May 21, 2010

EMERGENCE

by David R. Palmer
291 pages, Bantam 1984

Review by Melissa Conway

When I first began composing this review I wished I could sit down and have a little chat with David R. Palmer. He wrote one of my all-time favorite novels, followed that up with a second effort that apparently fell short of the first one’s promise (although I didn’t think so), and then…faded into oblivion.

“Mr. Palmer,” I’d say, “I waited and waited and you let me down. I was a teen when I first read Emergence; a highly impressionable, intelligent girl of with a boundless imagination. You got into my head somehow with the character of Candy—so much so that I envisioned myself in her shoes. That’s some powerful stuff for you to be able to write like that. And then you stopped. Why?”

My assumption was that he’d simply moved on to other things. Just because I wouldn’t dream of quitting once I finally got my foot in the publishing door, doesn’t mean all writers feel that way. The author blurb at the back of my yellowed and battered copy of Emergence says that apart from lots of reading, Palmer has experienced quite a few adventures of his own: diving, motorcycling, sailing. I figured he’d done the award-winning novel thing, shrugged and moved on.

On a lark, I popped over to Amazon and -whoa! What a surprise I found. Under the reviews for Emergence appeared a special message written on April 4, 2008 by Palmer himself. He wanted to let his loyal fans know that after more than 25 years, the sequel to Emergence was published in three parts in Analog magazine. More, Palmer said, “A movie option has been sold for "Emergence"; a screenplay now exists. The efforts of anyone who wishes to join me in breath-holding and finger-crossing will be appreciated.”

It’s been two years since that message appeared and I haven’t heard the faintest whisper that an actual movie is in the works. I hope he didn’t hold his breath. The entertainment industry is fickle. I’ve heard of books being turned into screenplays and then never making it past the pre-production stage. That’s the way it is. We think we’ve won the lottery when an agent takes us on, but then we need to buy another ticket for the ‘editor’ draw. If we get past that hurdle, then it’s ‘will the publisher allocate enough marketing dollars to put my book in front of the right people?’ It goes on, and we get cramps in our fingers from crossing them so tightly and so often.

I doubt my little review here on Booksquawk will help much, but if you haven’t read Emergence, do. As Palmer exhorts in his message, “Tell two friends; ask them to tell two friends, etc. Repeat this to a depth of 20 conversations and you've alerted over a million friends.”

Emergence is a story about a post-apocalyptic society of one: highly intelligent Candy Smith-Foster thinks she’s the only person left alive on the earth after a bionuclear war. The novelty is that the book is written in first-person point of view in Palmer’s particular brand of shorthand; Candy is keeping a journal as she travels across what’s left of America searching for survivors, accompanied by her ‘retarded adoptive twin brother,’ a Hyacinthine Macaw named Terry. Surprisingly, it doesn’t take long at all for the reader to become accustomed to the lack of pronouns, etc. in Candy’s shorthand narrative. Palmer’s day-job is as a court reporter, which explains this experimental, and in my opinion successful, writing form. (There are some who may find it off-putting at first, but within a short while you won’t even miss the left-out words. Our minds fill in the blanks automatically, knid of lkie wehn wrods are jmubeld aournd but we can sitll raed tehm.)

I’ve known a lot of smart people. They’re all over the place; sometimes where you least expect to find them. It’s entirely plausible to me that a court reporter from Florida wrote a book about a genius and pulled it off. Clearly, Palmer is smarter than the average bear. So why, if he’s so smart, didn’t he ride the wave of initial success from Emergence and become another (smarter) Stephen King? I’m guessing life got in the way, because intelligence doesn’t guarantee success (using the traditional definition of success—the ultimate triad: rich, famous and respected—happiness, the more difficult-to-measure definition of a successful life, has more to do with personality than intelligence…but I digress).

Emergence was written in the time before computers were commonplace, before DNA was a household acronym and before cell phones grew out of teenagers’ heads. The technological references within are dated and the 1980’s came and went without a nuclear war. For anyone who might avoid the book for these reasons, I say: So what? Imagine that the events unfold in an alternate timeline. And enjoy. Maybe if we’re lucky we’ll see it on the big screen some day soon…

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