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The Thing Itself cover

How good is Adam Roberts? Here are some phrases from his novels: "He moved with the burly energy of the moneyed" (Swiftly [2008], p. 3). "[L]itter rustled and moved over the entrance-hall floor like paper wildlife" (Yellow Blue Tibia [2009], p. 153). "[T]he hotel, and its many balconies, looked like a chest with all its drawers pulled out" (By Light Alone [2011], p. 1). "The rain fell with a clatter that was smoothed by persistence into something more rhythmically melodic, a large scale hushing or shushing. Cords of water, thick as stethoscope rubber. Dark as any grey was ever dark" (Bête [2014], p. 125). "This narrative, which I hereby doctorwatson for your benefit, o reader, concerns the greatest mystery of our time" (Jack Glass [2012], p. 1).  And here, from his new and remarkable novel, The Thing Itself: "They lay side by side, layered over by the barcode shadows of her venetian blind" (p. 297).

How good is Adam Roberts? If good writing is in one sense about embodying perceptions—about capturing in careful prose the little inspirations that make up how a writer sees the world—then Adam Roberts is a very good writer indeed. All of the phrases I've quoted here pass what Martin Amis calls "the memorability test"—that is, they stick around in your memory of their own accord. That stethoscope rubber! Those barcode shadows! That paper wildlife! That hotel with all its drawers pulled out is something Vladimir Nabokov might have thought of (just as he might have thought of the "fizzing, sinusoidal passage" of skiers down a mountainside, also in By Light Alone). All of these phrases are the fruits of careful observation and of genuine poetic insight. They are, in other words, not just good writing, but the best kind of writing: fresh, original, precise.

And if good writing is in another sense about sheer narrative craftsmanship, then Adam Roberts must also qualify as one of the best around. The opening sentence of Jack Glass does several interesting things—most obviously, it repurposes the name of Sherlock Holmes's  second banana as an instantly intelligible new verb ("doctorwatson")—but one of the most impressive things it does is compel you to keep reading. What is "the greatest mystery of our time"? You have to read the whole novel to find out. Or how about the first sentence of an earlier Roberts novel, the seriously underrated Land of the Headless (2007)? "On Tuesday a genetic materials test confirmed my guilt (but of course this confirmation was only a formality) and on Wednesday I was beheaded" (p. 3). Gordon Lish would call that an "attack sentence." It forces you to read on, to find out what happens next.

I've started off by talking about the quality of Roberts's sentences—the quality of his craftsmanship—not just because this is something that generally gets overlooked in assessments of his fiction, but because I think that the effort to compose great sentences lies somewhere near the core of Roberts's aesthetic, and that this isn't something that's been sufficiently acknowledged. Reviewers of Roberts's fiction tend to handwave about his "beautiful writing," but they seldom if ever actually quote any examples. In fact, SFF reviewing in general—if I may hazard a sweeping generalisation—has had a hard time figuring out what to do with Roberts's work, besides (mostly) praise it. The estimable John Clute, in his entry on Roberts in the SF Encyclopedia, pegs Roberts as a conductor of thought experiments, while simultaneously acknowledging that this venerable item of SF terminology doesn't necessarily fit Roberts's case in every particular. As Clute remarks, the thought experiments underlying Roberts's novels are "strangely remote," and their author "seems relatively indifferent to consequences." Roberts's books, Clute concludes, are "clearly meant as satire," which might be the definition of damning with faint dispraise (meant as satire? Ouch).

Clute's terminological unease—his difficulty in finding a clear subgeneric pigeonhole for whatever it is that Roberts is doing—finds, I think, an echo in the slightly confused ways in which Roberts's novels have been marketed. Or, to put it another way, Roberts's publisher doesn't quite seem to know what to do with him, either. Paperbacks of his early novels carried a blurb from Jon Courtenay Grimwood flagging him as "the king of high-concept," and while Roberts's novels do indeed manipulate a range of high-concept SF ideas with considerable clarity and wit, these ideas aren't the only things that make his novels worth reading—in other words, Roberts's SF ideas, while they are always intriguing and thoroughly worked out on their own (sometimes absurdist) terms, are not the whole point of his novels, as they often are in the novels of less interesting writers.

Paul Kincaid, I think, gets closer to the truth when he identifies Roberts as an author of Menippean satires. This form is named for Menippus of Gadara, a Cynic who wrote in the third century BCE. His works are now lost but he bequeathed to us a form of prose fiction that should, as Northrop Frye argues in The Anatomy of Criticism (1957), be regarded as distinct from the realist-mimetic novel:

The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behavior. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylized rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent. (p. 308)

This description fits any number of Roberts's novels. Stone (2002) gives us a cook's tour of a post-scarcity galactic Utopia, in which the point is less the plot—will Ae destroy the planet his mysterious employers have hired him to obliterate?—than a scathing anatomy of the recklessness and stupidity of a society with nothing to worry about. (This is an idea that Roberts returns to again and again, cf. similar societies in By Light Alone and Jack Glass—in each case, the parallels with the contemporary capitalist West are savagely pointed.) Land of the Headless features characters who are less individuals, in a mimetic-realist sense, than animate points of view—the police inspector, Bonnard, incarnates every petty bureaucrat who ever thrived in a fundamentalist theocracy, and Roberts takes a malicious pleasure in letting his hypocrisy unspool in a sequence of darkly hilarious scenes.

So much for characters representing mental attitudes. What about the "abstract ideas and theories"? Well, quite aside from the "thought experiments" upon which his novels tend to be based, Roberts has an endearing habit of halting his plot for several pages and permitting his characters to discourse on serious intellectual questions (the opening chapter of The Thing Itself features one character explaining Kant's Critique of Pure Reason (1781; 2nd ed. 1787) to another). Readers in search of a propulsive story might conceivably find these interludes an irritation. But they are of the very essence of Roberts's aesthetic: his Menippean impulse to have some serious fictional fun with big ideas.

What Northrop Frye doesn't quite point out—though he does assert that the Menippean satire is "stylized"—is that this kind of fiction is less interested in narrative than it is in style. The Menippean satire is a form uniquely hospitable to the kind of writer (from Thomas Love Peacock to Gore Vidal to Adam Roberts) who wants to write astonishing sentences. If I may hazard another sweeping generalisation, satirists tend to be supernaturally alert to questions of style—they are, after all, professional castigators of bad style (and here I mean "style" in the literary sense, but also in the sense of self-presentation, the myriad forms of hypocrisy and self-deception to be encountered in the great world). Half of the satirist's point is made by simply writing well—writing better, that is, than any of the "Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men" who constitute his/her targets. This is, I think, one reason why the writing of great sentences is close to the heart of Roberts's aesthetic. By writing well, he is making a moral point—a point about how we should see, how we should think, and how we should act.

I realise I'm in danger of making Roberts sound like some kind of didactic, highfalutin show-off—a clever-clogs moralist who fills his novels with arid chats about ideas and who makes fun of fools without ever deigning to sit down and tell a good old-fashioned story. But as his latest book, The Thing Itself, makes clear, Roberts isn't just a creator of highbrow satires. He is also a serious and dedicated narrative craftsman—his novels carry their big ideas and beautiful sentences along on swift rivers of story, and he has the true novelist's knack of surprising you when you least expect it.

So. How good is Adam Roberts? The Thing Itself spirals outward from a typically ingenious conceit: what if the elaborate "Transcendental Philosophy" adumbrated in Immanuel Kant's Critique of Pure Reason was actually a completely accurate description of reality? If you haven't brushed up on your Kant lately, here's a quick refresher: Kant believed that human beings were incapable of perceiving reality as it actually was (he called this unperceivable reality the ding an sich or "thing in itself"). Instead, our apprehension of reality is structured by a series of a priori "categories" (such as "unity," "totality," "causality," and so on) that help us to order the raw material of perception. Got that? Good. (If not, you're in good company: Bertrand Russell, in his History of Western Philosophy [1939], describes Kant's theory as "not clear.")

The story begins with a deft homage to John Carpenter's The Thing (1982)—trust Roberts to notice that the title of Carpenter's movie was already the first half of Kant's "the thing in itself." Two British astrophysicists are alone in an Antarctic research station. One of them, Charles Gardner, is our narrator—painfully English, in the best Roberts tradition ("Crankiness sublimed into anger, which, as an Englishman, and according to the logic of my tribe, I expressed through exaggerated politeness," p. 76). The other, Roy Curtius, is a pain in the neck: a computer nerd who claims he's solved the Fermi Paradox using Kant's Critique. Things go wrong: Roy knocks Charles unconscious, strands him on the ice sheet, and performs some kind of experiment that seems to put both men in touch with the unassimilable horror of "the thing in itself."

From the publisher's description, you'd expect The Thing Itself to continue in this Carpenteresque vein, with Charles and Roy descending into violent paranoia ("Who goes there?") as the Antarctic night descends. But no: suddenly we're reading the diary of a young gay man in 1900, who is Grand Touring around Europe with his lover, Albert, and seeming both to notice and to forget his encounters with "gigantic amoeboid beings, creatures of monstrous otherness" (p. 35), who descend from the sky. What the hell is going on?

It turns out that the main thread of The Thing Itself—which grippingly traces Charles's discovery of the consequences of Roy's experiment—is interwoven with other threads. As well as the Grand Tour diary, there is a pastiche of Molly Bloom's monologue from the end of Ulysses (1922), in which Molly's mother, Lunita, discovers that her orgasms can shape the nature of reality (shades also, here, of Gravity's Rainbow (1973), in which one character's erections seem to predict the launches of V2 rockets). There is also the brilliantly sustained "confession," in cod-seventeenth-century prose, of Thomas Firmin, an abused waif who finds that he can manipulate reality using his mind. We also pay a brief visit to one of Roberts's post-scarcity far-future Utopias, in which history and human nature have been shaped by "AK," or "Applied Kant." Finally, there is a moving near-future section set during the final days of a "time war," in which early experiments in manipulating the thing in itself have allowed people to travel a short distance back in time, after which they begin to fade out of existence, to become "Ghosts."

What links these various excursions is, of course, Roberts's shaping conceit. Across a virtuoso range of tonalities and venues, Roberts traces the consequences of his "what if?"—what if Kant were right? What if "the thing in itself" were real, and what if we found a way to manipulate it? Roberts pursues this donnée with his customary rigour, even when it leads him to some unexpected places. In his Acknowledgements, he describes himself as "an atheist writing a novel about why you should believe in God" (p. 358), which nicely encapsulates some of the subtleties of his thinking in this book. As with his previous novel, the astonishing Bête (2014), The Thing Itself resists casual assimilation—it is a formidably ambitious work, demanding both careful reading and reflection. But it is also a sheer joy to read: not just because it contains a high proportion of beautiful sentences ("He said nothing for a while, yet gazed at the flame of the candle, which moved slow upon its wick like a butterflie of Light tucking up its wings" p. 181) and good jokes ("I passed several farms and one large concrete water tower like a giant robot cock" p. 131); but because it unfolds a gripping plot with consummate skill.

It may, in the end, be a fool's errand to try to categorise a novelist as original as Roberts. Even a relatively capacious term like "Menippean satire" starts to look imprecise when applied to a novel like The Thing Itself, which depends for so many of its effects on a deliberately sustained generic instability. Like Bête, this latest novel is less interested in satirising the world than it is in interrogating it, to moving effect. After sixteen novels, Roberts seems to be engineering his own new forms. How good is Adam Roberts? He isn't like anyone else. You should read him.


Kevin Power’s novel, Bad Day in Blackrock, is, alas, not SF. He is a freelance writer based in Dublin, where he reviews regularly for The Sunday Business Post. You can email him here.
One comment on “The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts”
Andrew Mamo

Another theme in Roberts' novels - one that counters the 'high concept' label - is the extreme level of bodily violence, pain and mutilation he has inflicted on his main characters. They are subjected to extreme physical trauma and degradation in pursuit of the truth of their circumstances. On this level, one could compare his work to the body horror of Cronenberg.


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