Thursday, 27 May 1999

Katharine Kerr & Mark Kreighbaum: Palace (1996)

Edition: Voyager, 1996
Review number: 259

At a time when many well-known science fiction authors seem to be putting their creations on the market for exploitation by new writers (books based on Isaac Asimov's robot stories or set in the universe of Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang spring to mind), Palace seems to be an unusual, old-fashioned collaboration. Here, the more famous author and the newcomer claim equal shares. The resulting novel is itself evidence that backs this claim; the prose generally is reminiscent of Kerr's solo writing (particularly of Polar City Blues), with distinct touches of another style - though to my mind Kreighbaum's influence is perhaps clearer in the background.

Palace is set in a large city (the name is a corruption of Polis), on a planet in the Pinch, a sector of space colonised many years ago by four of the intelligent species of the galaxy. Since then, they have lost contact with the Colonizers and suffered a considerable loss of technological knowledge - particularly following the religious Schism Wars, during which attacks were made on the artificial intelligences considered blasphemous by some groups.

Following a more recent war, racial tension is high in Palace between humans and the lizard-like Leps. Groups in both species are trying to exploit these feelings for political gain, and this is the volatile situation at the start of the novel.

The physical events are paralleled by a series of attacks on the Map, the computer network which holds together the worlds of the Pinch. It is accessed through virtual reality devices implanted directly in technicians' bodies or through public terminals scattered throughout the city. The destruction of equipment and loss of knowledge during and since the Schism Wars gives a plausible explanation of why the computer equipment is not a great deal more sophisticated than that we see today; the existence of a Cyberguild keeping its trade esoteric to maintain its monopoly explains which the natural language capabilities of the machines are sophisticated in some areas, weak in others (Unix terms turn up occasionally, for example). The technological ideas are those that have been current in much of the cyberpunk sub-genre; many being found in that archetypal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. I rather liked the term "Map" as an alternative to "Net" or, worse, "infohighway".

To say that I found the relationship between the background of Palace and other science fiction of the past two decades interesting is not to deny the quality of the novel, which is considerable.

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