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On
Adam Roberts
Victor Gollancz, 388 pages


Chris Moore
On
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: Salt

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Nick Gevers

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On is all about vertigo. The world (for a long time Adam Roberts does not vouchsafe which one, ours or another) has turned at ninety degrees; gravity now operates horizontally. Humans and other creatures, compelled to adapt to this horrifying disequilibrium, inhabit ledges, crevices, and caverns, whatever niches remain to them; and as the centuries pass and the new barbarism takes hold, the golden age, the time when everything was reassuringly level, fades into legend. One false step, and you fall off the Worldwall, and you may fall forever. So people heed their vertigo, and with great ingenuity, some survive.

Adam Roberts, a London-based lecturer in English literature, is definitely a schematic writer. In both On and his first novel, Salt (2000), he seizes upon a grand concept, some abstract opposition which can materially infect or affect reality, and which accordingly may proceed to govern his characters' lives with sovereign remorselessness; and he gives it free rein. In Salt, there was the chemical marriage and absolute schism of sodium chloride, a sterilising battle of ideologies conducted in the harsh deserts of a colony planet; now, in On, it is the land itself that refuses us, seeking to shake us off like so many fleas, so that life and the objective universe are in perilous contradiction. If Roberts were writing an allegory on the precariousness of human existence, he would already have a perfect setting, and such an allegory is a large part of his purpose; but he is ambitious also to enliven his metaphorical scheme, to animate it with vivid characterization and a fiercely-paced picaresque plot, and this he does in exemplary fashion. On is a thrilling demonstration of the bleak fugacity of life.

If thrilling bleakness seems a paradox, no surprise: it is one. Part of the fascination of On depends on the reader's sense that the protagonist, Tighe, is rushing headlong into pyrotechnic adventures whose philosophical burden is actually gloom, the uncoruscating realization that life is a bastard. Tighe lives in a village on the edge of a global abyss? An awe-inspiring mountain prospect, but also a recipe for brutish poverty and feudal injustice. Tighe's mother is the receptacle for some wonderful secret? Yes, but the secret makes her a sadistic lunatic prone to child abuse. Tighe jumps off the world, only to be rescued by the military of a fantastically exotic empire? Yes, but he is immediately conscripted, a boy soldier subject to discipline straight out of Full Metal Jacket. Tighe joins the flying corps? Yes, but the empire's battle command makes Field Marshal Haig resemble a strategic genius. Tighe makes his way courageously through a fabulous jungle haunted by monsters and rumours of worse? Yes, but the monsters, once encountered, leave little scope for heroism and much room for nausea. And so on. However much the world may change, Roberts declares, however colourful and exhilarating the quality of its strangeness may be, its cold hostility to our hopes remains constant, along with our own cussed foolishness. We are always barely On firm ground.

The oddly helter-skelter elegance of On marks the novel as one of the notable SF books of the year -- the sort of experiment in form and perspective that the genre sees too rarely. Like Christopher Priest's Inverted World or Gene Wolfe's The Urth of the New Sun, On hurls the reader into a new context, inverting paradigms so that one walks on ceilings and gazes on new worlds through the back of one's head. Adam Roberts, resembling the manic and mischievous many-times-cloned being who intervenes in Tighe's pilgrimage across the Worldwall in a parody of a flying saucer, is a Wizard of On, a purveyor of illusions that underscore the real, a beguiling dispenser of cruel instruction. Heed him. Harsh medicine is not often so entertainingly administered.

Copyright © 2001 Nick Gevers

Since completing a Ph.D. on uses of history in SF, Nick Gevers has become a moderately prolific reviewer and interviewer in the field of speculative fiction. He has published in INTERZONE, NOVA EXPRESS, the NEW YORK REVIEW OF SF, and GALAXIES; much of his work is available at INFINITY PLUS, of which he is Associate Editor. He lives in Cape Town, South Africa.


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