I have a public apology to make. When I was an undergraduate, I took a prescribed course on eighteenth century literature. Our seminar leader was a thoroughly charming and accommodating chap named Peter Hinds. Each week for 10 weeks, he would assign our class a novel or collection of poems to read for discussion in the following session. For 10 weeks, I came into his office week in and week out and brought my brimming hatred of Neoclassicism and eighteenth century navel-gazing, telling him the piece he had picked was a hopeless bit of literary dross which he must surely know and why was he wasting our time with this rubbish anyway? Peter Hinds, I am sorry. You will hopefully remember fondly, though, the week I let you have a break from all that. You may even recall that it was the week we discussed Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts, by Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships.
Jonathan Swift's vivid satire is of course more popularly known as Gulliver's Travels, and it has passed into that realm of myth which so few novels ever achieve. Words Swift created—Lilliputian, Brobdingnagian, Yahoo—have entered the English language as synonyms for the states enjoyed by the creatures Gulliver encountered. Screen adaptation after screen adaptation have cast and recast the story (in fact, usually only parts of it) in myriad ways, from Aleksandr Ptushko's pro-Communist The New Gulliver (1935) to the deliberately faithful 1996 Ted Danson TV movie. Literary critics, meanwhile, continue to argue about Swift's intentions and message. By pitching his wildly brilliant work not at one target but many—most scenes of the book satirise at least two quite separate targets (for instance in the case of the war between Lilliput and Blefuscu, which aims its ire at both the endless aggression between England and France, but also Catholics and Protestants, Whigs and Tories, and any other group at trivial but deadly odds with each other)—Swift ensured its unchallenged immortality.
Of course, this also ensured it wasn't science fiction—or rather, would never be credibly claimed as such by later critics. Swift doesn't care about the implications of his tiny people or his large people on their wider environment, about the way in which Laputa's thinking machine works, or how a talking horse might actually go about talking. Satire, not speculation, is his purpose. Yet so vividly imagined are his far away lands that it is difficult not to want to learn more about them—to explore them in ways in which Swift simply wasn't interested.
To this end, Adam Roberts's Swiftly posits a world in which what Gulliver reports was literally true. Upon the publication of his discoveries, the imperial powers of Europe sailed to the land of the "Pacificans" and, as imperial powers are wont to do, enslaved the populace and mined their resources. When Roberts's story begins, it is 1848 (we will soon realize that setting this story in the year which in our world is known for its widespread revolutions is fitting) and the Liliputians and Blefuscans are put to tedious, unpaid work in manufactories across England, producing impossibly intricate embroidery and clockwork, whilst their imperial masters have invaded France and are on the verge of victory.
This first chapter of the novel originally appeared as a short story at the late lamented Sci Fiction. It is very good. Personal and yet somehow expansive, it lets us into its fully imagined world with a soft eloquence. We meet Abraham Bates, a sort of Wilberforce for the Lilliputian cause, who is motivated by a sense of godly shame in a youthful indiscretion to undertake the thankless penance of campaigning for the abolition of "small people" slavery. Roberts immediately rules out making his hero anything close to enlightened—"God has allotted slavery to one portion of his creation," he explains to the owner of a manufactory, "and marked that portion by blackening their skins" (p. 11 of my proof). Bates is an unlikeable prig whose Christianity is a sort of do-gooding con trick, designed to make him feel better about his own sinful—and traitorous—nature.
For we quickly learn that Bates is in league with France, a nominal supporter of Lilliputian freedom which has formed an alliance with the Brobdignagian giants and plans to turn back the English army and invade their homeland. The rest of the novel plays out the consequences of this successful counter-attack. The second of the four large chapters takes a similar tack to the first, refracting the world through the personal prism of the story's female protagonist, Eleanor Davis. The final half of the book widens out the drama to an increasingly epic scale. At its heart, though, is the theme introduced so firmly with that turnaround of war—the fluctuating yet constant power structures of human society.
It is a theme that would have been familiar to Swift, but Roberts takes Gulliver's world and, instead of satirising the absurd choices humans tend to make, asks why we make them. The answer, baldly, is the will to power, but the novel is less an exploration of that than an analysis of the forms in which that will manifests itself: less about the motivation, and more about the act; the structures rather than the stresses. "As Eleanor thought about the subject [of finance]," we are told, "she found herself wondering where any money came from" (p. 51). It is the arbitrary nature of the systems in which we live at which Roberts aims his inquiry.
This makes for some satisfying writing. The relationships of each and every character seem overlaid with power structures of one kind or another—from Bates's subordinate status to his political master the Comte d'Ivoi, or relationship to his religious superior, the cocaine-addled Dean of York, to Eleanor's dependence first upon her widowed mother and then her vulgar husband. Roberts thus makes great use of that most perfected of Victorian arts, the class system, to push his idea that power systems serve to contract the ability of individuals to make free choices. Within such structures, each of the characters has only a limited number of options in any given situation, making each action they can perform imperfect to one extent or another. Even Roberts's least sympathetic figures, such as John Burton, Eleanor's emotionally constipated husband who forces himself upon his unwilling wife in order to consummate their union, are allowed glimmers of humanity which allow the reader to inspect their motivations with something approaching empathy. In this way, we are at each turn made acutely aware of the power relationships at play. There is a fully formed and functioning society at the heart of this novel, which is as much a character as the rounded individuals who inhabit it.
Crucially, then, Roberts does not leave his world building at Swift's door. Still, there are wonderful touches in his treatment of the familiar figures from Gulliver's Travels. Houyhnhnms, the talking horses from Part IV of Swift's book, form "sapient cavalry" in the armies of Europe; Yahoos beserker infantry in the English payroll; and, in a delightful example of that which separates science fiction from the merely fantastical, there is a serious discussion of the problem of rain in Lilliput.
"And so you were compelled to seek shelter," said Bates, hugging himself, "or have your head stoved-in by these raindrops, I see, I see. Sir, little sir, I sympathise—for it is a fierce rainfall, I agree. I suppose the rain is thinner in your homeland."
"You suppose as a fool supposes," said the Lilliputian. He kept his eyes unwaveringly upon Bates. "Rain falls the same size the world across." (p. 288)
Later, we learn that, in Lilliput and Blefuscu, there are shelters in every town and on every street, along every road and highway, where people hide from deadly precipitation. Swift, of course, never bothered—never needed—to think through such problems. Roberts also transplants problems Swift did identify—the terrifying coldness of the Houyhnhnms' logic, for instance—to human society, giving Eleanor a desire to conduct experiments upon Lilliputians, and to own one as an expensive pet, providing an insight into how such a world would affect the thought process of its inhabitants. As a work of science fiction, Swiftly thinks through the implications of its world more coherently than could have been thought possible of so broad a satirical world as Swift's. It is still a wholly unlikely universe, but Roberts has at least given it internal coherence.
Indeed, as the novel proceeds, he begins not just to codify but expand Swift's universe. Of course, the principal joy of Gulliver's Travels is in its juxtapositions—the superiority felt by Gulliver and the reader in Lilliput gives way, in Brobdingnag, to a sense of irrelevance and impotency in the face (or, rather, ankles) of such giants. Likewise, the intellectual loftiness Gulliver enjoys in comparison with the bumbling academics of Laputa in Part III gives way, in Part IV, to the humbling of humanity's presumptions before the refined logic of the Houyhnhnms. Roberts takes this one step further—if, in Swift's world, there exist creatures both 12 times larger and smaller than humans, why not creatures of a similar scale smaller or larger than Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, and ones yet smaller or larger than they?
Roberts uses this speculation to explore the place of humanity, their power systems, and the assumptions they encourage, in the wider cosmos. Of course, this is a rather old fashioned conceit—that old question about alien visitors, and why should they view us any differently to the way in which we view ants, is merely given a new twist, with the help of an internationally famous eighteenth century cleric and pamphleteer. Indeed, Swiftly is a consciously retro novel, using the tropes of the nineteenth-century invasion story to satisfying effect. Roberts inverts Wells's famed disease plot McGuffin from The War of the Worlds (1898), turning it on the defenders rather than the invaders. He takes the invasion of an unprepared England by an overwhelmingly efficient continental force from George Tomkyns Chesney's The Battle of Dorking (1872), or a sense of imperial fragility from William Le Quex's The Great War in England in 1897 (1897). He even puts in a bit of bastardised steampunk, postulating the possibility of clockwork flying machines piloted by Lilliputians.
Roberts has for some years made a crust by penning, under a variety of increasingly transparent pen names, a swath of parodies based on famous works, from The Hobbit (The Soddit, 2003), to The Matrix (The McAtrix Derided, 2004). In Swiftly, he takes this talent for cannibalisation to a more serious end—he creates a world which, in its variety of familiar motifs, reminds us of something we should know and yet is not. We feel at home here, even whilst being constantly reminded that we are far from that. Roberts deepens yet further our empathy for his at-sea protagonists. The world has changed—I feel it in the prose.
For all its neatness and fun, however, the novel has a few problems. For one, like David Marusek's Counting Heads (2005), it never quite betters the short story it begins with and grew from. Swiftly morphs many times—from war story to buddy movie, from travelogue to romantic comedy—and carries off each change with considerable aplomb, but by its end it still hasn't quite got to the end. Tellingly, the action is cut off at the close of the final chapter, just as the characters are about to approach the novel's core mystery, and we are simply told what followed in an epilogue set one year later. The plots barrel along well enough, and feature a pleasing variety of vignettes and approaches, but still seem to somehow not quite fit together, to not quite coalesce into a final denouement without the deliberate insertion by the author of a frustrating, but finalising, ellipsis.
This is something the reader only notices once finished, however, and in that respect it is a criticism which doesn't have much to say about how enjoyable the book is to read. What is more problematic as one goes through the book is the treatment of its characters. In the first half, the character studies are spot on, convincing depictions of people as they are: all imperfections, rough edges, good intentions, and poor motives. But as Roberts's narrative begins to demand transformation of the characters—both for the good of their emotional arc and their utility to the demands of his plots—they seem not quite to maintain their verisimilitude. They are, to be sure, put through the wringer before they emerge with different aspects and attitudes, yet somehow their development can't quite convince.
Bates, for instance, goes from repressed Orientalist to adulterous humanist (with a sideline in a fetish for fecal matter) within 200 pages. The seeds of this transformation exist from the first page, yet somehow the events which conspire to enact it fail to convince. It is not enough, perhaps, to lead Bates through a series of picaresque adventures designed to give him a new understanding of himself and of Creation. It is necessary for Bates to have time to reflect. The demands of the narrative, however, allow no time for tarrying, and instead Roberts sets up a series of events which are clearly designed to wreak the required changes upon his characters, but after which the changes are rendered instantaneously. The empathy Roberts has carefully built up creaks under the strain.
It does, however, survive. Though the plot becomes the driving force in the book's second half, its human moments remain the most affecting. Eleanor is at one point late in the book given the opportunity to view a pitched battle between the English and the French from a perspective resembling that of the general of a tabletop army. "His face was bleeding," she observes of one horribly real toy soldier. "Needles of wood had embedded themselves therein. All from a mere puff of dust! But, of course, the artificial silence of these images belied the violence" (p. 318). This depiction of the separation of scale, the dangers of watching war and violence from afar and without engaging one's emotional faculties, is as eloquent a defence as Roberts makes of ignoring structures and seeing instead people, struggling to do their best in difficult circumstances.
"I have ever hated all Nations, Professions and Communities; and all my love is towards Individuals … Principally, I hate and detest that animal called Man, although I heartily love John, Peter, Thomas and so forth." Jonathan Swift's febrile imagination gave the world the finest satire of Man's absurdity, but it also gave it one of its most disarmingly human narrators: Lemuel Gulliver, though priggish, prone to self-love and often wholly ineffectual, has nevertheless elicited the affection of millions. Swift's hatred of structures and systems, but his love of individuals with their foibles and quirks, is brought to the fore in Swiftly, a worthy science fictional successor to Swift's indispensable masterwork. If Roberts has explicated Swift's surreal world with wit and not a little learning, he has also in no small part written a book equal parts adventure story and social commentary. Its philosophy is Swift's, but its success is all Roberts's own.
Dan Hartland has been doing this too long to think anyone cares who he is.