In the nearish future, a handful of wealthy space enthusiasts, weaned on the same kind of fiction a lot of us regularly have our noses in but despairing of NASA's abilities to take humankind to the stars, dedicate themselves to a compromised form of space colonisation. With impressive if rather eccentric ingenuity, they construct airtight houses (perhaps more accurately described as metal sheds) and use private jets to place them in orbit around the Earth. Spanning three generations and composed of various narrative voices, Gradisil follows the birth, adolescence, and young adulthood of this new "country," christened the Uplands, as its population grows and it begins to attract the attention of the governments of the Earthbound nations.
Now, Adam Roberts does a better job than I've just done at making this concept believable, but it's a never-quite-answered question why this claustrophobic, zero-gravity existence would appeal to anyone but the most committed misanthropist, much less to Earth's wealthiest. But if you can overlook that, and if you're willing to be patient with a sometimes long-winded and convoluted narrative, Gradisil repays with a reasonably engaging exploration of some of the more relevant and fraught aspects of life on (and around) planet Earth.
The novel is divided into three parts, each corresponding with three generations of the Uplands' most significant founding members. Part one is essentially a prologue to the main event, the life and times of the Uplands' emerging leader, Gradisil, and her immediate consorts. Charismatic and driven, she begins to galvanise the Uplands' disparate inhabitants with her vision of a new kind of "country," a sort of airborne, anarchistic utopia, the first modern nation not built on conquest and subjugation. It's when America turns its tax-hungry eye and its military might to the new nation above that the novel really kicks into gear; it's also when Roberts rolls up his sleeves and gets political. America's foreign policy gets a predictable dressing down; if there's any doubt that the topicality here is intentional, it's dispelled with Colonel Slater's reflection that "American retaliation would inevitably be swift and overwhelming, shoking [sic], awe inspiring" (p. 330). The chapters concerning American military activity actually tip close to parody in places, although Roberts, with credible evenhandedness, as often uses Gradisil herself to expose the empty and manipulative nature of a certain type of political rhetoric.
When it comes to style, Roberts is damned if he'll restrain himself, employing numerous narrative techniques and off-the-wall, sometimes tangential descriptions as and when he sees fit. This eclectic approach has a success rate in the novel's favour . . . just. In Part One, we learn pretty quickly that we're reading a memoir written by an elderly lady, one who assumes a certain familiarity on our part with what is, from her perspective, old news. We, the implied readers, are shunted into the future, whilst still reading a text that has the sepia-toned, nostalgic feel of a memoir. It's a neat trick. Roberts earns another point with his descriptions of Earth as seen from above, which occur any number of times but are each different, all effective, and many beautiful.
But elsewhere, Roberts seems to be fooling around, leaving me with the impression he'd given his internal editor the afternoon off. For all that the science behind Uplands life is described in believable terms, many of the technological developments down here on Earth are plain daft; witness the development of a drug whereby "a woman could eat as much as she liked, and she would only get fatter in her breasts" (p. 80). Sorry, Roberts; I can't swallow that. And for an example of his freewheeling descriptive style at its most headache inducing, try out the following: "He thinks of his own lips in motion as he speaks: worms writhing, seaslugs in ecstasy, pygmy snakes arching their baks [sic] in a mating dance" (pp. 217-8).
Another problem is that it's hard to find a truly likeable character anywhere in Gradisil's century-spanning pages; both its principal female characters are emotionally cold and self-centred, and their male counterparts either too vicious or too passive. (Greg Bear told a similar story with Moving Mars, as did Ursula K. Le Guin in The Dispossessed; both gave us lead characters we could root for, and their novels are the stronger for it.) The structure of the novel, like an early Uplander house, is somewhat rickety, being oddly and asymmetrically shaped, with Part One too long and Part Three much too short, and the narrative voice, when it shifts from the first person to the third, sometimes becomes self-indulgent and even occasionally presumptuous: "Fish need water t'swim-in, roots need soil t'grow in, soldiers need—but you don't want the platitude" (p. 159).
So this is a fair novel rather than a great one. Its flaws aren't fatal, but you'll have trouble ignoring them. By all means give Gradisil a go—on balance it's worth the effort—just make sure you're in a patient mood.
Finn Dempster lives in Bristol, England. He is usually to be found in his local library, pub, or bookstore, and will get around to doing a PhD one of these days.
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