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Gradisil
Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 458 pages

Gradisil
Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts is in the English Department of Royal Holloway, one of the 8 larger colleges of the University of London. He received his MA from Aberdeen University and his PhD from Cambridge University. Salt was his first science fiction novel.

Adam Roberts Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Snow
SF Site Review: The Sellamillion
SF Site Review: The Soddit
SF Site Review: Swiftly
SF Site Review: Stone and Polystom
SF Site Review: Jupiter Magnified
SF Site Review: Stone
SF Site Review: The New Critical Idiom: Science Fiction
SF Site Review: Park Polar
SF Site Review: On
SF Site Review: Salt

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Greg L. Johnson

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Is it fair to read a novel as a stand-alone work, or must it necessarily be judged in the context of how it compares to what has gone before? Judging a work completely on its own merits is one of those ideals that can't help but fail in practice, all of our past memory and experience gets in the way. That's especially true in critiquing science fiction, where stories are quite often read as, and intended to be read as, comments or answers to stories past. All the more interesting, then, when a book comes along that reads as if it was intentionally written to say different things to the reader, depending on whether you read it mainly as a singular work, or as a response to, and commentary on, a whole world of related discourse.

On its own terms, Gradisil is a multi-generation family tragedy set against a back-drop of war, politics, and revolution. Klara Gyeroffy is there at the beginning, and her daughter Gradisil at the end of a series of events which they each manipulate and become defined by. In the Gyeroffy family, politics is most definitely personal.

The science fiction element comes in by way of a bit of wishful thinking. Manipulation of the Earth's magnetic field leads to the development of orbital flight without the need for rockets. It may not be physically possible, but it does create the impetus for an orbiting society composed mainly of independently wealthy mavericks determined to keep their wealth and status free from earth's increasingly belligerent nations. When those countries start to extend their power into space, the conditions for revolution are at hand. Klara Gyeroffy, one of the early inhabitants of the Uplands, has her life changed by the murder of her father. For her, politics and revenge become intertwined, and her determination is passed on to her daughter, who becomes the leader of a revolutionary struggle.

A fine story, all by itself, and Gradisil can easily be read strictly as the story of one family's involvement in the great events of their time. But this is science fiction, and as noted earlier SF can almost always be read as part of a giant on-going conversation between writers, readers, and writers again. In that context, Gradisil seems like a novel ripped from some other time continuum, one where the last forty years or so of science fiction never existed. No new wave, no cyberpunk, no new space opera, no radical hard SF. Instead, Gradisil's reference points are the classic science fiction stories of rugged individuals engineering their way into space. There are echoes here of Arthur C. Clarke's Islands in the Sky, Poul Anderson's Tales of the Flying Mountains and, of course, Robert A. Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

There are also political and historical allusions, Gradisil herself is a very Lenin-like figure, smuggled from safe house to safe house, arguing one thing, perhaps planning another. Her rhetorical skills and speeches are compared to and modeled after Lincoln, the irony being that in this revolution the bad guys are the Americans. And for those with a taste for classic theater, Gradisil's story is based on a famous Greek tragedy, the title of which is off-handedly revealed in the story through a truly horrible pun linking the play to a well-known character from Dr. Who.

Adam Roberts is a many-times novelist who's also an academic with a published book on science fiction criticism. Gradisil could easily have been-top heavy, its literary allusions and political commentary deadening the story with pretensions. That it doesn't is evidence both of Robert's skill as a novelist and the enduring power of an ages-old tragedy. Gradisil works well as a story in and of itself, its characters not necessarily admirable but very human in their flaws and prejudices. There's also plenty of fodder here, (did I mention the unreliable narrator?) for all those who, whether at cons, in letter sections, on blogs, or in academic journals enjoy tackling the question "OK, just what did he mean by that, anyway?"

Copyright © 2007 by Greg L. Johnson

Reviewer Greg L Johnson lives in Minneapolis and enjoys the vision of silent spacecraft, gracefully gliding into orbit. His reviews also appear in the The New York Review of Science Fiction.


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