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Land Of The Headless
Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 288 pages

Land of the Headless
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: 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 Paul Raven

While many would debate where to draw the line between literary science fiction and the other stuff, few who have read Adam Roberts would hesitate to place him firmly in the former camp. Land Of The Headless continues Roberts' tradition of writing challenging novels that engage deeply with science fictional themes and genuine human drama to an equal degree.

My challenge here is to review Land of the Headless without describing Roberts or his work as "clever" –- an adjective that Roberts seems to find particularly frustrating when applied to his work. Let's see if I can pull it off.

Land Of The Headless is written as the first-person retrospective memoir of Jon Cavala, a poet of moderate success who, within the space of the first few pages, is beheaded for the crime of rape. Straight away, we are into the territory of words not meaning exactly what we expect them to mean. Cavala lives on Pluse, which is one of many "Planets of The Book" –- planets colonised by dogmatic religious sects fleeing what they saw as the decadent liberal decline of Earth for new worlds where they could indulge in their beliefs without restriction or censure.

On Pluse, "rape" refers to any sexual crime, including consensual sexual relations outside of wedlock. "Beheading" retains its literal meaning -- in that persons convicted of rape, murder or blasphemy are indeed decapitated, as the Bibliqu'rân[sic] stipulates –- but in the name of progress and reform, the society of Pluse has decided that being beheaded should not mean death. That would be terribly barbaric, after all.

Instead, the convicted have their minds downloaded into a hardware device called an ordinator, which is interfaced to their spine before the beheading -- leaving the post-punishment individual alive, but irredeemably marked out as a person convicted of one of the most heinous crimes in Plusian society. Understandably, the headless are an instant underclass.

After Cavala is beheaded, he goes to a charitable hostel that attempts to rehabilitate the newly headless, where he falls in with two other men who have suffered the same fate. This isn't to say he becomes friends with them; he tolerates the one, and rapidly grows to despise the other. Nonetheless, the group elect to travel to another city –- ostensibly to avoid bumping into the victims of their crimes, although Cavala's true motives remain his secret. They are accompanied on their journey to Cainon by Siuzan Delage, a beautiful young zealot and volunteer at the hostel who decides to go with the mismatched three as an act of pious charity.

On arriving in Cainon, Delage disappears after going into a chemist's shop to buy the hormonal supplements the headless need to survive –- and which the chemist will not sell them, because they are headless. The three wait for the best part of a day for her to reappear, bickering over the cause of her absence, until they are arrested on suspicion of rape. The policeman in charge of the case claims that Delage was assaulted during their journey to Cainon, a fact discovered by the chemist during her visit, but that she refuses to name the perpetrator. He demands that one of them confess to the crime so that she be spared the ignominious punishment that marks the three men.

So far, so simple –- or so you might think. The first person narrative is a strong tool for a talented writer, because it enables the deployment of the potentially unreliable narrator. Roberts is no stranger to this trick, and has used it in a number of his previous novels –- it is almost his hallmark, in the same way the Gene Wolfe is know for the same thing. Jon Cavala is definitely an unreliable narrator –- and his repeated assurances to the reader that he is being as honest as possible with his account serve only to amplify the reader's suspicions.

Compounding the issue is the fact that Cavala is not an especially likeable man. He is vain, pretentious and more than a trifle arrogant –- at least toward the start of the novel -– and his tone of self-justification combined with his continuing assertions that he is a teller of truth lead even the most charitable reader to suspect that he may not be what he says he is.

Naturally, Cavala says he is not a rapist. He admits that he committed a crime that falls under that umbrella term, but resolutely insists that the act was consensual. Hence to be accused of raping Delage is to add insult to his injury –- especially as his two companions know the nature of the crime that cost him his head, and are hence convinced that he assaulted Delage. Cavala, on the other hand, suspects it to have been Mark Pol Treherne who did the deed; over the course of their short acquaintance Cavala has developed a virulent hatred of the man, only partly due to the cause of his beheading being murder.

So, here we are in the Cainon police station, with the policeman asking the three men to confess to a crime that they all claim they did not commit. None of them is keen to confess -– for a first rape, one is beheaded, but for a second crime the perpetrator will not even get to live the half-life of the headless. Tensions run high, Cavala and Treherne come to blows, and they are separated.

Cavala is interviewed again by the policeman, and ends up trapped in a number of zero-sum-game legal binds, the end result of which being that Cavala has no choice but to accept conscription into the army. He is by this point convinced that Treherne is the rapist, and that his failure to confess will result in the beheading of the innocent Suizan. He resolves to escape, and exact vengeance on Treherne before handing himself in and confessing to a crime he didn't commit in order to spare Delage her punishment.

See? A little more cl-- oops, a little more tricky than it initially appears, isn't it?

What should be obvious already is that Land of the Headless is a satire on dogmatism and religious hypocrisy. But it is far more than that –- it's a novel about deceit; deceit by others, and deceit of the self. Cavala is the engine of the plot, and his constant internal debates over the rights and wrongs of his own deeds and the circumstances that occur to him form the nexus of the theme –- and as is fitting, it is not right until the end of the novel that we discover whether he really has been true to himself and us in the telling.

But there are many other deceits. Cavala is trained by the army and sent to war as cannon fodder with a troop of other headless: here are the deceits of indoctrination and conditioning; the obfuscations and lies of governments and their armies at war; the lies and deceits committed out of necessity by persons cornered by the circumstances of war. All seen through the lens of Cavala, of course –- a lens whose clarity and focus we can never be sure of.

Land Of The Headless is not simply a catalogue of lies, however. Roberts is interested in how we react to deceits, how we let them motivate us. Guilt goes hand in hand with deceit, also -– guilt at having deceived and having been deceived, but also the guilt of the state by association, and the guilt that comes from failure to follow through on one's beliefs, no matter how much one may call them into question.

This ties in closely to the religious satire -– religious laws rarely take motive into account in their assessments of guilt, and hence Roberts can probe the hypocrisies and loopholes of dogma with the same set of tools.

The central question of the novel might be expressed as "if a man makes a mistake by acting in good faith on a deceit, is he still culpable?" Or, to come at it from another angle, a throwaway aside of Cavala's near the beginning of the book can be taken as encapsulating the whole:

"Can a man escape himself? Not by quickening his stride, alas."
It's a powerful work of philosophical literature, thought-provoking from the outset. Of course, not everyone wants this degree of philosophical depth from a science fiction novel. The "needs bigger ray-guns" lobby will probably find it over-complicated, morally ambiguous, and lacking sufficient action and sensawunda, but I doubt very strongly that Roberts was pitching for that particular set of seats. The linguistic tone may be hard going for some readers, also; in keeping with the overall sense of parody and satire, the prose has more than a hint of the King James biblical to it, which is emphasised by the inherent wordiness of Cavala, the man of letters, delivering the narrative second-hand.

But as I mentioned, Roberts is about as literary a science fiction writer as you're likely to find, and unashamedly so. And he walks the walk as well as talking the talk. Land of the Headless is a powerful piece of work that uses science fictional themes and tropes to shine a light into the dark corners of the world we live in right now, which some would argue is science fiction's highest purpose –- I among them. And nothing truly worthwhile is ever easy –- if that's an attitude you share with respect to your choices of reading, I commend Land of the Headless to you as one of the most clever books published in the genre this year.

Oh, damn.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Raven

Paul Raven is a dishevelled library assistant from the south coast of the UK. He likes poetry, science fiction stories, music with guitars and girls with tattoos. His friends play a game that involves them buying him drinks and then steering the conversation round to space colonisation or neural prosthetics. Drop by his web site at the Velcro City Tourist Board

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