Adam Roberts’ 2003 novel Polystom opens with a breathtaking scene:
Polystom climbed into his biplane one morning, having made up his mind to fly to the moon. It had come to him upon waking, the sudden whim to visit his uncle Cleonicles—the great Scientist Cleonicles, none other—in his mansion on the moon… Stom pulls back the long stick and sweeps upwards again… When he next looks down he can see half a hemisphere, the whole of his estate and half a dozen other ones, the Middenstead and the Farrenstead seas, the scaly-looking chain of mountains stretching far to the west… Now he can see the curve of the planet, the perfect arc marking off the browns and greens and blues of his world from the blue-purple of interplanetary space… The interplanetary air was weirdly thin, breathable of course but not relishable. Some fashionable newsbook opinion pieces made great claims for the purity of it, even to the point of suggesting merely breathing it as a treatment for various ailments. But it always made Stom feel slightly headachy… His plane pulled away from the world and towards the moon.
Easy travel to other planets has been one of the dreams of science fiction—perhaps the dream—from Lucian’s True History, in which the heroes were “lifted up by a giant waterspout and deposited on the Moon on the eighth day”. But everything we’ve learned about the universe—from Aristarchus’ determination of the distance to the Moon in the 3rd century BC down to the confirmation of the Standard Model in the Large Hadron Collider—has only made it clearer that this dream is an illusion. But science fiction still clings to the comforting illusion that other planets can be repositories for wish-fulfilment and adventure: the hostile reality of space travel is tamed and distanced by strategies of nostalgia, irony, and -punk.
Polystom is all about clinging to illusions. This novel is really three linked novellas, all set in a miniature solar system filled with breathable air. The names of the characters are Greek, but the social structure depicted seems more like that of Tsarist Russia, with power concentrated in the hands of a land-owning aristocracy, with the majority of people enserfed to the estates they live on. The aristocratic protagonist Polystom is oblivious to his privilege, indeed remarkably oblivious to nearly everything around him.
In the first part of the book, Polystom conceives an infatuation for the headstrong Beeswing, and marries her in the belief that he can turn her into the kind of wife that everyone expects a man of his position to have. In a very skilfully written narrative, Roberts manages to keep a tight third-person perspective on Polystom, while making it clear that he is wrong about more or less everything, and about his wife spectacularly so. (What’s much less clear is why she agreed to marry him in the first place: the narrative focus on Polystom gives us little insight into her thoughts. Perhaps she had little choice in the matter.) Eventually she dies, and it is not clear whether it was a horrible accident, or whether the narrative is somewhat unreliable and Polystom really murdered her.
The second part features Polystom’s uncle Cleonicles. He is fêted as a ‘great scientist’, and sees himself as an elder statesman and scholar, but he is as grotesquely self-deluded as his nephew: utterly insensitive to the injustice and abuse on which his peaceful life of study reposes. Events bring this home in an especially unpleasant fashion.
The third part returns to Polystom, who decides to play at soldiers and soon gets himself (and his serfs, who have no choice in the matter) into a kind of World War I, where the gruesome realities of trench warfare, and the incompetence of artistocratic officers like Polystom, throw away lives like so much chaff. And then the novel takes a further turn toward the bizarre: the device over which the war is being fought is a mountain-sized computer on which the personalities of the dead are simulated, based on written accounts of their lives.
There seems to be a recapitulation of the history of science fiction here, from the fantastic voyage, via planetary romance and war story, to cyberpunk and the singularity, and each stage associated with a characteristic delusion that reality cannot shake. Science fiction continues to kid itself with fantasies like the colonisation of space and the uploading of minds, and Polystom goes on to the end kidding himself that war is glorious, and that a simulation of his dead wife Beeswing can forgive him.