Philip Palmer’s Hell Ship is another fast paced pulp novel which turns into something quite exhilarating.What starts out as a space opera with pirates, aliens and lots of fighting becomes an exploration of the reaction to being the last being and also how to deal with the potential of freedom. In that sense it continues the argument developed in Version 43 where the version becomes more cognisant of his surroundings as he regenerates.
When Sharrock is captured by the Hell Ship as the last of his race, he meets Sai-ias and the slaves that have been collected for the Ka’un’s curiosity and thirst for violence. For the first part of the book, we are treated to a fast-paced bloodbath where we learn more about Sharrock, Sai-ias and Jak, a trader who becomes vengeful pursuer.
Whilst hearing their stories, we learn about the way that they are creating their own society in response to the Ka’un. The initial response is creating a hierarchical one with a slave class and leaders who come from the captured slaves. Palmer muses on the responses to captivity: resistance or joining the captors. Beginning with the polar opposites of Sharrock and Sai-ias, he moves from the extremes to exploring how positions change. Using the idea of resurrection, a slightly key point in Version 43, he allows a certain versioning of the person and alow for a certina exploration of positions though it does have the escape clause of the new version not always remembering the previous position.
We never get to the heart of the Ka’un mission of destruction cross the universe. There is sense of ennui, a sense that they are nihilistic alien teenagers, believing only in the destruction of all around them. The blackness of their ship almost reflects the Ka’un themselves and it is left to the reader to work out if they are the pirates mentioned on the cover blurb. The idea of a non-rational species traversing universes destroying them for a sense of unfathomable whimsy is one that gives this novel a sense of real terror. It is not the unimaginable vastness of space that is not terrifying but the idea that something might want to merely destroy it rather than understand it. Life is not the short brutish one that we might find on Neal Asher’s Polity but rather it is the individual waiting for an end at somebody else’s hands.
Perhaps Palmer takes us back to Gully, the individual railing against the intergalactic unfairness. He does write enjoyable pulp fiction which reminds us that even pulp can explore deeper threads rather than just being about excitement, danger and derring-do.