June 14, 2010


by Philip Palmer
451 pages, Orbit Books

Review by Paul Fenton

There are a lot of things I liked about Philip Palmer’s novel “Red Claw”.

I liked the stereotypical concept of humans colonising a distant planet, executed with tongue so firmly poked into cheek it must have left a bruise; but that’s not what I liked best.

I liked the “Lost in Space” kind of story told with a “From Dusk till Dawn” delight for making people go crunch and r-r-rip and sploosh, often in several different directions at once; but that’s not what I liked best.

I liked the setting, a planet where everything – and I mean everything, including the soil, the rain, the air, the plants, the murderous robots who turned on their human masters – wanted to kill you, and succeeded more often than not; but that’s not what I liked best.

No, what I liked best was the title: Red Claw. Even as I write this I have no idea what it refers to. Really, no idea – and it wasn’t for a lack of looking for clues. It’s either deliberately random in order to mislead, or some sci-fi in-joke of which I’m fecklessly ignorant.

The chief protagonist is Professor Richard Helms, the senior scientist on a mission to “terraform” the planet known as New Amazon. This is what the human race does in Palmer’s future: having rendered Earth all but uninhabitable, they travel to distant galaxies, identify suitable host planets, then study and document all signs of life before scorching the whole thing flat to be rebuilt in a human-friendly way. Viewpoint jumps around the cast: Dr Hugo Baal, the Smithers to Helms’s Burns; Major Sorcha Molloy, the fierce Amazonian soldier who has been genetically and socially bred to kill, kill, kill, and who is also screwing Professor Helms on the side (and the back, and the front, and upside down … in any position she chooses, really, because she is just that freaking strong); and well over a dozen others. Some of them end up going crunch or r-r-rip or sploosh, so the viewpoint cast does narrow down over time.

New Amazon couldn’t be more inhospitable. The flora and fauna seem to be interchangeable, or the same thing, and everything seems to be covered by a flesh web, some sprawling meaty plant organism which is as gross as it sounds. When it rains, it rains acid. The low temperatures and shredding winds make it inadvisable to frolic around even partially nude. Monsters roam freely and trees explode. The scientists are there to study and document everything, and when they’re finished they, with the help of the soldiers, will burn it all to ash. To assist them in their mission are countless “DR’s” (Doppleganger Robots), powerful machines which all inexplicably and suddenly turn on the humans and reduce them to a small band of survivors who are forced to brave the harsh elements of New Amazon, fighting for their lives.

The story is a hoot, and at times turns a powerful lens on the less-attractive aspects of human nature. Then it makes human nature go sploosh.

You know what I think we have in Red Claw? I think we have a credible alternative to Avatar. Take a look, James Cameron, have a read: this is how you do it. Let’s forget all about that awful blue 3D cliché and embrace the superior, ambitious and hilarious Red Claw. When exploring a new planet with a view to exploiting it in some way, you shouldn’t always have to be considerate of the ecosystem’s delicate balance and its pony-tail-dick blue-skinned freak inhabitants. Sometimes you do, yes; but sometimes you need to let your plasma cannon sort things out. Sometimes you need to wield your Red Claw. (No, I still don’t know what it means.)

Red, I think, is the new blue – or it should be.

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