By Philip Palmer
What Philip palmer has done here is construct a noir detective story in a science-fiction setting and it works really well. All of the standard noir ingredients are there, starting with the hero with dark past brought in to solve a terrible murder and then slowly introducing the gruff police chief, the former lover, the femme fatale, the criminal bosses, the corrupt mayor - you can count them off as they enter the story - but because Palmer is a terrific story teller, and the world of Belladonna is so vivid and imaginative, all of those ingredients benefit and the whole story feels completely fresh.
The central conceit is that our hero is Version 43 of that particular Galactic Cop. Every time he dies, his memory is destroyed and a new Version is instantly created and deployed in his place, so inevitably during the course of the story we meet Version 44, Version 45 and so on as he gets too close to the truth and the criminals take action to stop him. This obviously means that he has to start from scratch every time, with only a rudimentary knowledge of the crime and no previous relationship to the people he works with. This makes for some interesting, and often darkly comic, situations but also means that the story could go on forever without ever being resolved so Palmer starts to make the Versions think ahead and save their data so it can be used to make better progress each time.
It's at this point that the investigation takes a deeper, darker turn and the Version realises that the whole planet and the criminals that run it are just puppets of a far greater and more insidious group, known as the Anciens, that have the appearance of little children but who are actually controlling everything that goes on to their own nefarious ends. In order to bring down the crime and corruption that has engulfed the planet he has to infiltrate and destroy The Anciens, and that is an almost impossible task, but things will more complex yet.
I'll start by saying that if you like pulpy, noir, hard-boiled detective fiction then you'll very likely love Version 43. It's action-packed, fast paced on-the-whole and full of the kind of invention and imagination that Palmer is known for. The descriptions of Belladonna make it sound like a mix of Chicago, New York and Las Vegas but with incredible technology around every street corner and all kinds of rejuvenation and surgical enhancement available at a price. Everybody on Belladonna seems to seeks nothing but pleasure all of the time and anything your dark little heart can conjure up can be made available at a price. The dialogue, as you'd expect, is sharp, snappy, full of neat one-liners and liberally peppered with expletives from both sexes. There are amazing chase sequences, full-on pitched battles both on the ground and in the air, and the violence is, from the get-go, pretty hardcore.
So what's not to like?
Well, not much admittedly, but at times it does feel like there's way too much going on, like every idea that Palmer had while writing had to find a home in the book, along with an appendix describing how quantum teleportation works and the lyrics to a Belladonnan political song! Less 'stuff' and a bit more focus might actually have produced a better, albeit shorter, novel. In case a complex detective story isn't enough we also get a somewhat bizarre third story involving Hive-Rats that can slow or speed-up time at will and are hell bent on a mission to destroy all other life in the Universe. Eventually they turn up at Belladonna and commence war with the planet at the same time as the Version is engaged in a war with the Anciens and while all of this is engagingly written and good fun it is also distracting and nothing to do with the detective story that we started out with. There are also some quite long passages where the Version just spends his time wandering around the city watching people and thinking about life, the universe and everything, and while they're interesting enough they don't move things forward and could probably be cut with no detriment to the final novel.
Having said all that, make no mistake Version 43 is a good book and one that not just science fiction fans, but any fans of action/detective stories will thoroughly enjoy. Philip Palmer is always great value but for sheer breadth of invention and imagination he's hard to beat and a writer whose work I always enjoy. Give Version 43 a try, I think you'll like it.
Philip Palmer's blog is here.