2008-05-26 20:41:29 UTC
One fix-up novel, built around the novellas and very nearly living up to
their promise, also nominated for the Hugo.
And one thoroughly wretched novel, never nominated for any award I am
Palmer actuallly promised us a sequel to that last, but thankfully
dropped off the face of the Earth for twenty or so years instead.
As was noted here last month, he's back. And the good news is, he's
back with a sequel to his first novel, the one that was actually worth
reading, perhaps even worth the Hugo it was nominated for.
_Tracking_, sequel to _Emergence_, by David R. Palmer, serialized in
the July through October 2008 issues of Analog magazine.
The question, seeing as how most people here don't subscribe to Analog
any more is, is this one worth a trip to the library or newsstand?
Actually, there's a fair number of people here who weren't reading
science fiction twenty years ago, so maybe the first question is,
"what's all the fuss about?"
_Emergence_, which I went ahead and reread in preparation for the
sequel, purports to be the diary of one Candy Smith-Foster, a
precocious eleven-year-old girl. And apparently the last survivor
of the human race, on account of having been reading all the forbidden
books in Daddy's absurdly well-furnished bomb shelter when the bombs
started falling and various plagues were unleashed upon the world.
Appearances turn out to be wrong - Candy can't be the last survivor
of the human race, on account of not actually being human. She's a
member of a new transhuman species, belatedly recognized as such by
her scientist father and enrolled some years back in the Secret Program
To Study And Educate The New Supermen. A survivor not just because of
the bomb shelter, but because the biological weapons which depopulated
the world were very carefully tailored to affect only H. Sapiens. And
not alone, because she's got the membership list from the aforementioned
So, a fusion of two classic genres - the post-apocalyptic Last Man On
Earth (almost), and the Emergent Supermen. The heroine being a precocious
child is one of the classic dodges around the nigh-impossibility of a
merely human writer convincingly writing a superhuman character.
It fits together, into a story that is still memorable (and for the most
part memorably good) twenty years later. OK, especially on rereading,
the biology behind the emergence of the Supermen is rather implausible,
but in SF we're expected to believe at least one implausible thing before
And it starts to fall apart towards the end. The original novellas
dealt with Candy's solo trek across a depopulated landscape, trying
to figure out what happened to all the other supermen who should have
survived and whose names and addresses she has. Meeting a handful
of lone survivors in similar situations. Great stuff, very well
written. The diary-style writing, complete with a sort of shorthand
that allegedly represents a superchild's attempt at dealing with the
inefficiencies of English, fits perfectly.
In filling out the tale to full novel length, Palmer had to add
material, much of it of inferior quality. In particular, the story
almost has to end with Candy actually finding the community of
Supermen Survivors she has been looking for, and that means the
author can't keep using the Super-Child dodge any more. There was
a bit too much idiot-plotting for my taste the first time I read it,
and I caught more this time around. These are no Supermen.
And the Gratuituous Evil Overlord to be defeated, that didn't really
fit. The World-Killing Orbital Battle Station with Defenses Designed
Around A Direct, Large-Scale Assault such that a Small, One Man, er,
Child Fighter Should Be Able To Penetrate, yeah, I could have done
There was also one aspect of the story where making the heroine a
child on the edge of puberty, didn't quite work. In any Not Quite
Lone Survivor of the Apocalypse tale, it's hard to avoid dealing
with the fact that meetings between almost-lone-survivors are going
to be heavily influenced by the, "this person I've just met may be
my absolute last chance ever to have sex with an actual human being"
dynamic. An author can make that work for them, if he has characters
that the audience will favor as romantic partners. And of course
unrequited lust towards an *adult* female protagonist is classic,
dramatically effective villain behavior. There's no good way to make
any of that work with an eleven-year-old girl, and while Palmer doesn't
sink nearly to, say, Piers Anthony's level in that area, it is a
And, ultimately, even without creepy sexual aspects, one can only take
so much of a precociously cute little girl, and a full-length novel
turns out to be just a bit too much.
So, we've got a sequel. Is it
A: a return to the style and spirit of the original, superb, novellas?
B: a continuation of the decline we saw towards the end of _Emergence_?
C: _Emergence_ as written by the author of _Threshold_?
With only a third in hand so far, it's impossible to tell for sure. But,
fortunately, I think we can rule out C.
The story, takes place perhaps a few weeks after the conclusion of
_Emergence_, wherein Candy Smith-Foster destroyed the Death Star,
Saved The World, and, well, OK, there weren't enough Supermen in that
community for the full Leni Riefenstahl experience at the end, but it's
pretty clear that she is regarded as that kind of hero.
So, I'm very very glad to see her leave the Community of Really Dumb
Supermen in the first act, returning the story to a Lone Supergirl on
a Quest Through the Postapocalyptic Landscape. That's the only sort
of story we know Palmer can write well.
The excuse being, new intelligence has come in that Candy's beloved
daddy didn't die in the apocalypse, but was captured by the Evil Rooskie
Commie Conspiracy that was responsible for the whole thing, and is being
held in their Secret Lair.
OK, two problems there, one minor, one major. The minor problem, is
that Evil Russian Communists are a rather less credible adversary now
than they were in 1984. And there are enough specific 21st-century
references that we are clearly being asked to accept the entire story
as now being set in 2008, not in an alternate 1984. But I can live
with that - Russia still exists, and it's still got communists, nuclear
missiles, and biological weapons, so we can make that work in dramatic
The major problem is, it sets us up for an endgame where Candy has to
deal with a community of survivors, and last time I checked Palmer
couldn't write communities of intelligent, competent adults without
resorting to idiot-plottery. Maybe it will work better when he's
dealing with villains. Maybe.
For now, it gives us a chance to get back to the good stuff, as Candy
"borrows" an airplane and flies off, alone, towards Siberia. A
sufficiently arduous journey to give us at least a third of a novel's
worth of the stuff Palmer writes well.
And the good news is, he still does write it well. OK, there's a bit
more gratuitous infodumping regarding e.g. the hardware. Nowhere near
the level of David Weber, and really only annoying because Palmer tends
to get some of the details *wrong*. Not good if you're trying to write
an emerging Superman...
The super-shorthand writing style is tarnished by a few gratuitous big
words that similarly weaken the effect, but I can live with that.
And there are long segments of exposition for the specific benefit of
people who didn't read the original. I can skip over those, and I did,
so I can't say whether they would be any good for the intended purpose.
Really, you should be reading the original novel for that.
Mostly, we get adventuring, arctic bush-flying, decent writing, another
look inside an interesting head, and a couple of new characters that I
think are good additions to the cast. If Palmer can keep this up, I'll
be glad to have him back, and glad I've kept my Analog subscription over
There are worrisome signs. In addition to those mentioned above, there
are scenes back amongst the Community of Good-Guy Super-Idiots indicating
that they are planning their own mission to Siberia, with a faster plane
that will presumably catch up with our plucky heroine. Hopefully, this
time she'll be smart enough to realize she is better off without them...
And while there's only a slight hint of romance and none at all of sex
in the first installment, there is a warning from the editor that "this
story has scenes some readers may find disturbing". I presume that refers
to something yet to come, and I'm not sure I need to read that part.
But it's looking an awful lot like this will parallel the original novel,
with two good novellas' worth of travelogue and character work at least.
And maybe Palmer will pull off a decent overall plot and ending this
time. If not, I still expect it will be worth the time to read.
Worth a trip to the library and/or newsstand if you're not already a
subscriber? Harder to say, as I haven't finished reading the rest of
the issue yet. There's more good than bad in what I've seen so far
(good: Carl Fredrick's "Exoanthropic Principle", Michael Flynn's "Sand
and Iron", Juliette Wade's "Let the Word Take Me", Maya Bonhoff's
"Junkie". Bad, Bond Elam's "Plethora of Truth", both fact articles,
the editorial, and the "Probability Zero"). Nothing great, nothing
horrible, so far.
Probably worth checking out, if you still remember the original
 Not that Gibson's _Neuromancer_ wasn't also a fine choice;
certainly more influential in the genre.
 OK, it's been suggested that it mostly represents Palmer's
attempt at getting around the fact that he can't write decent
standard English prose, but whatever works...
 Well, Kal-El often enough acted as if he had an IQ around
eighty or so, but I don't think he's the proper role model here.
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