There’s a lot of debate at the moment about “hatchet job” reviews, prompted by this review on Strange Horizons. My own personal favourite remains this one, of my novella An Occupation of Angels. It is worth noting that I first became interested in reading the works of Philip Palmer based on a similar review, also at Strange Horizons.
However, to talk about “good” or “bad” reviews is to miss the point. I’ve spoken before of the failing of most genre criticism, which is quixotic in its Formalist attempts to quantify texts – that is, when it does not engage with that other method beloved of genre, that of obsessive taxonomy.
What is far more interesting is to examine a text in terms of its inherent themes; in text as a cultural artefact; in what it can tell us about the society which produces it; and so on.
Palmer’s novels come from, and build upon, the pulp tradition of science fiction, though they draw equally on over a century of film. They employ homage in various ways (for instance in the naming of planets after major SF writers or characters, such as Pohl or GullyFoyle), and correspond with iconic pictures such as, notably, Robocop. They are fast-paced, bloody, often exhilarating, “over the top” in the manner of a Hollywood actioneer.
Yet these are merely technique. What slowly emerges – what fascinates about these novels – are they underlying moral principles at play. Palmer brings a way of looking at the universe that is – almost obsessively – concerned with both morality and evil. And these are worth exploring.
In Palmer’s universe, there is no God. Morality does not come from above; it is a fiction, a narrative, a product of human agency. And so is evil. One can see the lasting appeal of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, for instance, not for its edifices of pulp creations (Great Old Ones; Shoggoths; Sunken cities and sleeping Cthulhu; and so on) but for its sense of humanity as an insignificant part in a larger, indifferent universe. What Palmer argues for is that morality does not come from God. It comes from us.
In Version 43, the eponymous android is despatched to a remote planet to cleanse it from evil. He is the good cop in a bad world; the gunslinger in the corrupt mining town; the chivalrous knight. Raymond Chandler set the requirements for such a character in 1950:
Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The detective in this kind of story must be such a man. He is the hero, he is everything. He must be a complete man and a common man and yet an unusual man. He must be, to use a rather weathered phrase, a man of honor, by instinct, by inevitability, without thought of it, and certainly without saying it. He must be the best man in his world and a good enough man for any world.
Version 43 arrives at the planet. He is determined to clean it of the criminal gangs which rule the planet. He is killed, and is resurrected; again and again. He is Christ, if Christ had big guns and a bad attitude. And with every death, and every resurrection, Version 43 finds evil burrowing deeper; finds conspiracies nestled within larger conspiracies; and must elect to keep on fighting, in order to right the world.
It is that sense, I think, which uplifts Palmer’s work. Evil exists, and evil is human. Good exists, and good is human. Underneath the humour, the non-stop, bloodied action, the never-ending grotesqueries, there is a deep anger. The universe, Palmer tells us, is neither just nor caring. And hell is what people do to each other.
So it is in Palmer’s latest, Artemis, which concerns the adventures of the eponymous character, a book loving, cold blooded assassin who is variously a daughter, a lover, and a mother-to-be. It begins with Artemis getting herself thrown into the most secure prison in the galaxy, only so that she could break out, kill the warden in order to steal the information in his head, which she will then use to extract bloody revenge on the man who betrayed her.
Palmer here is using the oldest stories we tell each other. Revenge and retribution. But what is interesting is how each character is defined not by some inherent evil or goodness, but is seen as a product of its society, the hell humans construct for themselves and for each other. Take Artemis’s great love, Daxox, the man who betrayed her. Daxox is ruthless, a monster, who seems to love Artemis only to capriciously give her away to a subordinate who turns her into a robotic sex-slave for nine years, until she manages to escape. Daxox negates Artemis’s humanity by – literally – turning her into an object – and it is Artemis’s rage that drives the first part of the novel. And yet Daxox is not born evil. We are given a view of Daxox as a child under the self-same system of hopeless oppression, one in which his parents – the people tasked with guarding him and keeping him safe – are helpless. Daxox’s first crime comes from love – he murders the sadistic criminal who controls his family’s lives and who, in a horrific act, forces Daxox’s mother to perform a sexual function on him as her family watches.
Daxox may be evil, but his evil – his warped morality, if you will – is a product of systematic abuse. He is loved by Artemis and, even as she hunts him down to extract her revenge, she loves him still.
Revenge, however, forms only one part of the novel, the second of which concerns war. From the personal, Palmer pulls upwards, to view the story of individuals within the larger context of an entire human society that is unjust. As above, so below. And it is a war for justice, for a better world, fought by highly damaged, morally-broken humans.
There is something profound in what Palmer does here, and throughout the Debatable Space novels. They are, at their core, novels about humans who try to do the right thing in an indifferent and hostile universe, who still believe – not in a God or his messiah but simply that life could be made better, if not for themselves then for their children – and while still knowing, deep inside, that the world is neither friendly nor fair. That it is couched within a pulp framework – of exciting narrative, improbable adventure and cartoonish violence – that it is, in other words, highly readable – comes as testament to what Palmer is achieving here. To dismiss him would be a genre’s loss.