bored by the narrative that contained it. Palmer makes the point in his afterword that he's aware that the science isn't waterproof, and nor is it meant to be, but the extrapolations are done in the name of making the fiction more entertaining.

And it is at this point I wonder again if the fault doesn't lie within me as the reader—did that press release quote about high concept space opera prime me so thoroughly with the wrong expectations that Debatable Space could never do anything but disappoint? I guess we'll never know for certain.

It's a shame, because there is much bravery in Debatable Space—not just in the gung-ho bravado of the characters, but in the conception and execution of the entire novel. Let me say it again: Palmer has authorial balls of steel to deliver a début like this, and respect to him for not taking the easy path.

There are some fine flourishes—not least the occasional moment of Bester-esque typographic trickery, throwing a bit of concrete poetry into the mix, but also some great feats of imaginatory strength in the classic space opera vein. There's even a pretty good twisty plot at the core of the novel—but sadly it's buried underneath layers of cinematic flash-bang frippery and clunky long-winded exposition. And (universe have mercy) Flanagan's song lyrics.

I tried my hardest to like Debatable Space, but I failed.


Paul Raven is the reviews editor of Interzone. He likes poetry, science fiction stories, music with guitars, and girls with tattoos. His friends play a game that involves them buying him drinks and then steering the conversation round to space colonisation and neural prosthetics.