The Conscientious Objector by Stephen Palmer

Toby Frost

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Sometimes I wonder if there are really only two types of Science Fiction or Fantasy story: the story of ideas (2001, say) and the rollercoaster ride (Aliens). Stephen Palmer’s new book, The Conscientious Objector, is definitely a novel of ideas, although it is also an exciting and intriguing read. It is set in the same world as the earlier Factory Girl trilogy, which I haven’t read, and, like Palmer’s otherwise unconnected novel Tommy Catkins, takes place during World War One.

This is a hard book to pin down, and both the title and the setting give a slightly misleading impression. In Palmer’s world, both Britain and Germany make use of Duloids, complex semi-magical automata. It’s easy to imagine this being a book full of massive clockwork mechs, like the paintings of Jakob Rozalski, blowing the hell out of each other while our pacifist hero urges them not to spill blood (or oil). In fact, the robots we see are rather subtler than that, and more sophisticated. Also, the fantastical elements aren’t purely mechanical: the heroine of the novel, Claudia, has magical powers, and her mystical heritage becomes an important plot point.

The hero, Erasmus Darwin, finds himself conscripted into the army and sent to fight in France, despite his dislike of violence and his disgust at the idiotic nationalism that has swept the country. But soon his background working with Duloids draws him into a strange mission by the Secret Service to slip behind the German lines and disrupt the enemy war effort.

Erasmus isn’t the most immediately likeable figure: his rather formal way of speaking makes him quite hard to “get” – although nobody’s at their best in a trench on the Western Front, and he becomes increasingly sympathetic as the story goes on. There’s always a risk that a character who follows a philosophy (here, pacifism) will become preachy, and that a setting whose horrors are so well-known would seem clichéd. Palmer avoids this partly by not having the heavy debate of the pros and cons of non-violence that I expected. Similarly, the story shifts away from the trenches in the second half, and becomes more a tale of adventure and espionage. Claudia is consistently sympathetic and likeable, too: it’s her story as much as that of Erasmus.

There’s also an element of portal fantasy: Erasmus carries a book called Amy’s Adventures in Narkissos, his world’s version of Alice in Wonderland, and portions of it are reproduced in the text, as a sort of commentary on the action. This reminded me of Underland, the magical kingdom in Tommy Catkins, which partly reflected the hero’s deteriorating mind. It adds weight to The Conscientious Objector’s story, but doesn’t get in the way of it, either.

In the last third of The Conscientious Objector, the action shifts somewhat to Claudia, and her induction into and conflict with a strange community of Valkyrie-like warrior women. Obviously, people in the real World War One were never going to build androids, but I was slightly surprised at just how fantastical the story became. The Conscientious Objector stands on its own, but I suspect that knowledge of the earlier books might have helped here. That said, the author’s choices are all justified within the setting, and The Conscientious Objector never becomes slow or difficult to read.

The Conscientious Objector is an exciting and engaging novel. Palmer skillfully mixes action and ideas, creating a weirdly convincing alternative WW1.
 
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