Emergence (1984) by David Palmer


Hi again, Posterity. Happy to see me?

What do you mean you forgot about me?

Coming off the heels of the Clarke being awarded to Yet Another Post-Apocalyptic Tale, also known as “The Stand: but this time motivated by a book that is not The Holy Bible,” (that would be Station Eleven, an enjoyable, character-driven read, but weak on the SF elements, lacking in originality, that ultimately let me down), I bring you an even cooler, more original post-apocalyptic tale. YA, epistolary, Hard, and Heinlein-inspired, it sounds like something I would read with gloves, mask, and tongs, so as not to tarnish my pretentious sensibilities.

But this. This is good.

Plucky, teen genius Candidia Smith-Foster sits out a bionuclear war in her father’s high-tech bomb shelter with her talkative pet bird. After waiting a few months for the fallout to subside, she sets out to explore the landscape, find other survivors, and investigate the strange studies that hint at the possible existence of homo post hominem—post humans.

(The first rule of YA club: Don’t name your 11-year-old female protagonist anything that sounds vaguely suggestive of a yeast infection. The second rule of YA club: Don’t name your 11-year-old female protagonist anything that sounds vaguely suggestive of a yeast infection.)

Fortunately for us, Palmer calls her Candy. You may want to call her “pre-teen Buffy.”

Palmer is compared to Heinlein, where, according to SF Encylopedia, some describe the tone as “obnoxiously reminiscent of the narrator of Robert A. Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress,” and the plucky teen hero might resemble those of Heinlein’s juvenilesTo me, Candy’s ‘tude and lingo style best falls in line with a certain hip vampire slayer just enough to make me wonder if this is an unacknowledged inspiration for the cult hero’s personality. (Surprise! I’m a Buffy fan! I was too cool for it when it aired during my teen years, but discovered it as an adult. It’s good once you get past the cheesy masks and sets, it is metaphorically dense (for a TV show), sometimes problematic, but the dialogue… oh, how I love the dialogue. “Band Candy” is my favorite epi. Fannish overtures now complete. Will not recommence for another two years.)

While dialogue is Buffy‘s strength, Emergence relies on epistolary retelling, unrealistically detailed at times, and pronoun/article deficient. The style might annoy some readers, but you get used to it, and, actually, that cut away fat provides an ideal landing pad for Candy’s punchlines. Simple language = comedy gold.

Sentence structure throughout will have English teachers spinning in graves (those fortunate to have one)… English 60 percent flab, null symbols, waste. Suspect massive inefficiency stems from subconsciously recognized need to stall, give inferior intellects chance to collect thoughts into semblance of coherence (usually without success)… (p. 3).

Also, like good Hard SF, Palmer thinks of everything. Everything! And he manages the technical information in intense bursts, keeping it interesting without sacrificing character, unlike that other book I reviewed last week that fell so flat.

Started to go on way; stopped—had thought. Returned, bled air tanks as had seen Big Olly do. Had explained: Compression, expansion of air in tanks “made water” through condensation; accumulation bad for equipment. Found was starting to think terms of preserving everything potentially useful against future need. (Hope doesn’t develop into full-blown neurosis; maintaining whole world could cramp schedule.) (p. 29.)

Sound implausible? Need I remind you Candy is a genius. Plus, her father, a doctor, saw the apocalypse coming and imparted to Candy all kinds of medical and mechanical know-how. I should also mention Candy is an eighth degree black belt. She says of searching for Mr. Right, sort of tongue-in-cheek:

(And if not, gently separate cervical vertebrae [to discourage kiss-and-tell; wouldn’t want to acquire “reputation”], throw back, try again.) (p. 58)

Considering the post-apocalyptic, Hard SF flavor, it should be no surprise that there is a slight conservative air to this novel, primarily in its militaristic, Cold War-inspired mentality…

…Wait, that can’t be. That’s impossible because conservative novels are never nominated for things like the Hugo or Locus awards…

But his job conflicted with mine. Mortally: Under circumstances, “him-or-me” synonymous with “them-or-us.”

Chose us.

And would again, thousand times over. Million times over! (p. 288)

Well, this is pre-1985. (We’ll talk about the conservative elements of current Hugo nominee, the dynastic fantasy The Goblin Emperor another time.)

Most Heinleinian is the way Emergence embraces controversy that sometimes feels icky, especially when the plucky eleven-year-old girl is regularly propositioned for sex. (Who are these men who can’t seem to keep it in their pants around a little girl just a few months after the apocalypse?) But more often, the controversy is subtle, insidious, until the end, when you realize you are essentially rooting for the extinction of humanity.

… Keep getting sidetracked into social criticism. Probably symptom of condition. Stupid; all evidence says no society left. Was saying:…(p. 3)

emergence2It’s a roller coaster ride that turns space shuttle ride really fast, and this unsentimental reader even shed a tear or two at the end (which I don’t think has happened in the history of this blog). Palmer takes advantage of the triple peak plotting cycle, and manages it in a way that feels genuine, not contrived, although he ups the ante exponentially in ways that are exhilarating and surprising. You’ll cheer when you see where Candy ends up and what she pulls off. It’s so thrilling, it’s easy to overlook some of the sketchy, glossed-over details over why the blow up occurred, why Candy’s dad disappeared, why the bad guys did what they did, and why the new bad guys are doing what they’re doing. Much of the plot points are fueled by Cold War paranoia that should be familiar to post-911 paranoids, but it went over my head. TFTC: Too fun to care.

Highly recommended for fans of YA, post-apocs, dramedy, Hard SF, and Buffy.

Also highly recommended for people who hate YA, post-apocs, dramedies, Hard SF, and/or Buffy. This will turn you.

Also recommended for people who are willing to shell out $20 -$40 bucks on a thirty-year-old forgotten Hugo nominee– a Hugo nominee that might have won if not for its competition: the monumental, game-changing Neuromancer.

It’s time to get this sucker digitized, publishing world.

24 thoughts on “Emergence (1984) by David Palmer

  1. fromcouchtomoon says:

    Spotted: a super cheap copy at abebooks right now! Grab it!


  2. Hestia says:

    I never heard of this one. It sounds like fun.


  3. marzaat says:

    Nice to see this one resurrected.

    There was a sequel, “Tracker”, serialized in Analog in 2008 in three pars. I read it. I remember it was kind of clever at updating the story but keeping the original setting.

    However, for some completely unknown reason, I didn’t make a single note on it.

    Evidently my compulsion isn’t very useful when I need it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I read that Tracker wasn’t nearly as successful or acclaimed as Emergence, so I’m not surprised at your lack of notes, compulsion-inspired or not 🙂


  4. You had my attention up until “recommended for people who are willing to shell out $20 -$40 bucks on a thirty-year-old forgotten Hugo nominee.” Read cheaper books!

    Seriously though, it does sound pretty interesting—post-apoc, natch I’m interested—and you make a pretty impassioned argument in its favor. If it impressed you enough to write that review, how can I say no?

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Tammy says:

    Seriously, why isn’t this an e-book yet? Your review is making me want to run and find my copy for a reread. I had forgotten all about the quirky writing style, and reading your examples makes me hungry to hear Candy’s inner dialog again. And yay, another Buffy fan! I hadn’t thought about how similar Candy is to Buffy, but you’re spot on:-D


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I don’t understand publishing. I think the author sometimes has to push for reprints and digitization, and I read somewhere that Palmer basically abandoned writing when he realized it wasn’t very lucrative, even being on a shortlist.

      I think I made the Buffy connection after talking to you about it and just having your blog title in my head. Candy and Buffy are a lot alike: quirky and kick ass. You can have your latex-clad comic book superheroes; Buffy and Candy are the types of heroes I prefer.


  6. Whoa what an interesting writing style.

    But tears?! That makes me nervous/sounds like a challenge. Can Nikki maintain her record of never yet crying during a book while reading “Emergence”? Hmm. Guess I’m going to find out. Does sound impressive for a debut.

    So do you think Candy is supposed to be some kind of modern Candide? Cause just from the things you’ve said about the plot here, it sounds like it could be. And also why else would he have chosen that rather horrible name?

    You know, “Station Eleven,” the more I’ve thought about it and read other people’s thoughts about it, the more I’m finding I actually agree with you on it where I thought I didn’t. Well, maybe not entirely. I really liked the comic book element from both stories. It was a very smooth read. But mostly I was drawn in by the pre-end times story. You could see the end times story as sort of glossing over the usual bullshit in favor of other questions (my original interpretation, and something I was glad about at the time because of genre fatigue probably), but you could also see that as basically avoiding any sort of depth while relying on the signals of the same old bullshit from post-apocalyptic novels everywhere. And I was disappointed that she didn’t actually do anything interesting with the whole Shakespearian bucket she could have been pulling interesting references from the whole time (unless she was and I missed them?). The more I think about it, particularly in the context of all the other end times novels I’ve read, the more I think that this book is really just sort of incidentally about the apocalypse and that actor now story is really the thing. Ho-hum.


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I shouldn’t have mentioned the tears, because that kind of threat deters me, too. THEY’RE HAPPY TEARS. Just eye-watering “I can’t believe she pulled that off” tears. Hand-waves to dry the eyes tears. (I’m weird, though. The things that make me tear up aren’t exactly predictable.)

      You know, I didn’t make the connection with Candide and I’ve never read Voltaire’s fiction, but that is quite possible. Or, at least, it might be some insight into Candy’s biological parents, who we never meet. Because, yeah, that name… yikes.

      Station Eleven pulled me in immediately with first storyline about the oncoming apocalypse. She is a very good writer and I was hooked. But then she just abandoned the details, the intervening years, and jumped ahead to the characters she really wanted to talk about. That’s when I realized she’s really just a literary author who wanted to play on the SF playground. It’s not a fair assessment, but that’s how I felt. And she listed her post-apoc reading list in the back, and I concluded that she really thinks all SF is the same, and this was just a backdrop for her well-drawn, interesting characters. It was really good– I much preferred Jeevan and the celebrity couple to Kristen and her troupe– but good characters aren’t enough for me, and I did think North and Hutchinson were much more original and creative, and just as skilled, if not more.

      I think she was subtle with her Shakespearean motif, and I’m no Literary scholar, so I may have missed a lot, but I wanted more out of that device, too.


  7. Joseph Nebus says:

    I have seen this on occasion in used book stores, but had passed on it since it looked like, you know, standard extruded post apocalyptic fantasy product. I am more interested in it now although I suspect Candy’s attitude about language giving “inferior intellects” time to catch up would annoy me. (Of course, I don’t have to like everything about a person.)


    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Well, *spoiler* she is of a superior intellect for a very good reason, and most of the time she’s just being sarcastic for sarcastic’s sake. I think you would enjoy it!


  8. This is a new one to me, but your review has me adding it to my list of books to try to find when I go on vacation next month and hit the famous Uncle Hugo’s used books.


    Liked by 1 person

  9. […] month of reading extremes! I loved the YA, epistolary, Heinlein-inspired Emergence (1984) and hated the stodgy, Hard SF, first contact classic, The Mote in God’s Eye (1974) by […]


  10. […] megatext, and Gibson’s shifty show-don’t-tell-wait-don’t-even-show style. And Emergence became an instant favorite of mine, thanks to the insane plot twists, and despite the […]


  11. […] Book Review David Haywood Young Book Review From Couch to Moon Book Review All Readers Book […]


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