Four novels by Adam Roberts


Memorably described by Martin Wisse as “a writer that irritates you, like a piece of sand in an oyster,” Adam Roberts is an impressively prolific British writer of science fiction. While holding down a day job teaching literature at the University of London, he’s published nineteen novels since 2000, a History of Science Fiction for Palgrave, written three blogs, plus many contributions to The Valve. Would that we could all be so productive.

(Eight of Roberts’ novels are parodies: The Dragon with the Girl Tattoo and so forth. Because I don’t have much of a sense of humour, I’m very picky about this genre: in particular, the Bored of the Rings approach of retelling the story but with funny names, leaves me, well, bored. So I haven’t tried any of these. But on the basis of the ‘serious’ novels, I would have a go if one showed up on the shelves of the local library.)

Reaction to his serious novels sometimes appears to influenced by the knowledge that Roberts teaches 19th-century literature, that he’s a historian of sf, and by some of his public statements about what he’s trying to do in his work. Victoria Hoyle notes this tendency:

I’m troubled by the way our arguments keep dodging back to Roberts, as author of the work, in an incredulous disbelief at (what I perceive to be) his failure. [...] To some extent these are apologetics based on what we already know (or think we know) about Roberts as an author; they’re founded in our trust of his skill and his intellectual prowess.

Roberts has described himself at times as a modernist:

I could go further, as I have done on occasion: competence is killing the novel, and what’s needed (what I try to do in my own writing) is take conventional well-made-novel forms and tones and mess about with them, fuck them up, shake them into messier, uglier, Picassoish shapes.

and at others as a postmodernist:

... it does seem to me that the traditional old-fashioned modes of novel-making are less and less well suited to representing contemporaneity; and that, more, where SF ought to have the jump on regular fiction in this regard in fact the aesthetics of SF are very often out of step with what Lyotard [in Postmodern Condition, 1979] identifies as ‘modern aesthetics’. And that’s one of the things I’m trying to address, for better or worse, when I write novels.

Although I can see influences from both modernism and postmodernism in Roberts’ work, I think his books are actually a fairly traditional form of science fiction: idea-driven, short and punchy, not too bloated with world-building, aiming for an original mix of style and substance. He’s writing the kind of book that I used to find in the library between bright yellow Gollancz covers when I was young: like mid-period Robert Silverberg (A Time of Changes, To Live Forever, Dying Inside, ...), or early Ian Watson (The Embedding, The Martian Inca, Alien Embassy, ...). Energetic, stripped of detail, stylistically distinctive, short enough that you can forgive them their faults.

This kind of work doesn’t garner many awards or collect much in the way of a fan base, so it’s always been a minor part of the publishing mix, and authors who made a mark in this niche have usually had to break out of it to gain mainstream success: I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Silverberg and Watson both turned their talents to multi-volume fantasy. Roberts has yet to take that path.

Land of the Headless (2007)

This is a wickedly sharp morality tale, which I don’t want to spoil by discussing the plot. Instead, I am going to be unfair to this entertaining and thought-provoking novel by picking on the inconsistency of the technological background.

The novel opens with this arresting image:

On Tuesday a genetic materials test confirmed my guilt (bout of course this confirmation was only a formality) and on Wednesday I was beheaded. My crime was adultery.

The next couple of pages explain how the narrator can survive without a head:

I was taken to a separate room for the download, which was accomplished in a matter of minutes: mapping all cortices and lobes of my brain and copying all their patterns and potential synaptic arrangements electronically into the ordinator at the base of my spine.

So we’re in a transhumanist world where people can upload themselves, live in virtual worlds, travel at light-speed, duplicate their minds, and so on, right? Well, no. Apart from allowing decapitated individuals to go on living, this marvellous technology has no other uses.

It’s clear that Roberts is not interested in attempting rigorous extrapolation of invented technologies, but this is just silly. I think the idea is that the headless are a metaphor for the invisible underclass, and that’s why many other aspects of the setting resemble mid-20th century America: the headless walk from town to town in search of work like Okies; they are subject to police harassment and arbitrary arrest; they are drafted into the military to serve as cannon fodder; they are turned out by shopkeepers and have their own rooms in restaurants.

But then why the detailed description of the ‘ordinator’? I get the impression that for Roberts the consistency of the world-building is immaterial—that the effects he is going for are literary, or to do with character—but I think this is a mistake: you can’t partition the imagination like that. In order to appreciate the decisions of a character, the reader must have some idea of the societal and technological context of those decisions. You can’t have character without a world for that character to inhabit.

For example, early in the story the narrator and his companions lose their friend Siuzan in the town they have just come to. Why don’t they phone her, or use whatever futuristic personal communications technology has replaced mobile phones? Well, there are lots of possibilities: maybe they are too stupid to think of it? Maybe she didn’t give them her phone number? Maybe the headless are not allowed to own mobile phones? Maybe the world doesn’t have a mobile phone system at all? But if not, why not? Can’t they afford it (but they can afford to pay for mind uploading for criminals)? Are there religious reasons against it?

Of course there are no answers to this kind of question. But I think these questions involve the same kind of curiosity and engagement with the text as other questions for which there are answers. (For example, it puzzled me why Siuzan chose to see a doctor, knowing that said doctor would very likely shop her to the police. This question got a straightforward answer.)

I think there’s a technique in science fiction, that doesn’t get much written about, which is the presentation of the detail of the invented world in a way that makes clear what kinds of questions are likely to have satisfactory answers. Roberts’ focus on the technical details of how headlessness is implemented draws an inappropriate amount of attention to it. A more fluent world-builder would, I think, have described the process in a vaguer way that would discourage fruitless inquiry.

Also, it’s not a good idea for the headless narrator to say, “I nodded” (page 83).

Other commentary: Victoria Hoyle.

Swiftly (2008)

The fragmentary novel is really four linked novellas. The first introduces us to what I shall call the Gulliverse, a world extrapolated from Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. By 1848 the Lilliputians and Blefuscudians have been enslaved and put to work in factories making intricate machinery; the Brobdingnagians have been subdued by cannon-fire and their island colonized, and the proud Houyhnhnms serve in His Majesty’s sapient cavalry. For the reader who remembers the boast of the Brobdingnagians that “the king’s army consists of a hundred and seventy-six thousand foot, and thirty-two thousand horse”, and Gulliver’s advice against an invasion of the land of the Houyhnhnms (“Imagine twenty thousand of them breaking into the midst of an European army, confounding the ranks, overturning the carriages, battering the warriors’ faces into mummy by terrible yerks from their hinder hoofs”) this is a sorry state of affairs for these noble nations.

On the basis of part one, the reader might have expected a tour of this steampunkish Gulliverse, but parts two and three are very different. Part two is a set piece that I imagine would have been growing in the minds of many a professor of 19th century culture. Anyone who’s read lots of 19th-century fiction will have found themselves wondering about the married life of couples who have neither a physical passion for each other (due to marrying for status or money rather than love), nor the sexual knowledge and experience to manage without (due to the prudish aspects of Victorian culture, and the lack of education and experience available to poor but middle-class women). What happened in the marriage bed of Charlotte Lucas and Mr Collins in Pride and Prejudice, or Dorothea and Casaubon in Middlemarch? Through the characters of Eleanor, the beautiful but poor child of a family that has known better times, and Burton, the corpulent and sexually naïve manufacturer whom she she hates but must marry to avoid penury, Roberts paints an unpleasant but plausible picture.

Part three is a kind of counterpoint to Swift’s scatological poem ‘The Lady’s Dressing Room’. The protagonist, Abraham Bates, is travelling north through England with Eleanor and the Dean of York, when they all come down with a severe attack of dysentery. (In our timeline, 1848 was the year the second cholera pandemic reached England.) When the unconscious Eleanor soils herself, Bates has to overcome the taboo against the undressing and handling of women, not to mention his revulsion at handling shit, in order to clean her.

In Swift’s poem, the mock-hero Strephon is horrified when he discovers that his beloved ‘Celia shits’:

His foul Imagination links
Each Dame he sees with all her Stinks;
And, if unsav’ry Odours fly,
Conceives a Lady standing by.

For Strephon this is the end of his affection, but for Bates it’s a turn-on.

Critic Paul Kincaid had trouble with the ellipsis in Eleanor’s story between parts two and three:

As we leave Eleanor the first time she is living with her mother, she has just witnessed the gruesome murder of her hated husband, she is living in a big house in fashionable London, she is negotiating for a mortgage to pay the fine of a treasure seeker, she is so ignorant of sex that she is frigid1. The very next time we see her she is walking north alone. There is no indication of how she got there, there is not a single reference to her mother, her house, her husband, the treasure-seeker. And she has gone inexplicably from being frigid to being sexually manipulative.

Kincaid is right in some ways—Roberts is clearly writing a series of individual studies rather than a single joined-up narrative. But the gap isn’t as gaping as Kincaid makes out: to the reader of 19th century fiction I think the outlines of her story are clear. At the end of part two, the widowed Eleanor has fallen in love with the penurious rogue Count Baron Idigon von Leloffel, and at his urging she mortgages her house, allegedly in order to bail him out of prison. When we meet her again in part three, she is wandering the countryside alone. She is carrying a bundle that the protagonist, I think significantly, mistakes for a baby. “I was a poor exile, a Ruth among alien corn,” she says. We don’t need Roberts to rehearse the likely story for us: if the heroine of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Ruth fails to come to mind, there are plenty of other examples.

So I don’t think Roberts needs to fill in the details—he’s not actually writing a 19th-century novel about a ‘fallen’ woman, and I don’t think it would make any sense for him to do so, unless of course he had an interesting new angle on the genre.

I had more trouble with the character of Harry Oldenburg, the Dean of York. His function is the story seems fairly perfunctory: he’s another rich but ugly man, whom Eleanor marries in preference to the poor but handsome Bates, to show where her priorities lie after her (inferred) experience of penurious love. But apart from that, he contributes little. In our timeline, the Dean of York in 1848 was the colourful Sir William Cockburn, who mishandled the funds for the repair of York Minster and was prosecuted for simony (the sale of positions in the church), and seems an altogether much more interesting figure than the Dean in Roberts’ story. (Jonathan Swift was also a Dean, of St Patrick’s in Dublin, but there’s no resemblance between him and Roberts’ character.)

Part four returns to the Gulliverse, but I have nothing to add to Roberts’ afterword, in which he gives a clear explanation of what he’s trying to achieve.

Other commentary: Dan Hartland; Niall Harrison et al.; Adam Roberts.

Yellow Blue Tibia (2009)

In the late 1940s, Joseph Stalin summons a group of science fiction writers to a remote dacha. He explains how the Great Patriotic War united the people of the Soviet Union against a common foe:

‘I have learnt many things in my time,’ said Stalin. ‘And there is one thing I have learned above all. Nothing is so efficacious in advancing the cause of universal Communism as struggle. When the people have an enemy against which to unite, they are capable of superb heroics. When they lack such an enemy they become slack, they fall prey to counterrevolutionary elements, and generally backslide.2

and instructs the writers to invent an alien invasion that will have a similar rousing effect:

‘Outer space,’ he said, in a low voice. ‘Space will provide the enemies. You, comrades, will work together—here, in this dacha. All amenities will be provided. I myself will visit from time to time. Together we will work upon the story of an extraterrestrial menace. It will be the greatest science fiction story ever told! And we will write it collectively! It will inspire the whole of the Soviet Union—inspire the whole world! It is, after all, the true Communist arena. Space, I mean. Outer space is ours! That is your task, comrades!’

If you’re thinking that you might have seen this plot before: it’s Ozymandias’ scheme in Watchmen.

The writers set to work. We are given few details, and vague ones at that: aliens made out of ‘radiation’, an American spaceship attacked, the destruction of the Ukraine. Then the project is cancelled, filed, wound up. Somewhat out of character, Stalin is not as ruthless as Ozymandias, and permits the writers to live, on condition that they never talk about what they’ve done.

Four decades pass, and writer Konstantin Skvorecky has married twice, divorced twice, spent years in an alcoholic haze, recovered. And then in January 1986 the Space Shuttle Challenger is destroyed. Is this the alien invasion story starting to come true? Skvorecky somehow gets sucked in to attempting to stop the next element in the invasion story: the attack on the Ukraine.

The question of what is really going on underlies the remainder of the book. A number of theories are raised, but their status remains uncertain. Yes, it’s an alien invasion.—No, it’s science fiction writer Jan Frenkel, now an officer in the KGB, seizing on the loss of the Challenger as an opportunity to spring his invasion story into life by sabotaging a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl.—Yes, Frenkel may be trying to fake an alien invasion, but he’s only doing it because the aliens are real, and he needs to shock people into awareness.—No, it’s hypnosis.—Yes, it’s real, and moreover one of the aliens was present at the dacha in the 1940s, because aliens have no imagination and needed the science fiction writers to make a plan for them to carry out.—No, the whole thing is just a science fiction novel.

We know, of course, that the last of these theories is the true one (except it’s by Roberts rather than Skvorecky). Nonetheless, I like these shifting ontological sands (what Rich Puchalsky calls ‘underdetermination’). The effect is reminiscent of Ian Watson’s Miracle Visitors (in which aliens are maybe visitors from the Jungian world of archetypes, or maybe not) and Stanisław Lem’s His Master’s Voice (in which aliens are maybe sending coded signals from the stars, or maybe it’s just interference).

Some reviewers, for example Michael Froggatt, detect in the novel a satire “directed against the less headline-grabbing, day-to-day injustices of the Soviet system”. I didn’t get very much impression of this: sure, the Soviet setting requires mention of the Gulag, the KGB, arbitrary detention, shortages and so on, but there’s a vagueness about the portrayal that deprives it of satiric bite. As Catherynne M. Valente noted, Roberts isn’t attempting any kind of verisimilitude here.

Instead, it’s a very funny comedy of manners. Three of the main characters have an obsessive compulsion, and these interact amusingly. Skvorecky can’t seem to turn off his ironic commentary—he’d crack wise at the crack of doom. Saltykov, an ex-nuclear scientist turned taxi driver, has more normal forms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The antagonist Frenkel can’t seem to stop himself explaining the plot over and over again. Several set pieces made me laugh. Saltykov is driving his taxi as they escape from the KGB, but constant interruptions from the back seat make him lose his place in the journey, so he returns to the KGB station so that he can start the journey again. A doctor explains to Skvorecky that his proximity to an exploding grenade in a nuclear reactor has fortuitously cured his brain cancer. (But the science fictional ‘explanation’ for this, I think rather spoils the joke: it’s funnier if it’s absurd and inexplicable.)

New Model Army (2010)

Iraq-style insurgencies come to Europe in this novel, motivated by a combination of profit and democratic ideology. The narrator is a soldier in ‘Pantegral’, a mercenary army hired by the Scottish Parliament to fight for independence against the English. There are descriptions of urban warfare in London and the Thames corridor, which I am sure will bring the action vividly home to readers living there (like Roberts himself, in Staines).

I read the first paragraph—

I am not the hero of this story. Because I am narrating it, and because it relates events mostly from my point of view, you may conclude it is somehow about me. I ask that you remember, throughout, that it is not. The hero of the story—in the old style of these things, according to the way novels have traditionally been made—is that New Model Army of which I was formerly a component.

—and thought to myself, it’s the Gargantius Effect! (From ‘The First Sally, or the Trap of Gargantius’ in The Cyberiad by Stanisław Lem.) Roberts’ soldiers communicate using Wi-Fi and wikis, whereas Lem’s have to physically plug themselves together, but the idea is similar. Lem:

When separate minds merge into one regimental consciousness, not only is there automatic discipline, but there is also wisdom. And that wisdom is directly proportional to the numbers involved. A platoon possesses the acumen of a master sergeant; a company is as shrewd as a lieutenant colonel, a brigade smarter than a field marshal; and a division is worth more than all the army’s strategists and specialists put together. In this way one can create formations of truly staggering perspicacity. And of course they will follow their own orders to the letter.

The difference is that Roberts is pessimistic about the outcome. His ‘giants’ (consciousnesses formed from the connections between soldiers in an army) are playful, to be sure, but playfully destructive:

And the secret at the heart of their giant souls, which honest-to-god I did not realize until that very moment, is that they are playful beings. Lumbering and clumsy, and liable to tread upon your house or kick through your church, or lie down to sleep upon a whole population: but playful.

(They also have a keen interest in etymology.) Whereas Lem’s military corpora are wholly benign in their playfulness:

The law of Gargantius proceeded to work with inexorable logic. As formation joined formation, in proportion there developed an aesthetic sense, which reached its apex at the level of a reinforced division, so that the columns of such a force easily became sidetracked, chasing off after butterflies, and when the motorized corps named for Bartholocaust approached an enemy fortress that had to be taken by storm, the plan of attack drawn up that night turned out to be a splendid painting of the battlements, done moreover in the abstractionist spirit, which ran counter to all military traditions. Among the artillery corps the weightiest metaphysical questions were considered, and, with an absentmindedness characteristic of great genius, these large units lost their weapons, misplaced their equipment and completely forgot that there was a war on.

Hmmm... ‘Gargantius’ and ‘Pantegral’? Does Roberts have some kind of connection with Rabelais in mind (other than the natural metaphor of armies as giants bestriding the landscape)? I did the bare minimum of research (that is, reading Wikipedia) and found that Michel Bakhtin, in his Rabelais and his World, describes the idea of carnival as being central to Rabelais’ work and his age:

... all were considered equal during carnival. Here, in the town square, a special form of free and familiar contact reigned among people who were usually divided by the barriers of caste, property, profession, and age. The hierarchical background and the extreme corporative and caste divisions of the medieval social order were exceptionally strong. Therefor such free, familiar contacts were deeply felt and formed and essential element of the carnival spirit. People were, so to speak, reborn for new, purely human relations.

This could describe the egalitarian relations within Roberts’ ‘New Model Armies’ and their contrast with the strictly hierarchical national armies they face in the novel.

Nader Elhefnawy in Strange Horizons noted some similarities to Heinlein, but reflected about the ideological axis: in Heinlein’s work, the breakdown of society is an opportunity for the individualist libertarian, while in New Model Army it’s the democratic collectivists that prosper in the ruins. I can see a couple of further connections with Heinlein. First, the authorial stacking of the deck: Pantegral beats the British Army over and over again through superior strategy and tactics, and yet it’s only by the end that any hint is given that the British Army might be trying to apply the new tactics itself. Second, the careful choice of interlocutor to avoid exposing the contradictions in the rhetoric. Much of the novel turns out to be the narrator’s interrogation after his capture: a stick-in-the-mud officer in the British Army puts the narrator’s pro-democratic-army rhetoric in a much kinder light than, say, a mother whose son has been killed by a stray bullet, or a refugee family whose home and livelihood have been bombed to rubble.

Other commentary: Jonathan McCalmont; Richard Seymour.

  1. ^ I think Kincaid is wrong to say that she’s ‘frigid’: ignorance of the mechanics and total lack of affection are perfectly adequate to explain the failure of Burton and Eleanor to achieve penetration, without having to suppose any additional psychosexual condition.

  2. ^ This paragraph has both the spellings ‘learnt’ and ‘learned’. Picassoish shape, or just sloppy proof-reading?