Thursday, 24 January 2008
‘Debatable Space’ – Philip Palmer (Orbit Books)
Orbit has been pushing this fairly hefty chunk of space opera as one of their big releases for 2008. I’ve gone from being from being cynical about ‘hype’ to totally buying into it so I was eager to see what all the fuss was about. Having finished the book today, I can see what they mean but I didn’t think ‘Debatable Space’ completely lived up to what everyone has been saying about it.
The story itself follows pirate captain Flanagan and his crew on their mission to bring down of the Galactic Corporation and it’s leader ‘The Cheo’. The first step involves the kidnapping of the Cheo’s daughter and things start to go rapidly downhill from there. Or do they? The first thing you learn about ‘Debatable Space’ is that nothing is as it seems and Captain Flanagan knows much more than he is letting on…
‘Debatable Space’ is a fast moving tale with twists in the plot that are regular but never predictable. Palmer has also gone to great lengths to create a galaxy that is plausible (through the development of its history) and rich in life and character. Couple this with two interesting main characters (three if you count an alien sidekick), plus aforementioned twists and turns, and you have a book that I polished off pretty quickly, I really wanted to put the time in and find out where this one was going. It’s also a book that really makes you think about what the story is actually all about. By the time I finished, the book could have been telling three different stories as far as I could tell. This is a great way to get you thinking about the book itself but, at the same time, I did wonder if the story would have benefited by just concentrating on one main aspect (and briefly mentioning others). This is really where ‘Debatable Space’ fell down for me. It felt like Palmer was revelling in this wonderful thing he had created and wanted to show it all off at once, the problem there is that there are only so many pages to do it in. There are characters that are fully developed and then just dumped with no explanation of what happens to them next. There is a lot of ‘info-dumping’ and ‘hard science’ that illustrates the setting perfectly but doesn’t give the story any room to breathe. That reminds me, a ‘get out of jail free’ card is still a ‘get out of jail free’ card no matter how much quantum physics you wrap it up it up in. While it was interesting to see how tricky situations were negotiated, it got to the point where they lost their urgency as the outcome was never in doubt.
I also got the feeling that Palmer was dubious about the amount of hard science in the book. A couple of times, one of the characters would tell the reader to skip large chunks of text if they were bored (although the reader must be stupid if they find themselves bored). While this was a neat little device to use, it did feel like Palmer wasn’t confident in what he was saying and was trying to please everyone at once.
‘Debatable Space’ is an entertaining read that is ultimately hamstrung by trying to do too much at once. However, I’d say that there are enough promising signs to make me want to pick up whatever Philip Palmer writes next.
Seven out of Ten