This review of Red Claw by Philip Palmer was written in 2010 for the British Science Fiction Association‘s magazine, Vector.
Orbit, 2009, Paperback, 496pp, £7.99, ISBN 1841496243
If you’ve been reading sf for at least two or three decades then you’ll find it hard to not to crack a smile upon seeing a cover so wonderfully retro as Red Claw – all cheap models and faux-distressed edges. It’s an unpretentious device that tips a wink at the reader as if to say, “Remember me?” And the tale between those covers attempts to do much the same thing.
The colony of Xabar is the only piece of livable real estate on the planet of New Amazon. Its twin tiers of mutually antagonistic inhabitants, Soldiers and Scientists, are there to do just two things: firstly, to analyse the hell out of New Amazon’s astonishingly diverse and perplexing lifeforms, and secondly, to blow the hell out of New Amazon’s astonishingly diverse and perplexing lifeforms so that the entire planet can be terraformed for the good of the evil Galactic Corporation.
Initially everything goes according to plan: the Scientists – led by enigmatic genius Professor Helms – run about like children in a sweetshop, while the Soldiers – represented by impatient no-nonsense jingoist Major Sorcha Molloy – roll their eyes and try to stop New Amazon’s vigorous flora and fauna killing and eating them.
Things most assuredly stop going according to plan when Juno, Xabar’s super-intelligent AI overseer, develops some kind of fault and most of the colonists are killed. Only a small group of survivors remain, Scientists and Soldiers both, and they must try to survive amidst some of the weirdest and harshest creatures humankind has ever encountered.
But the planet may not be their only enemy…
Red Claw aims to be a piece of hardboiled sf that comes on seriously strong from the very first sentence: “It’s raining acid piss again,” and continues in a vein that devotees of serious mainstream literature will probably find about as palatable.
If you like your stories violent, straightforward and laced with both mordant humour and geeky Golden Age references then you’ll probably quite like Red Claw. It’s such a wild pastiche and parody of so many sf classics (A.E. Van Vogt’s The Voyage Of The Space Beagle, for a start) that you’re bound to find a few tidbits here to enjoy.
The problem is that sadly they are just tidbits, and Palmer throws everything into his mix with such utterly wild abandon that I didn’t enjoy Red Claw anywhere near as much as I’d initially hoped.