The Watcher, Jane Palmer

The Watcher, Jane Palmer (1986)
Review by Ian Sales

The Ojalie are hermaphroditic winged aliens who subsist on the light of one of their planet’s two suns. They are an advanced race, and now pool the light of the sun to feed them when it’s not in the sky. Except an energy vampire, a Star Dancer, has recently appeared and begun draining the energy pools, threatening the Ojalie with extinction. Controller Opu investigates, and discovers that the Star Dancer originates on a planet on the other side of the galaxy. The Ojalie cannot travel through space, and galactic law prevents them from directly interfering in the affairs of another planet. So instead they send an android using an experimental technique, via the home world of an aquatic race, to the Star Dancer’s planet… which happens to be Earth.

The transference technique is not perfect, and the android arrives over a century before the appearance of the Star Dancer. This at least gives it time to figure out how things are on Earth… which it does by means of four human agents who, in the late nineteenth century were shipwrecked off the southern coast of England. Their lifeboat was dragged into a cave in some cliffs, where they were discovered by the alien android, the Kybion. Rather than kill them to keep its existence secret, it chose to co-opt them into its scheme. It made them very long-lived, fitted them internally with transponders which allowed it to track their movements, and fitted one, a young man called Toby, with a transmitter which would attract the Star Dancer.

Flash forward to 1986. Teenage orphan Gabrielle, who, despite her name, is of Indian parentage, has travelled to the south coast after completing her A-levels to house sit for her foster father’s sister. One morning, while exploring the surrounding countryside, she spots a young man staring out to sea. She asks around and discovers that he’s something of a mystery, and not quite as young as he appears. So she approaches him, learns his name is Alfred Tobias Wendle, and the two become friends of a sort.

Wendle, of course, is Victorian Toby, now over one hundred years old but still looking the same age as when he was shipwrecked. He has not left the area since that date – he is, after all, the bait in the trap for the Star Dancer. The other three, however, went off and made their fortunes, and they now think the Star Dancer could be used – by them, of course – as an excellent source of sellable energy. But first, all four have to discover what, or who, the Star Dancer is. Gabrielle finds herself involved with the group when Wendle is kidnapped by one of his fellow immortals, and tortured to to see if he has learned the secret of the Star Dancer…

The title of the book refers to a galactic, or perhaps universal, entity who enforces the Law, a series of symbols, to which all sentient races are beholden. The Watcher was once a Star Dancer itself, and the Star Dancer causing the Ojalie so much grief – unconsciously, it transpires – will on mastering its powers become a Watcher too. But this is sort of tacked on at the end of the novel and has no real bearing on the actual plot.

There are some sf novels which seem to deploy genre tropes with all the logic of a four-year-old. There’s nothing at all convincing about the Ojalie, their view of the galaxy, or indeed the secret of the Star Dancer. However, much of The Watcher is set on Earth and is about Gabrielle, and while it may read a little YA at times, those sections are quite fun in places. The back-cover blurb of The Watcher describes it as “another joyous send up of the sf genre”, though I found it hard to see precisely how it was doing so. A satire – another word used by the publishers – should satirise something. And treating sf tropes with a willful lack of rigour or sense does not in my mind constitute either a send up or satire.

The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer

The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer (1985)
Review by Ian Sales

While many of the books published by The Women’s Press under their science fiction label were reprints, some were original. The Planet Dweller by Jane Palmer was one such. As were two of her later novels, The Watcher (1986), and a sequel to The Planet Dweller, Moving Moosevan (1990).

Diana works for an Iron Age village museum. She lives nearby. Next to the museum is a radio observatory, where Jane’s childhood friend Eva works. Also close by is Yuri, a Russian astronomer who spends most of his time drunk and at the telescope in his overgrown garden. He is convinced something strange is happening in the heavens: asteroids and other small celestial objects are moving in some strange pattern which will soon see them come together to form a planet-sized mass. But there is one piece left in this heavenly puzzle, and Yuri’s calculations suggest it is inside the Earth.

No one, of course, takes Yuri seriously, least of all Diana. She has enough on with her job, her own rapidly approaching menopause, her young daughter, Julia, and a local Tory lady of the manor. But when Julia and some of the local kids witness a strange and ethereal manifestation inside a fairy ring, it seems Yuri might be onto something…

Meanwhile, the Mott, a member of an imperialistic alien race, is trying to drive the planet dweller Moosevan from its planetary home so it can then colonise the planet. with the help of evil alien genius Kulp and his two sidekicks, Jannu and Tolt. In order to survive its eviction, Moosevan has set in motion the accretion engine which is causing objects in the Solar System to come together… and which will destroy the Earth when it completes. Fortunately, on hand are Dax and Reniola, whose bodies have actually been occupied by a two members of a race which has transcended from the universe and have only returned in response to the original Dax and Reniola’s plea for help.

Moosevan’s accretion engine involves a gateway of some sort – the manifestation in the fairy ring – which drags Yuri and Diana across to Moosevan’s home. Where they meet Kulp, Jannu and Tolt, and Dax and Reniola. And together they manage to prevent the Mott from ousting Moosevan and so destroying the Earth.

The Planet Dweller is a typical example of that sort of science fiction in which a comic novel is married with a fantastical element which vaguely resembles science fiction. Yes, the Mott, the other aliens, the concept of the planet dweller and all that, are from science fiction’s toy-box. But there’s no rigour in their deployment, no attempt at presenting a convincing universe. This is science fiction as literary tool, not as setting or enabler of plots. So it’s just as well that in Diana, Eva and Yuri, Palmer has created a well-drawn trio of characters.

In fact, The Planet Dweller is at its most engaging before the the science-fictional element kicks into gear. The opening chapters introduce Diana, her life, tribulations and environs, and they make for an entertaining read. The Mott and its machinations only seem to complicate matters that are in little need of complication. And even then, the narrative seems to skip and jump, making leaps of causality and logic that occasionally baffle. Not to mention the lack of rigour also leading to bafflement – such as, why does Moosevan, a planet-sized being, have human-sized control equipment for its accretion machine? And what are “conscience cells”? Morality as biology? Further, Dax and Reniola are effectively omnipotent, though not so powerful they don’t have to work to resolve the situation. Which is nonetheless sorted, with little or no input from Diana, the protagonist of the novel.

There are some nice turns of phrase in The Planet Dweller. There is, somewhere inside it, a nicely entertaining story. But this is not a novel that is greater than the sum of its parts.