Gollancz, 2001, 388 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07177-X
What little that I’ve read of Adam Robert’s fiction so far has been heavy with two distinguishing characteristics. First; some gentle stylistic exploration (the implicit ur-narrator in Stone and Salt, for instance) and second; a thirst for world-building. While On doesn’t do much in terms of stylistic experimentation, it’s certainly side-heavy with one strange environment.
In young protagonist Tighe’s life, everything revolves around the Wall. The Wall on whose ledges he and his village live, seeing the sun ascend all day long, not knowing much about what’s above, below or to the side of them. Gravity is paramount, especially when cattle (or people) fall off the ledges. This is not a prosperous life: humanity, in this novel, has been reduced to subsistence living, clustered in theocratic tribes. Tighe is supposed to be quasi-royalty in this village, but the first few chapter only show us a teenager unable to fit in a group that can’t afford secrets or dissent. Perhaps inevitably, he comes to fall off the edge of the Wall.
And so his picaresque adventure begins. Miraculously saved from a hard landing lower down the Wall, he heals and is then sent off to war, soldier in an army bigger than he could ever imagine. Through his adventures, we come to understand the world, discover its secrets and go through a number of most excellent adventures. Precariousness, Adams tells us in an accompanying note, is the keyword of this novel: Tighe’s position is never secure, never stable, never comfortable. He is thrown from an adventure to the other: few of his companions stick around for more than a few pages. Many die horribly.
I wouldn’t so far as to say that world-building is one of Science Fiction’s unique pleasures (Fantasy does it too, in addition to countless historical novels, or even stories set in unfamiliar societies), but On certainly plays the game with a lot of energy: You get used, eventually, to a vertical world and what it implies. This being said, I was never particularly convinced by elements of the basic premise, despite a laborious technical appendix detailing the how and why of On‘s particular situation. (In particular, I kept wondering where water would come from: On horizontal worlds like ours, aquifers are replenished by gravity, which just isn’t possible in On.) Vertical worlds aren’t completely new (K.W. Jeter’s Farewell Horizontal comes to mind, for instance, though that was set on an artificial environment where verticality definitely wasn’t normality), but they have rarely been as all-encompassing as this one. Despite my resistance to stories set in primitive settings, I actually went along with the ride, oohing and aahing whenever Adams wished.
It helps that Adams is a slick professional whose prose clicks effortlessly. There is good forward momentum, and a number of very good scenes: I’m still quite creeped out by a sequence in which one of Tighe’s friend is eaten alive by a Very Large Bug. Sure, On often has the disconnected feel of a novel made out of various vignettes, but it’s reasonably fun to read and seems to be heading somewhere. The prose is uncluttered and it’s almost short enough to avoid overstaying its welcome.
Almost, I said. It may be just a bit too short and leading a bit too far, in fact: the last fifty pages turn into a very different story, one that starts, then stops, then starts again. The last chapter has a curiously unfinished feel to it, almost as if we’d reached the end of the book but not the story. It’s a arguable choice given how the rest of Tighe’s adventures also carry this unfinished feel, but it still feels incomplete. Maybe even silly, if you look at it the wrong way.
This ambivalence may serve to explain how I’m left neither disappointed nor impressed by the novel. Original premise aside, it’s a competent story that is well-handled without any pyrotechnics. Pure mid-list SF, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. But the lack of stylistic flourishes makes me yearn for Adams’ other efforts. Maybe Polystom, the next one on my list, will be more ambitious.