Three novels by Adam Roberts

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Salt (2000)

Through the serendipity of the Cambridgeshire library system, I’ve been reading the novels of Adam Roberts in approximate reverse order. Which means that I came to Salt, Roberts’ first novel, with an appreciation of the author’s particular tics and techniques: pastiche, genre-busting, ambiguity, irresolution, and an annoying compulsion to insert immersion-killing bogus explanations where none are called for.

So to me, Salt seems like the most conventional and genre-friendly of Roberts’ novels, but it must have seemed very different to contemporary reviewers like Greg L. Johnson, who supplied the gushing cover quote, “the finest first novel to grace the field of science fiction in many years”.

Roberts describes this as drawing on “Herbert’s Dune and on Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed”. I don’t really see any thematic connection to Dune beyond the fact that it’s set on an inhospitable planet (covered in salt rather than sand), but there’s a strong connection to The Dispossessed: indeed, one might sum up the novel as “Urras goes to war with Anarres”.

Chapters alternate between the first-person narratives of prominent figures from two groups of interstellar colonists. Petja is an engineer belonging to the Alsists, a group of anarcho–syndicalists, and Barlei is a captain and later president of the Senaar, religious militarist–capitalists.

Writing science fiction in the first person is often a big mistake, because (as in Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children) the need to provide exposition and information can end up overwhelming the narrative voice, and because when the reader is adrift in an invented world, there’s no firm vantage point from which to take a critical perspective on the narrator. But in Salt the technique works well because it plays to Roberts’ strength—he creates two believable and distinct narrative voices here—and because the opposing narrators act as cross-checks against each other, each giving a corrective to the politics and the reportage of the other.

One of the themes of the novel is mutual and wilful incomprehension. The Senaarians believe that all societies really operate according to a command hierarchy, so that everyone possesses rank, superiors, and inferiors. When Barlei meets Petja, he persists in believing that Petja is some kind of ambassador or representative of the Alsists who can negotiate on their behalf, even though Petja flatly denies this. The Alsists believe that everyone is responsible for their own decisions and actions, and so ignore the resentment being stoked among the Senaarians, and they refrain from influencing other peoples’ decisions, so scorn the idea that they might need to take diplomatic steps. In an eerily prescient anticipation of the Iraq War, the mutual incomprehension leads to the Senaarians attacking the Alsists, believing that they will be garlanded with flowers for their imposition of law and order, but instead the Alsists embark on a bloody and protracted campaign of terrorism and insurgency in response.

The portrayal of the Alsists is well done: they make no sterile utopia, but a convincingly dirty, violent and dispassionate society. The Senaarians are a bit more cartoonishly satirical: it’s implied that their main (perhaps only) tax-raising power is to sell electoral votes.

Obligatory moan about the inconsistent technological background. The colonists travel from Earth by stringing together their space vehicles on a cable dangling behind a comet that provides fuel, reaction mass, and shielding. Their journey is described in some detail: “At accelerations of over 1.1g, we accelerated for over a year”. Assuming that the ‘year’ in question is as measured by the colonists, then they reach a velocity of at least 0.8c. Assuming the whole spaceship masses a million tonnes (a conservative estimate, since they are specified to be carrying “750,000 tonnes of frozen oxygen”), then it gains kinetic energy of at least 6×1025 J. This is the equivalent of more than 100,000 years of global energy generation at current rates. It’s implied in the novel that there’s nothing particularly special about this group of colonists. So in this future can any group of a few thousand people marshal this amount of energy? If so, the later events of the novel, which seem to operate in an energy-consuming context that seems roughly contemporary, or near-future, make no sense. If you had access to the amounts of energy implied by the interstellar travel-times, then it’d be easy to, say, get rid of the salt: in fact, 1026 J would be enough to desalinate all Earth’s oceans.

On (2001)

This novel deserves its ‘high concept’ tagline: it could be reduced to an elevator pitch as “a civilisation on a world-spanning cliff face”. (I wondered if Roberts had been influenced by the similar setting of Ian Watson’s short story ‘The People of the Precipice’, collected in Evil Water, but Roberts says it was independent invention.)

Roberts describes this novel as being a thematic exploration of various sorts of precariousness, and I think that’s a good summary: there’s the literal precariousness of living on the side of a cliff, the precariousness of wealth and social status (the protagonist is notionally the ‘prince’ of his village, but it means nothing when his parents fall into debt), the precariousness of flight, of life in wartime (almost all of the protagonists’ companions are killed), and ultimately the precariousness of genre expectations as the conventional ending is abruptly snatched away on the last page.

Obligatory moan about unnecessary explanation. It’s revealed that the cliff on which the action takes place is actually the surface of the Earth, after some super-science has turned the gravitational field through a right angle. This means that there are closed gravitational loops running around the Earth, and closed gravitational loops violate conservation of energy (you can build a perpetual motion machine by allowing an object to fall around the loop and drive a wheel) which pretty much puts paid to physics as we know it (by Noether’s theorem, conservation of energy is implied by the symmetry of physical law under time translation).

I’m moaning about this because the whole ‘explanation’ was unnecessary: the novel was doing just fine without it. Roberts has a kind of compulsion to explain things that don’t need explanation, like Frenkel in Yellow Blue Tibia who has a compulsion to explain the plot.

But I suppose in this novel the problem is thematic: it demonstrates the precariousness of world-building.

Stone (2002)

I said in the comments to my review of Gradisil that I didn’t have much to say about Stone beyond what Rich Puchalsky says here. But there are in fact a few morsels I can add.

This is the novel about which Jon Courtenay Grimwood wrote, “Adam Roberts has always been king of the high concept”, an excellent line which Gollancz’s marketing department placed (in various edited forms) on the covers of several of Roberts’ novels. But I hadn’t realised that Grimwood’s idea of “high concept” was “a psycho killer’s conversation with his pet rock”, something that isn’t remotely important in the novel—as Puchalsky says, it’s just a framing device, “a solution to the classic ‘As you know, Bob’ problem.”

The plot is a mystery. Not who done it?—we know from the start that the narrator Ae has been imprisoned for genocide, for killing the entire population of a planet—but why done it? Ae recounts her journey across the galaxy, visiting exotic planets, describing the interstellar culture of the t’T, killing people, and gathering the means for the genocide. But the question of motivation remains obscure until almost the very end.

When it comes, the motivation for the genocide turns out to be essentially the same as the revelation in Greg Egan’s novel Quarantine (1992), and I think the contrast reinforces Puchalsky’s point that genocide is too often deployed in science fiction as a means for cheap thrills. The situation in Quarantine is much more serious than in Stone: in Egan’s novel humans are unwittingly killing the antagonists, whereas in Roberts’ they are only blinding them, and then only temporarily. In Quarantine it’s clear that a genocidal solution would have been available, but I don’t recall it even being considered there; instead, quarantine suffices. (Egan is morally opposed to cheap thrills, and it’s rare in his fiction for disagreements to result in violence.)

Puchalsky compares Ae’s tour of the exotic worlds of the t’T commonwealth to a “Vancian picaresque” and I think there’s something in that: the series of planets with varied and bizarre local cultures do resemble the galactic communities of Vance’s ‘Demon Princes’ series. However, the differences are also instructive. One of Vance’s most distinctive techniques is that nearly every character in his works has agency. There are very few characters who do only what the plot or action requires them to do: no spear-carriers who only carry spears; instead, they have some kind of goal of their own that conflicts with the protagonist, or some kind of commentary on the protagonist. This characterization-through-agency is rarely particularly strong and often clichéd—the grasping salesman or the smooth-tongued con-artist—but it creates a strong illusion of a world that exists beyond the confines of the story. Things are different in Stone, because of the psychology of the narrator: Ae’s psychopathic lack of empathy means that she sees other people only in relation to herself as stepping stones to be trodden on or as obstacles to be destroyed. So there’s an un-Vancian solipsism about Stone.

Obligatory moan about the way the advanced technology is described. Ae is imprisoned inside a hollowed-out meteorite that’s lodged deep inside a star. According to the Rule of Cool, this ought to be awesome enough to sidestep any questions about how it can possibly work. But then Roberts goes and explains how Ae can travel through the convection zone while packed in some kind of expanded foam (when what was needed was some kind of lead-lined space fridge), and the delicate suspension of disbelief comes crashing down.