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Red Claw by Philip Palmer

01/11/2009. Contributed by Gareth D. Jones

Buy Red Claw in the USA - or Buy Red Claw in the UK

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pub: Orbit. 286 page small enlarged paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-84149-624-5.

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Far in the future, mankind is ruled with an iron fist by a galaxy-spanning corporation that breeds soldiers, terraforms planets relentlessly and routinely commits genocide. 'Red Claw' takes place on New Amazon, a planet of rampant jungle and insidious wildlife. Professor Richard Helms leads an expedition sent to explore and classify the wildlife before it is wiped out during the terraforming process. Philip Palmer doesn't hold back on extravagant plot twists, bizarre alien biology and larger-than-life characters. At the risk of sounding clichéd, it's a roller-coaster ride through destruction, intrigue, murder and chaos.

The story starts in the middle of the scientific expedition which initially seems fairly standard. We're treated to the amusing diary entries of Dr Hugo Baal intermittently and the viewpoint switches between various Soldiers and Scientists (always with a capital S) as the political and sociological backdrop to their society is gradually revealed. I found the first few chapters hard to keep track of as we switched between characters, especially as so many of them seemed self-contradictory from page to page. It sometimes seemed that characters were chosen at random to make a point or act out a scene.

The Soldiers are a separate caste, loyal to the company, willing to die a glorious death and devoted to their jobs. Then one of them would start taking wildlife snaps. The Scientists are devoted to Science, in the stereotyped geekish way that they often are in books. Then one of them would suddenly be armed and flying point in their body armour. This led to quite some frustration 'til they started getting killed off and I had less characters to keep track of. The remaining major characters start to develop nicely and become familiar by the later stages.

I recently read Warren Fahy's 'Fragment' in which he goes to great lengths to provide plausible-sounding scientific explanation for the bizarre creatures his expedition discovers. Philip Palmer has gone for the opposite technique. No explanations, but wildly extravagant flora and fauna that provide constant thrills and spills: exploding trees, humming birds that live in the digestive tracks of dinosaurs, jungle walls that soar into the sky, vines made of flesh. It's an entertaining backdrop to the story.

The plot itself is suitably convoluted, enough to keep you engaged throughout. The megalomaniac Professor Helms keeps you guessing, the psychotic Ben Kirkham adds to the confusion and Major Sorcha Molloy muddies the waters when her devotion to duty begins to sway. Despite my early misgivings over character confusion, I found myself racing along page after page to discover the next development.

'Red Claw' is not a book of thought-provoking hard SF. It doesn't attempt to explain the alien planet. It presents moral and ethical dilemmas without bogging the reader down in preaching. It's fun, it's brutal and it's exciting. What it does is entertain.

Gareth D. Jones

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