Stone, Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2002, 316 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-575-07396-9

One of the many great things about living in Canada is that thanks to our dual imperialistic allegiances, we have access to both American and British literary output. In the Science Fiction field, this is a fairly big deal given how many of the best SF authors are not published on one or the other side of the Atlantic. Widely-acclaimed authors such as Richard Morgan, Alastair Reynolds or Jon Courtenay Grimwood are available overseas years before American publishers deign to import their stuff.

Adam Roberts is one of those authors, a decent SF writer whose name barely raises a glimmer of recognition in America. But up here in Canada, all it takes is a well-stocked chain bookstore or even a mega-discount bookstore and -hurrah-, Adam Roberts’ books can be carried home. After years of hesitations, I finally broke down and grabbed Stone, the most intriguing of Robert’s four novels so far.

The back-cover blurb certainly promises a heck of a ride: In a future where humanity lives comfortably in a galaxy made habitable by faster-than-light travel and nanotech (“dotTech”, as it’s called), the only murderer in the known universe is jailed within the core of a star. Chapters later, he escapes thanks to mysterious patrons who only ask for one trifling favour in return: Kill the entire population of a certain planet. But as our anti-hero progresses toward his goal, he becomes fascinated by a very simple question: Who hired him? And why are they so intent on mass murder?

Throw in some fancy quantum mechanics, plenty of exotic planetary environments, an easy familiarity with the tools of SF as well as some gratuitously pedantic quirks, and it’s easy to see that Roberts is a true professional with a deep understanding of the genre. Stone may not be a classic for the ages, but it’s thoroughly satisfying and that’s more than what we usually get.

Adams takes interesting risks in telling the story through our murderer/investigator itself, a narrator of dubious gender (having been both) and variable morality. (“I am a bad man, I’ve done some bad things. I beg your pardon, stone, in telling you these things” [P.1]) Stone takes the form of a meandering monologue, going from one thing to another and embedding levels of flashbacks in a complex narrative. Flashy, showy… but effective.

(Another level of narration is weaved throughout the story as is “translated” by an occasionally-felt editor who inserts gratuitous footnotes discussing translation difficulties. Some footnotes add amusingly useless information on the narrator’s times: My favourite remains the one on page 71, where the narrator’s “The star was called after stuttering conglomeration of letters and numbers, I forget exactly which(1)” is immediately footnoted with “(1): NX-17aOH”. Funny stuff!)

Fans of exotic travelogues will take delight in the series of weird planets environments described by the narrator as he sets about his journey. There is a grandiose uselessness to parts of Stone that is hard to resist; sure, the story could have been half a short, but isn’t it neat that Roberts is spending so much time and energy giving us such extraneous material? (The glossary is particularly wasted: hidden at the end of the book, it’s sandwiched between the conclusion of the narrative and an excerpt from Roberts’ next novel, a location that ensues that no-one will spot it before the end of the novel.)

Other neat touches clearly show that Roberts is an author who knows what he’s doing. The novel’s first murder is a gruesome sequence made even more affecting by the required effort in an age where nanotech can fix most fatal afflictions. In a novel so much fun it’s easy to forget we’re cheering for a mass murderer, this passage does much to ground the novel in a more serious vein. Other neat touches include the narrator’s progressive understanding of the situation he’s in, complete with red herrings, psychological breakdowns and tasty tech details. (I especially liked how a decaying AI stuck in his head breaks down in mid-sentence, saddling the narrator with a severe case of tinnitus. This is the kind of stuff that -ahem- sticks in mind when thinking about a particular novel.)

After all is said and done, Stone is one of those standalone SF novels where seemingly every single nook and cranny and special feature of the invented universe comes into play in explaining the significance of the novel’s event. Don’t get me wrong: I love this stuff. But even the satisfying conclusion can seems like a let-down after the terrific build-up. No matter; my local bookstore has a few more of Roberts’ novels in stock… but not for much longer.

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