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Version 43
Philip Palmer
Orbit paperback �8.99

review by Erik Reed

There is undoubtedly something Pygmalion-esque about SF: just as Eliza Doolittle tried, by the use of elocution lessons, to distance herself from her flower-girl roots, so SF, in its quest for literary respectability, has tried desperately to distance itself from its pulp antecedents. Flying saucers and ray-guns have been ditched and replaced by fierce introspection and heavyweight considerations of life, the universe and everything. But rather than denying the pulp DNA seasoning the SF genome Philip Palmer, in Version 43, is intent on celebrating it.

A multiple murder is committed on the seedy, sink-hole planet of Belladonna. Not a particularly note-worthy event on a planet where murder and mayhem is the order of the day but because it appears the perp used illegally-advanced weapons to slice and dice his victims the galactic powers-that-be send a cyborg cop (the eponymous Version 43: think Iron Man on steroids) to investigate. We follow Version 43 - and all his subsequent iterations - as he conducts his wrecking ball-subtle investigations into the murders, stumbling towards a realisation that there is something not quite right about what is going down on Belladonna. And to spice up the action even further, interlacing Version 43's manoeuvrings, we have the steady and implacable approach towards Belladonna of the Hive-Rats, a fearsome alien species whose proclivities centre on fighting, fucking, and the destruction of the human species. That they are possessed of the ability to alter the speed at which time passes makes them a pretty formidable opponent. This all makes for an impressively confused and chaotic mash-up of a finale.

Version 43 very effectively recreates the immediacy and the hell-for-leather nature of pulp sci-fi and, certainly, the book has a real energy about it... make that a jaunty energy. Like many of the best books in pulp, the story is told in the first person and Version 43 (the character not the book) has a wry line in dark humour. He's also ably abetted by a terrific supporting cast straight out of the pulp character stockroom (the whore with the heart of gold; the bad cop who comes good), and who are all the better for it. I like the cynically self-deprecating tone of the dialogue a lot. Palmer has also done a good job in rekindling the schlock horror of pulp sci-fi, garnishing the story with lashing of amputee pornography and black markets in body-parts. With respect to the Hive-Rats, Palmer has adopted a novel way of demonstrating the multiple facets of their hive-mind which - though I initially thought it was a little gimmicky - I now think works extremely well.

I did have some problems with the book though. I found the rebirth/ investigation/ shoot-out motif adopted for each Version of the hero a tad repetitive and predictable, and as we end up at Version 55 of our galactic cop there are quite a number of these. I wasn't convinced by the different-ness of Belladonna: after a thousand years or so cut off from the civilised part of the galaxy I'd have thought at the very least a new patois would have evolved (yeah, I know Palmer cameos Random Jive, but I got the feeling his heart really wasn't in it). I think the whole strangeness of Belladonna could have been pushed a little harder. But I suppose the biggest disappointment was with the d�nouement. I'd been expecting a really zowie pulpy-twist at the end but I didn't get one. Shame...

Don't get me wrong: for lovers of action-packed sci-fi, Version 43 is a must read. Whilst it's slick and stylish, Version 43 hasn't forgotten that at heart it's a rooting-tooting shoot-'em-up, written for speed, not comfort. It's a good book which is almost very good.

Version 43 by Philip Palmer

copyright © 2001 - Pigasus Press