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Swiftly: Stories That Never Were and Might Not Be
Adam Roberts
Night Shade Books, 256 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: 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 David Soyka

Swiftly marks the long overdue American debut of Adam Roberts, courtesy of Night Shade Books in yet another example of their exemplary good taste. Though in keeping with the Roberts habit of one word book titles, this short story collection employs an adverb rather than the customary noun, a particularly apt modifier as Jonathan Swift is the direct inspiration for a pair of tales that bookend the compilation in depicting an alternate Victorian-era England whose industrial might is dependent upon enslaved Lilliputians. I've read elsewhere that these stories were originally part of an abandoned novel. Other than the setting and a shared character, they really aren't connected, and I don't see how they'd fit into a larger narrative arc. Which perhaps explains why there hasn't been one and perhaps also comments on the idea of "stories that never were and might not be."

In the title story, Abraham Bates is a "do-gooder" seeking to emancipate the little people from bondage; however, as is all too frequently the case, seeming good intentions are undermined by an immature moral sense that doesn't extend much beyond the self-serving. When England is invaded by France, which employs the giant Brobdingnagians to crash through the English defenses, Bates betrays his country, primarily to save his own neck albeit under the noble guise that the invaders will liberate the oppressed people whose cause he has undertaken. However, Bates discovers he's been duped, and his response is, true to character, to repress the reality of his actions. Any resemblance to current U.S. policy in Iraq is probably unintentional, and simply reflective of all too much of human history.

In "Eleanor," the title character must endure a forced marriage to Jonathan Burton, an industrialist owner of slave-labor factories who also appears in "Swiftly." The reasons for the marriage are the typical ones of class and money. That Eleanor has little affection to the vile Burton is irrelevant. Indeed, her contempt for her intended's clumsy courtship, as well as his fumbling husbandry, almost earns Burton some sympathy. Though not quite enough to feel entirely sorry for him when he receives his comeuppance. In the aftermath of the French occupation of Britain, Eleanor willingly gives up a new-found freedom on behalf of someone she somehow feels might be her "true" love. Like Bates, she willfully ignores reality. Unlike Bates, she at least is capable of making a sacrifice for something beyond herself, even if the motivation is ultimately that of foolish fervor, which is a kind of self-interest.

In both stories, Roberts depicts the lengths to which humans delude themselves, while they exploit others, or allow others to exploit them. The Dean would have approved.

Sandwiched between these Swiftian-inspired fables of human foibles is well, more of the same, but in different settings and contexts. I have a reviewer's copy, and the copyright page is incomplete, so I don't know where, if anywhere, these stories first appeared or if they're original to this collection. I do know that "Jupiter Magnified" first appeared in PS Publishing's series of mostly novella length works. I was therefore surprised that the length of the story that appears here wouldn't justify a separate publication; reviews I've read also made mention of extensive sections of poetry, of which there is none here. There is a note that "Jupiter Magnified" has been previously published in a "slightly different form," but, at least according to Damien Broderick in the August 2004 Locus, the changes are not "slightly different" and do harm to the story. I have no way of knowing. For whatever reasons the story was altered, and why Roberts either acceded to or requested it, what remains is a pretty effective portrayal of human self-centeredness even during trying times literally of cosmic proportions. Jupiter has, contrary to the known perception of physics and the solar system, appeared in Earth's sky, a looming presence that signifies menace, though its seeming proximity causes no damage to the oceans or gravitational pulls. Much like Jung postulated UFOs as projections of psychic disturbance, Jupiter magnifies the faults of the human condition, in particular that of the female narrator, yet another unlikable character that Roberts favors. Although, true to the hard SF tradition, at the end a seemingly scientific explanation is derived for the phenomenon, what's more significant, unlike the hard SF tradition, is the effect of, or rather how little it effects, the shallow egocentrism of the species.

Similar themes wend themselves throughout the collection. Here's an excerpt from "Tour de Lune" in which the narrator makes fun of a competitor's earnestness in thinking a mere sporting event is something more than, well, a mere sporting event:

"And there it was. The urge to do something splendid, to go all the way to the moon, wasn't an urge towards the outside at all. It was not a fascination with difference, but a deep-rooted needed to placate the sameness. To return a hero to your own family-town. But you need to appreciate the reasons you do what you do. With the myopia of youth, you can only see the path ahead of you, the race way... Do you really thing war is a Sorrow, instead of a butchering delight of animal killing and maiming. Do you really think the world is a family that can be united by watching a sideline sporting endeavor, rather than a bitterly divided set of family-tribes on the edge of a greater Sorrow? But why berate a child for living an unconsidered life?"
This sort of thing could be criticized for heavy handedness, for telling rather than showing, a not uncommon complaint of the genre for which Roberts at times is guilty. Other science fictional and fantasy tropes Roberts serves up include a nice riff on the invisible man (where you have to think a little bit about its meaning), along with oft-trodded themes such as the telephone call from the future urging action to avert dire consequences that haven't happened yet and a scientist who has discovered the end is not only near, it's already happened and we just don't know it yet. Technologically superior creatures who act without remorse in destroying native cultures is certainly nothing new to either the genre or human history, but, unfortunately, we still need reminding. "New Model Computer" is a humorous take on the "are we living in a computer-generated reality, and what happens if they turn the power off" notion that also calls into question our limitations in attempting to perceive the immensity of the universe and its origins.

Over on the fantasy side, in "Dantesque," as you've already guessed, a character makes his way up through the rings of hell, eager to attain Heaven, but on his way gets hints that it may not be worth the journey up as some prefer to take the trip in the reverse direction. There's yet another "deal with devil" fable, though this one is nicely done in considering, as The Beatles long ago remarked, "the love you make is the love you earn" and, of course, the converse. Perhaps the best of fantasies is "The Siege of Fadiman" in which a soldier is punished for disobeying orders, though not for what you might at first think, and thereby gains a kind of odd freedom while reminding us that, "The light at sunset does not, as poets say it does, resemble blood. Nobody who has seen blood spilled over home and ground would mistake that for a sunset."

Copyright © 2004 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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