The title Adam Robots is a giveaway (as are the stereotyped science-fiction artifacts, most notably a clockwork robot, displayed on the cover). Is this a joke? splutters the unwary reader. Well, yes. This is a playful exercise, and something of a relief from ways in which we are told how important SF is. "I like," says Roberts in his introduction, "the idea of writing at least one thing in all the myriad sub-genres and sub-sub-genres of SF," and the twenty-four stories collected here are his attempts to fulfill that ambition. Except, of course, that Roberts is also careful to tell us that the stories here are "all different (apart from the one which isn't)" (p. 1). So this is also a scholarly game, starting with the pun on the author's name, which weaves through the way science fiction can be the most multi-vocal of genres.
And also, Adam Roberts is A. R. R. Roberts, parodist, but more of that later.
The first story, "Adam Robots," retells the Eden myth in SF terms. A robot comes to consciousness in a garden and is not allowed to access a jewel. Why? Surely, the robot argues, it would have made more sense to have instilled this prohibition in its programming, than simply tell it? There is of course a reason, which partly comes out of the fact that this is a science fiction story, but it is also the SF nature of the tale that allows it to be not just an Adam and Eve (or Adam and Adam) story but a theological meditation in itself: i.e. the story offers a theological excuse for the use of robots as labor. Labor, so the Book of Genesis tells us, is the curse of Eden. That, by the way, is not the twist. The twist is more ingenious, and more theologically probing, than that.
Similarly, Adam Robots the collection is more than simply the robot story (tick), the story about immortality (tick), the time-travel story (tick), but a reminder that Adam Roberts the author /A. R. R. R. Roberts the jokester is also Professor Adam Roberts the critic who is paid to think about the way genres and stories work. And so, as he points out, the twenty-four individual stories in the collection bear multiple meanings. The Adam-and-Eve story is part of a long tradition of SF’s attempts to play games with established myths (and the robot itself as an icon goes back at least to Central European tales of golems and arguably as far back as Homeric Greek references to automata created by Hephaestus, the smith of the gods) so the fusing of these images in the title story is a reference to Roberts's suggestion that these stories are all different, even in the ways in which they differ. And so the second story, "Shall I Tell You the Problem with Time Travel?" is a time travel story and the obligatory tale of scientific hubris, and the third story is about immortality but is also a prison story, etc. and so on. (Except that Roberts's preface reverses the order and who knows but that he may be right: I very successfully read "A Prison Term of a Thousand Years" as about time and thought of the fate of the protagonist in "Time Travel" as a kind of incarceration before I realized that there were very obvious clues in the titles. Once games start being played, one looks for trickery everywhere!)
With this in mind, it is, perhaps, a trifle wearisome (Roberts's own word, here!) to list through two dozen stories and point to the ways in which they either do, or do not, or possibly might or might not, correspond to the generic patterns of SF and the expectations which we as experienced readers might want to bring to them. Each reader, I suspect, will enjoy individual stories for reasons which are quite other than the exercise in game-playing which is their apparent raison d'être (and despite the clever packaging, it's best to note that the vast majority of these stories appeared in various anthologies, magazines, and websites over the past decade, so it's probable that the rules of the game have been formulated as a result of the writer's search for novelty rather than the critic's search for analysis). Nevertheless writer/critic have been working in tandem here, and whether we follow the author's quest for difference (and differing differences) or not, we can still learn a lot about science fiction in an interesting way through these stories. My own favorite in this respect—not necessarily the best story in the collection, but the one that spoke to me most—is "The Mary Anna," which is Adam Roberts's Alfred Bester-baroque sub-genre, or as he himself calls it an "exercise in classic Golden Age sf" (p. 1) which is pretty much the same thing. It's also A. R. R. R. Roberts meets Kipling, but is rather trumped by Professor Roberts of Royal Holloway, University of London.
"The Mary Anna" is a parody set in the kind of neo-space opera inspired by Kipling's works. Some of the background, such as almost throwaway references to "Ulanovs" suggests the world of Roberts's BSFA award-winning novel Jack Glass (2012), which with its fusion of SF and golden age murder mystery tropes also played the cross-genre game. At first, it's simply light verse, echoing (often directly) its source, Kipling's "The Mary Gloster." A billionaire who has risen from the gutter to tear his fortune out of the spaceways leaves his deathbed instructions to his wastrel son, and while we may not like this ruthless robber-baron we can at least admire him for his energy and enterprise and sympathize with his disappointment in a son who is "Happy to live on my money, contented to slosh it away." Kipling writes with overt contempt:
. . . you're nearer forty than thirty, and I know the kind you are.
Harrer an' Trinity College! I ought to ha' sent you to sea—
But I stood you an education, an' what have you done for me?
The things I knew was proper you wouldn't thank me to give,
And the things I knew was rotten you said was the way to live . . .
In lines closely echoed by Roberts (though his "you're nearer sixty than fifty" (p. 81) is a neat nod to lifespans extended from the nineteenth century), but Roberts creates a baroque space opera out of the dying man's desperate instructions to honor the narrator's wife, the true brains and energy of the outfit in both Kipling's original and Roberts's parody, by having his corpse jettisoned where he had abandoned her charred body after a police-ship's attack. (Kipling simply says "She died in Macassar Straits," but the instructions are the same.)
The rhythms of "The Mary Gloster" and Kipling's other great song of an early adopter of a transformative new technology, "McAndrew's Hymn," resonate throughout. While Roberts's poem is a clever updating of the original, the critic in Roberts will have noted both the debt to Kipling in another unfashionable writer, Robert A. Heinlein, in many ways his thematic and political successor, and the way Kipling pioneered a kind of imperial SF in stories like "With the Night Mail" (1904), which portrayed the unforeseen consequences of the forthcoming command of the airways. While "The Mary Anna" lacks Kipling's driving, obsessive hammer blows of language and the poignancy of the original, it's as lively a parody of capitalist space-opera as "Adam Roberts" is of the robot story. It's also a sharp piece of fiction-as-criticism, reminding us how great Kipling was. Although perhaps best read with the knowledge of "The Mary Gloster" in the background, what thrums through it is not detailed awareness of Kipling as writer but simply the knowledge that Kipling was the poet of Imperial Britain at its height, and a sense of the way that twentieth-century science fiction (particularly the SF of the Great Power that succeeded Britain as Imperial torchbearer) took entrepreneurs and adventurers as its heroes. Heinlein, or Poul Anderson, could and did write stories with such characters to the fore, and these stories were among their best. "The Mary Anna" is not parasitic on Kipling, though it repeats (almost certainly too often) the actual lines of the original, because it makes one central and important point amid the fun. It draws attention to the fact that through his narrator Kipling, as much as any modern SF writer, is depicting a society in the throes of transformation by driven, hard-bitten people in tune with what new technologies can do, and that this transformation can result in strange and different futures.
More obvious space-opera (and more A. R. R. R. Roberts) appears in stories like "The Imperial Army," a send-up of militaristic SF with an Evil Alien Enemy reminiscent of Heinlein's Starship Troopers (1959) (or possibly more Harry Harrison's Bill, the Galactic Hero (1965)) and a protagonist hired as a teenager to produce sperm which will become the soldiers for the Human Galactic Empire of a Million Years Peace and Prosperity who "wanted to be a mainstay of Humanity's defense against the menace of the Virus Race" (p. 160). Discovering what his sperm is used for, Sid joins a resistance group but eventually enlists and rises through the ranks. The humor is hardly subtle, but nor is the sub-sub-genre which is being skewered here, and the ultimate source of the vast expendable horde of grunts which Sid joins has to be one of the best examples of SF's ability to literalize metaphor.
Other stories offer equally playful, but perhaps subtler manipulations of SF's "givens." In "Constellations" a fundamentalist religious society is dedicated to remaking the world physically as well as morally. Beginning with a slapstick conversation between two fathers exasperated by teenage difficultness in matters like which bodily orifices should be covered (Strong-in-the-Lord's argument that it’s to do with what comes out of these orifices is perfectly reasonable, after all, even though "I don't see why God would be upset if we showed our nostrils" (p. 274) also has a strong ring to it), it reveals Stron and his workmate as engineers devoted to redesigning coasts to smooth out all the messy irregularities of the physical world. But Stron's dissident brother, an astronomer, seems to have discovered something that throws into question the fact that the stars are neatly arranged in patterns to show God's majesty. This is a conceptual breakthrough story—as is, more literally, "Wonder: A Story in Two" (sic) the first part of which (Roberts explains) is based upon the so-called "Flammarion woodcut," thought at first to be a medieval image but more likely a nineteenth-century pastiche, which shows a man literally breaking through the firmament of stars to see a mysteriously mechanical universe beyond. "ReMorse®" is possibly the most conventional SF in the collection: a clever and chilling story about a drug developed to increase empathy and therefore make even the thought of hurting another subject to agonizing pangs of remorse—except of course that intense experiences of any kind become attractive for certain mind-sets. "Woodpunk" ingeniously fuses two opposing wings of SF—the organic/green/ecological/natural-world focus of, say Ursula K. Le Guin in "The Word for World Is Forest" and "Vaster Than Empires, and More Slow" and cyberpunk. "Pied" gives us a series of apocalypses from which we are saved up to and including the defeat of Satan, and asks what the cost of such salvation might be. "The Time Telephone" offers three vignettes in which communication through time is the scenario. "Throwness" has its narrator jumping every three days from one reality to another identical to it in every way except that in it, nobody seems to know him.
Playfulness, though, is the watchword. Just as the narrator in "Throwness" cites the film Groundhog Day to explain what is happening to him, so other SF is constantly referred to directly or indirectly. Sub- and sub-sub genres are invoked. "And Tomorrow And" is the immortality story, the Shakespeare story, the story that explores logical paradox; Roberts explains in his afterword to the story how he came to realize that Macbeth is a comic play, at least in the sense of black comedy in the face of horror, and here he subverts the logic which underlies the witches' fate for the Scottish king. Another literary classic, this time a science fiction one, appears in "The World of the Wars" which offers the Wellsian argument against Imperialist war via an argument between two Martians but which also "explains" a logical flaw in the ending of Wells's novel. "The Man of the Strong Arm" is perhaps the "recursive science fiction" story in the collection with its reference to the Martian tales of Edgar Rice Burroughs among the stories collected by a historian in a dystopian future which only knows our time through distorted fictions. The story of the Apollo moon landing is seen as a mythological story likened to our era's science fiction: telling "a purely fantastical imaginary story in a peculiarly detailed realistic way" (p. 234). The pun with which the story ends is appropriate to its source. Similarly, "Me-topia" is full of references to science fiction; "we fell through like in a sffy film" (p. 252); "A forbidden planet. That's SF-y, isn’t it?" (p. 354). All this rather intrudes into a story of uplifted Neanderthals crashing onto the personal world of a Sapiens, which ends with an ambiguous (ir)resolution. It's a novel-sized idea in a story which takes it up and plays with it rather than develops in a way a less self-conscious author might do.
It’s perhaps this self-consciousness, this undermining of the gosh-wow obviousness in stories which are as gosh-wow as any Golden Age science fiction which sometimes makes us wonder whether the triple Roberts (one alter ego is fine: two may be overdoing it a little) is perhaps too rich a diet. Roberts's strength is that he sees SF as both cerebral and playful, but occasionally we wish for some straight down-the-line space opera or bioengineering epic which isn't nudging us to grin at its predecessors. At novel length, as with the fine Jack Glass and recursive rewritings such as Swiftly (2008) and Splinter (2007), Roberts gives himself time to explore. At short story length we are rather too dependent on the effect of the moment. Adam Robots succeeds on the basis of the author's ability to take the vast variety within SF as his theme, but if we are to have more collections of Adam Roberts's fine shorter work (as I hope we are), it might be better for the stories if they stood on their own rather than shouted "clockwork robots!" at us.
Andy Sawyer is librarian of the Science Fiction Foundation Collection at the University of Liverpool Library, and a widely published critic. For ten years he was Course Director of the MA in Science Fiction Studies offered by the University's School of English. He is Reviews Editor of Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction. He recently co-edited (with David Ketterer) Plan for Chaos, a previously unpublished novel by John Wyndham and (with Peter Wright) Teaching Science Fiction in the Palgrave "teaching the New English" series. He was the 2008 recipient of the Clareson Award for services to science fiction.