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Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 288 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: Land Of The Headless
SF Site Review: Splinter
SF Site Review: Splinter
SF Site Review: Gradisil
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 Nick Gevers

Swiftly by Adam Roberts -- not to be confused with his similarly titled collection from Night Shade Books a few years ago -- is an enormously ambitious novel, a steampunk epic of considerable force and ingenuity. It is also a deeply bizarre book, whose protagonists, sometimes to the detriment of the plot, conduct a love affair based on disgust and the stimulating odor of excrement. Why Roberts chose this admixture of elements is a little mysterious, unless it serves as a commentary on the original Dean Swift's fascination with smutty jokes and toilet humor. As well, the eighteenth century, whose spirit the novel explores, was generally an age of smells and off-color bawdiness; maybe that indeed plays a part...

In any event: incorporating two long tales from the aforementioned collection, Swiftly acts as an audacious sequel to Swift's Gulliver's Travels, set around 120 years later. In 1848, the various fabulous creatures Gulliver described are all around, enslaved or co-opted by the British and French Empires. The miniature Lilliputians and their cousins the Blefuscans are perfect for very delicate work in miniature, and are employed in the sweatshop factories of industrial England, manufacturing fabrics and machinery. The gargantuan Brobdingnagians have been targeted by the Royal Navy as dangerous, but some have survived in the service of the French; giant crops and farm animals are now feeding the masses of Europe. The Houyhnhnms, despite their fastidious natures, have in some cases consented to function as mounts in war, thus becoming His Majesty's Sapient Cavalry. The bestial Yahoos make good shock troops. And even the flying island of Laputa seems to be helping in experimental development of flying machines. In short, the literal truth of Gulliver's reports has changed the world. But some forces persist across histories: industrialism and its horrors, imperialism, great power rivalry. That last results in a successful French invasion of Britain, and a great campaign of battles near York, a conflict which constitutes the novel's heart. Other players from above and below the human scale of things enter the picture there, and it becomes clear that, in Roberts's elegant expansion of Swift's scheme, the spectrum of gigantism and dwarfism incorporates beings much larger and much tinier still, in a breathtaking sweep of macrocosm and microcosm. A spaceship the size of the moon descends from the sky, and animalcules in humankind's blood declare war upon us...

The hero and heroine of the narrative are Abraham Bates and Eleanor Burton. Bates is a man of religious conscience who has campaigned for freedom for the Lilliputian workers, and who in pursuit of that agenda has worked for French intelligence, facilitating the invasion he hopes will liberate his miniature brethren. Once the conquest has started, he is acknowledged a Friend of France and asked to accompany a mission to the North, to seize control for the French of a massive British cannon that can fire projectiles thousands of miles. He is attracted to Eleanor, whose father helped build the gun and who is tagging along; Roberts describes her background, including a painful marriage to the very factory owner Bates had been badgering (now deceased), in rather excruciating detail, complete with neo-Victorian sexual ignorance and initiatory sexual disgust. Her rather ambivalent carnal experience combines with Bates's task of washing away her wastes when she falls ill to ignite the not very savory dalliance alluded to before, he drawn to her by vile wafts, she inclined to linger with him out of declared revulsion for his person. The reader might be forgiven for wanting to know a lot less about this relationship than Roberts vouchsafes, but the amour pervades the text in pungent immediacy; luckily other events are afoot, and relieve the afflatus. Eleanor's new betrothed, the eccentric and argumentative Dean of York, is present also, and his wisdom must confront a mysterious pestilence decimating the countryside and its current military residents, the approach of the gigantic spaceship from higher up in the plenum, and the harnessing of the great cannon. There is battle, intrigue, capture, death, and an invasion from the domain of the very small, all well and richly described; Brobdingnagians and Lilliputians play crucial parts, bringing fascinating voices to the ensemble. The climax of Swiftly is rather awe-inspiring, so long as one minds the pong. Of course, the novel does conclude with the bestowal of a turd as a gift, so wariness must be practiced till the end.

Despite its peculiarities, Swiftly may be Roberts's best novel so far. It is a book he had in mind for a long time, and its maturity of conception is impressive.

Copyright © 2008 Nick Gevers

Nick Gevers is a South African science fiction editor and critic, whose work has appeared in The Washington Post Book World, Interzone,, SF Site, The New York Review of Science Fiction and Nova Express. He writes two monthly review columns for Locus magazine, and is editor and deputy publisher at PS Publishing. He is also the editor, with Peter Crowther, of PS's quarterly fiction magazine, Postscripts. Nick was co-editor, with Keith Brooke, of the science fiction anthologies Infinity Plus One (2001) and Infinity Plus Two (2003), and in September 2007 released Infinity Plus: The Anthology through Solaris Books. His first original anthology, Other Earths, in collaboration with Jay Lake, will be published by DAW Books in 2008.

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