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Adam Roberts
      Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 338 pages
      Gollancz, 295 pages

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: 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 David Soyka

A quick glance at Adam Roberts's bibliography reveals a penchant for one word novel titles. I've only read his latest, Polystom and the preceding Stone, both of which employ a narrative gimmick which I think undercuts their impact (more about that later). The similarly designed paperbacks published by British imprint Gollancz (unfortunately, Roberts does not have an American publisher) features this blurb from Vector, the British Science Fiction Association journal: "Roberts joins my list of essential authors."

My sentiments exactly.

Stone depicts a sociopath named "Ae" in a far-future utopia virtually devoid of criminality. Ae is imprisoned in a seemingly escape-proof confinement within the center of a star. His offense: random "thrill" murders, killing simply for the sake of the experience. He has been "executed" -- the nanotechnology that would normally protect him from disease, aging, even severe and violent injury, has been removed, his body now subject to the frailties and limitations of unenhanced, natural human biology. He will get sick, he will age, his body will deteriorate, he will die within a considerably shortened life span. This, however, doesn't stop him from taking actions of catastrophic proportions.

In prison he is contacted by an unknown entity -- an "artificial intelligence" that secretes its way into the prison and is absorbed into the prisoner's consciousness -- in need of Ae's unusual remorseless homicidal talents. The offer: to spring him out of prison. The price: commit mass murder on a grand scale, serve as executioner of an entire world population.

The reader knows from the outset that Ae has been again imprisoned for this second, greater crime. The story is his memoir, recounting not only how he first came to kill, but how he manages to break out and the subsequent escapades before he commits worldwide genocide and, ultimately, revealing the identity of his employer after several misleading likely suspects. The purpose of the memoir is therapeutic; because he is in solitary confinement -- and because he is seemingly devoid of human empathy -- Ae is telling his story to an inanimate object, a stone. Hence the title. The stone symbolizes both the insensate relationships Ae has had with his fellow human beings, as well as the dark depths of hardness within his own soul. One of three epigrams that start the novel is from Shakespeare: "My heart turns to stone, I strike it and it hurts my hand."

So we've got a morality tale here, a walk on the wild side of human depravity at least in part caused by a denial of human limitations. Roberts manages to pulls off the task of making a despicable character -- indeed, the only character -- sympathetic because killing gives rise to primal feelings about what it is to be human in a reality made dull and meaningless through the technological elimination of biological death. In an odd sort of way, Ae can only sense remorse after destroying -- only half-willingly but still complicitly -- a world's inhabitants, as he discovers that the inclination to kill can be balanced by the same inclination not to kill.

This description may make the book sound like a fable, which it is, but it's also Hard SF, with references to quantum physics that are essential to the denouement, as well as descriptions of an unusual sort of personal interstellar travel, complete with a glossary of technical terms.

The "science" of Polystom, in contrast, is based on physical principles in which space contains not a vacuum, but an atmosphere, enabling travel between planets via the open cockpit of a propeller-driven biplane. The title takes its name from the protagonist, who in turn bases his sense of self-worth in a realm of titles. Polystom is the fiftieth Steward of Enting, a pampered and naïve aristocrat whose personal limitations lead to a doomed marriage and subsequent disaster in the attempt to gain "glory" as an officer in a war for which is intellectually and physically ill-prepared. Roberts transposes his alternate physics to a worldview based on the rigid class structure and attitudes of England circa World War I. Once again, he presents an entirely unpleasant main character and yet manages to make him ultimately sympathetic. As Polystom stumbles through various dreadful situations, he gains some greater insight, even if dimly. In that, Polystom is perhaps symbolic of the human condition in general.

But, again, Roberts is after more than what could be considered an engaging fantasy premise. Throughout the novel, there are hints of an alternative universe (meaning ours) which call into question the nature of "reality," just as Polystom begins to question, without really finding any answer, the assumptions of class and power, not to mention human relationships. As he is visited on the bloody battlefield by the ghosts of his wife and his murdered uncle, he learns of a mechanistic explanation for their appearance, which reveals the true meaning of the war he no longer wishes to fight and a higher cause that is perhaps really worth fighting for. If he could be sure that what he is being told is in fact, the truth, or is just what he chooses to believe.

Flavoring fabulism with the tropes of Hard SF makes for an interesting concoction. One thing that bothers me, though, is the presentation of these narratives as some sort of historical documents. In the case of Stone, Ae's tale is rendered as the transcript of his therapeutic "conversation," complete with footnotes of word origins and cultural practices. Similarly, Polystom is presented as a manuscript, with editorial notes indicating incomplete or unordered text fragments. The purpose of all this dates back, at least in the SF tradition, to Frankenstein, in which the tale is ostensibly a letter from an Antarctic explorer who, having rescued Dr. Frankenstein during his pursuit of the Monster, relates the scientist's story. The epistolary approach gives the appearance of recounting a "true" event, and part of what seems to fascinate Roberts is the notion of the "true" -- whether mass extinction can ever truly be justified, whether our reality can truly be verified. However, the fictional technique of representing these works as an academic document in these two works strikes me as needlessly tacked on. At least in the case of Stone, there is some underlying logic; it is, after all, a first person narrative. But Polystom is told in the third person. What is the point of representing this as an historical record, i.e., something that represents what "really" happened? Who is telling the story, and why are we supposed to accept it -- metaphorically at least -- as evidence of truth.

But perhaps that is the overall point.

Copyright © 2003 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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