by Adam Roberts
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
In 1726, Jonathan Swift published Gulliver's Travels. 277 years later, Adam Roberts published a short story set 122 years after Swift's tale. A mere five more years were to pass before Roberts expanded that short story into a novel which shares the same title, Swiftly. In the years that have passed since Lemuel Gulliver first set eyes on the various and sundry islands that his voyages took him to, the English have enslaved the races of Lilliputians and Blefuscuans. The novel traces the journey through England of Abraham Bates, a tireless defender of the rights of the oppressed races.
Bates seeks to free the Blefuscuans who are toiling for the industrialist Jonathan Burton, who has built his business empire on the backs of his slaves. Burton rebuffs Bates, pointing out his own belief that the little people are at heart slackers and need a strong hand in order to be made to do the work necessary. Despite this cold-heartedness, Burton is shown to have emotions and even redeeming qualities as Roberts follows him in a flashback sequence to show his attempts to woo Eleanor, in class above him, but from a family fallen on hard financial times. Although not clear to Eleanor, Roberts does indicate that Burton is as interested in Eleanor for her keen mind as for any other reason.
The lives of all these characters, however, is overturned when the French invade England with the assistance of their own Lilliputian and Brobdingnagian citizens, intent, at least in part, on setting free their cousins who live in England in servitude. Seen as sympathetic to the French cause because of their attitudes to the Lilliputians, Bates finds himself pressed into service by the invaders, and eventually meets Eleanor Burton and the Dean of York as the three travel with French escort. As Roberts allows the reader to get to know these three characters, it quickly becomes apparent than Eleanor's husband, might actually be the most sympathetic character in the book.
Roberts's novel is full of narrative ellipses. Although he explains how Eleanor became attached to the French retinue accompanying the Dean and Bates from London to York, there is no indication of how she got from her situation at the end of chapter two to her appearance on the road north. While things like this may not be important to the overall story, or the relationships Roberts is looking at, the fact that he completely ignores them does tend to raise questions in the reader's mind, making the story flow less smoothly than it otherwise might have.
Although the third chapter is spent largely on creating relationships and tensions, as well as dealing with a strange, possibly war-born illness with, in the case of Bates, strangely erotic and disgusting consequences, the characters' journey also tends to drag the novel along with it as Roberts is setting the stage for his final revelations that show his world is so much more different from our own than the introduction of Gulliver's various races would indicate.
Roberts does an excellent job grafting Swift's satirical creations onto the world of nineteenth century England, using them to poke fun at the stylistic excesses of that period as well as some of the political concerns of modern England. His characters exhibit flaws, and strange desires, although they never quite manage to affect the quirkiness which would overcome their flaws. Had Roberts managed to make his characters a little more sympathetic and likable, the parts of Swiftly which move anything but would have been greatly lessened.