David R. Palmer
Emergence Cover

A Possible Hugo Winner if Neuromancer Hadn't Happened


Hi again, Posterity. Happy to see me?

What do you mean you forgot about me?

Coming off the heels of the Clarke being awarded to Yet Another Post-Apocalyptic Tale, also known as "The Stand: but this time motivated by a book that is not The Holy Bible," (that would be Station Eleven, an enjoyable, character-driven read, but weak on the SF elements, lacking in originality, that ultimately let me down), I bring you an even cooler, more original post-apocalyptic tale. YA, epistolary, Hard, and Heinlein-inspired, it sounds like something I would read with gloves, mask, and tongs, so as not to tarnish my pretentious sensibilities.

But this. This is good.

Plucky, teen genius Candidia Smith-Foster sits out a bionuclear war in her father's high-tech bomb shelter with her talkative pet bird. After waiting a few months for the fallout to subside, she sets out to explore the landscape, find other survivors, and investigate the strange studies that hint at the possible existence of homo post hominem--post humans.

(The first rule of YA club: Don't name your 11-year-old female protagonist anything that sounds vaguely suggestive of a yeast infection. The second rule of YA club: Don't name your 11-year-old female protagonist anything that sounds vaguely suggestive of a yeast infection.)

Fortunately for us, Palmer calls her Candy. You may want to call her "pre-teen Buffy."

Palmer is compared to Heinlein, where, according to SF Encylopedia, some describe the tone as "obnoxiously reminiscent of the narrator of Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress," and the plucky teen hero might resemble those of Heinlein's juveniles. To me, Candy's 'tude and lingo style best falls in line with a certain hip vampire slayer just enough to make me wonder if this is an unacknowledged inspiration for the cult hero's personality. (Surprise! I'm a Buffy fan! I was too cool for it when it aired during my teen years, but discovered it as an adult. It's good once you get past the cheesy masks and sets, it is metaphorically dense (for a TV show), sometimes problematic, but the dialogue... oh, how I love the dialogue. "Band Candy" is my favorite epi. Fannish overtures now complete. Will not recommence for another two years.)

While dialogue is Buffy's strength, Emergence relies on epistolary retelling, unrealistically detailed at times, and pronoun/article deficient. The style might annoy some readers, but you get used to it, and, actually, that cut away fat provides an ideal landing pad for Candy's punchlines. Simple language = comedy gold.

Sentence structure throughout will have English teachers spinning in graves (those fortunate to have one)... English 60 percent flab, null symbols, waste. Suspect massive inefficiency stems from subconsciously recognized need to stall, give inferior intellects chance to collect thoughts into semblance of coherence (usually without success)... (p. 3).

Also, like good Hard SF, Palmer thinks of everything. Everything! And he manages the technical information in intense bursts, keeping it interesting without sacrificing character, unlike that other book I reviewed last week that fell so flat.

Started to go on way; stopped--had thought. Returned, bled air tanks as had seen Big Olly do. Had explained: Compression, expansion of air in tanks "made water" through condensation; accumulation bad for equipment. Found was starting to think terms of preserving everything potentially useful against future need. (Hope doesn't develop into full-blown neurosis; maintaining whole world could cramp schedule.) (p. 29.)

Sound implausible? Need I remind you Candy is a genius. Plus, her father, a doctor, saw the apocalypse coming and imparted to Candy all kinds of medical and mechanical know-how. I should also mention Candy is an eighth degree black belt. She says of searching for Mr. Right, sort of tongue-in-cheek:

(And if not, gently separate cervical vertebrae [to discourage kiss-and-tell; wouldn't want to acquire "reputation"], throw back, try again.) (p. 58)

Considering the post-apocalyptic, Hard SF flavor, it should be no surprise that there is a slight conservative air to this novel, primarily in its militaristic, Cold War-inspired mentality...

...Wait, that can't be. That's impossible because conservative novels are never nominated for things like the Hugo or Locus awards...

But his job conflicted with mine. Mortally: Under circumstances, "him-or-me" synonymous with "them-or-us."

Chose us.

And would again, thousand times over. Million times over! (p. 288)

Well, this is pre-1985. (We'll talk about the conservative elements of current Hugo nominee, the dynastic fantasy The Goblin Emperoranother time.)

Most Heinleinian is the way Emergence embraces controversy that sometimes feels icky, especially when the plucky eleven-year-old girl is regularly propositioned for sex. (Who are these men who can't seem to keep it in their pants around a little girl just a few months after the apocalypse?) But more often, the controversy is subtle, insidious, until the end, when you realize you are essentially rooting for the extinction of humanity.

... Keep getting sidetracked into social criticism. Probably symptom of condition. Stupid; all evidence says no society left. Was saying:...(p. 3)

It's a roller coaster ride that turns space shuttle ride really fast, and this unsentimental reader even shed a tear or two at the end (which I don't think has happened in the history of this blog). Palmer takes advantage of the triple peak plotting cycle, and manages it in a way that feels genuine, not contrived, although he ups the ante exponentially in ways that are exhilarating and surprising. You'll cheer when you see where Candy ends up and what she pulls off. It's so thrilling, it's easy to overlook some of the sketchy, glossed-over details over why the blow up occurred, why Candy's dad disappeared, why the bad guys did what they did, and why the new bad guys are doing what they're doing. Much of the plot points are fueled by Cold War paranoia that should be familiar to post-911 paranoids, but it went over my head. TFTC: Too fun to care.

Highly recommended for fans of YA, post-apocs, dramedy, Hard SF, and Buffy.

Also highly recommended for people who hate YA, post-apocs, dramedies, Hard SF, and/or Buffy. This will turn you.

Also recommended for people who are willing to shell out $20 - $40 bucks on a thirty-year-old forgotten Hugo nominee - a Hugo nominee that might have won if not for its competition: the monumental, game-changing Neuromancer.

It's time to get this sucker digitized, publishing world.