SFcrowsnest

Artemis by Philip Palmer (book review).

What the hell am I supposed to make of ‘Artemis’? It’s a novel which appears to be all surface and a mirrored surface at that. Not a normal mirror, neither. More like viewing your reflection in a T1000-esque blob of protean silver, where you’re fairly sure at least some part of it is giving you the finger.

Artemis McIvor is a stone-cold killer, rebel and librarian, the cover of the novel tells us and this is nominally the ‘edited highlights’ of her thought-record and it’s no accident that the first word of the novel (once you get past the fake preface and fake publisher’s note) is ‘edited’ as the existence of those fake non-fictional structures (with their winks at reality – ‘…published by Way Out of Orbit Books’ indeed) suggests, this is a book which wallows in the artificialities of writing.

In fact, the first page of the ‘book’ consists of nothing but the title:

  Edited Highlights1 from the

Thought Diary and Beaconspace Blog

of Dr2 Artemis McIvor3

  Book 1

  Revenge4

(p.5)

…and associated footnotes. Heavily edited indeed. Not only by Artemis herself, who seems to delight in mucking about with chronology and structure and taunting the reader with the results, but also by the nominal editor of the thought-record, whose asides-to-reader are extensive, intrusive and maddeningly banal. At first, it seems that this odd characterisation of the editor is leading up to his playing a part in the story proper, but no, he just pops up unwanted, like the literary equivalent of that annoying paperclip from Microsoft Word, to confirm ‘truths’ which don’t need confirming and tell irrelevant anecdotes which dissipate what little momentum the story has built up:

The rest of the mob could39 take refuge in the rec rooms, which had been made air-tight by us and there they could wait, breathing slowly to conserve the oxygen, until the vents were closed.40

  39 And did. – Ed

  40 Which also occurred. – Ed

(p.57)

But this is a novel of digressions, including digressions on the digressions, but there doesn’t seem to be a point to it all. A sly send-up of the excesses of genre? If there are levels below the surface, they’re so deeply buried as to be effectively absent to all but the author himself.

If all these parentheses, quote marks, unfinished thoughts and page citations are giving you a headache already, ‘Artemis’ probably isn’t the book for you. Even if they aren’t, in fact, it’s still probably not the book for you.

Again, what the hell am I supposed to make of ‘Artemis’? What sort of game is Philip Palmer trying to play? His narrator is unreliable to the point of rendering the entire narrative irrelevant and herself a cipher, contradicting herself over and over in such a way that feels less like metafictional game-playing than a cavalier disregard for any kind of editorial consistency and the editor is presumably intended as a post-modern lampshade, distracting from (by drawing attention to) the novel’s shambolic lack of structure, coherence or discernible theme.

Well, that last might not be entirely true. If there’s one area in which ‘Artemis’ is consistent, it’s in its portrayal of ridiculous violence. It’s non-stop, unyielding and often gore-soaked, but lacking in any consequence thanks to the novel’s incredibly badass, super-powered and indestructible heroine[1]. The key word here is incredible, in its literal sense:

  ‘The bullet went through my body armour and lodged in my heart. I stopped breathing. I thought for a moment I was going to have a stroke. So I turned and shot Mary in the head before she could fire a second projectile bullet and then, what the hell, I took out her heart and stuck it in her mouth.

  … Then I stripped off my body armour and injected myself with adrenaline to restart my heart. And later on I rejuved the entry wound and glued the skin together. I left the bullet inside me.

(p.109)

So ‘Artemis’ is completely untouchable and it’s a rare supporting character who is more than a nametag on an empty spacesuit. Which renders the endless, endless violence terminally dull, unlikely to appeal to anyone but the adolescent eager to imagine a hot (and frequently naked) space-chick kicking all types of arse. Of course, there’s a market for that, but Palmer’s oh-so-casual reference to Tristram Shandy and his name-dropping of Science Fiction classics suggests an author who is at least attempting to provide more than just surface-level thrills, so is ‘Artemis’ just a failure or is it playing a game of almost undetectable subtlety?

There comes a point where that stops mattering, however. I like post-modern literature. I enjoy books that brutalise convention and play games with the reader. But even the twistiest game has rules, even if they’re only there to be broken. When the ground of the novel is constantly shifting underneath you and the characters so fluid as to only really mean whatever Palmer needs them to mean at this specific point in the book, there’s a kind of hyper-unreality to Artemis which actively discourages the reader from giving even the slightest damn.

People generally read for the same reason they play games: for fun or challenge. But unlike Harry Harrison’s ‘Stainless Steel Rat’ series, which this superficially resembles, ‘Artemis’ isn’t fun. The challenge – if there even is one – is rendered moot by the way the deck is stacked against you.

I’ve not read anything else of Palmer’s, but a quick browse of the interweb suggests his earlier works share ‘Artemis’ anarchic incomprehensibility. It makes you wonder if the whole thing is just an enormous nihilistic joke at the expense of those who like to analyse and dissect their reading material. It makes you wonder if the point is that there isn’t, in fact, a point. That life is empty and fruitless and trying to find some kind of meaning in it will probably drive you crazy. Better to just be crazy on your own terms.

Which actually seems at least slightly clever, but there’s bugger-all in ‘Artemis’ to support that reading or rather the whole novel is again an enormous mirror, not held up to life so much as to the reader. Stare hard enough and you’ll start to see whatever you want to see.

Palmer has commented that his novels are written from a place of abiding cynicism against the state of the (real) world – against ‘…the undeniable evidence that scum rises to the top’ – and there’s room enough to argue that ‘Artemis’ is a condemnation of the abuse of privilege. Or of abusively controlling parenting. Or of its opposite, parental neglect. Or of the Iraq war or of what the army forces soldiers to become or governmental hypocrisy or socialism or the prison system or or or…

I could go on for a while, chasing my tail. But ultimately, ‘Artemis’ only readily identifiable virtue is that it’s much more fun to write about than it ever was to read and even then it’s an unhealthy sort of fun.

________________________________

[1] Artemis is also incredibly attractive, incredibly lucky and incredibly intelligent and, oh god, the footnotes are contagious.

Martin Jenner

(pub: Orbit. 402 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 8.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-945-1)
check out websites: www.orbitbooks.net and www.philippalmer.net