Polystom, Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2003, 294 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07179-6

Part of the reason why I’m still blathering reviews on this web site after ten years (what, you didn’t notice our ten-year anniversary? Aw.) is that I remain fascinated by the mysteries of reading. I’m not an overly analytical reader, so I always end up discussing a variation on So, how much did I like it? Even after years of voracious reading, there are always a few surprises in store. For instance, why I can go nuts for dull thrillers that don’t do anything new (see above for John Grisham) yet feel dissatisfied by ambitious novels.

Which brings us to Adam Roberts’ Polystom.

I’ve been following Roberts’ work with some interest this far: Salt On Stone were imperfect novels, but short and quirky enough to warrant a bit of admiration. Additionally, Roberts is a keen critic (I still haven’t found any of his paper-based critical essays, but his annual examinations of the Clarke Awards short-list for Infinity Plus are always a joy to read) and his pseudonymous work writing literary parodies such as The McAtrix Derided are simply a lot of fun. Would Polystom be Roberts’ big breakout novel?

No.

Under a different form, it could have been Robert’s big breakout short story. But as it stands, it’s simply too problematic to be anything more than a disappointment.

Oh, the setup is interesting. Taking place in an alternate pocket solar system where the rules of physics allow air travel between planets and moon, the world of Polystom is one that seems charmingly stuck between Victorian England and World War One. Our eponymous hero is one of the upper classes, owner of a vast estate and absolute master over a population of servants. But Polystom is an unlucky fellow even in love: his new wife turns out to be unbalanced (though what part Polystom plays in the unbalancing is left to the reader) and the marriage flounders. Further shocks are to come when his uncle, a genius-level scientist, is murdered by parties unknown. Soon enough, Polystom finds himself stuck on Mudworld, dodging bullets and leading his own servants to serve as cannon fodder.

If the above sounds interesting, reflect upon the fact that it’s about as exciting as the novel ever gets. Some novels draw in their readers from the first few pages and never let go; others tempt the audience with cryptic events that will hopefully make sense later on: Polystom is definitely in that second category, though it doesn’t exactly make sense once it’s all over. Worse; it’s actively disjointed. Consciously divided in three parts, Polystom moves from love to murder to war with picaresque abandon, only to end with a metaphysical twist that is not without raising memories of The Robertski Brothers’ work. I don’t begrudge the final twist: the four pages appendix is a neat little literary/scientific joke, easily the most amusing thing about Polystom. But said twist can seem to exist simply to distract our attention from all the frayed threads: One gets the mental image of confronting Roberts with explanations, only to be answered by “Oh, look at that comet!”

There is another possibility, of course, one that I am far too proud to consider at length: that all the answers are there, that Polystom is a tight little piece of literary Science Fiction and that I’m simply too dull/stupid/ignorant to get the references. Maybe the hand-shaped hole means something. Maybe the uncle/father slip-up means something (well, beyond the obvious). Maybe the names are all highly significant in a literary tradition I’m ill-equipped to follow. Maybe the late-third ghosts all make perfect sense. Maybe the metaphysical twist brilliantly ties everything together. Maybe.

But my first feeling after closing the last pages of the book is that Polystom is the chatty first draft of something else. That Cleonicles’s info-dump is a clumsy re-thread of On‘s wizardly explanations, although without that book’s interesting adventures. I’m glad to see that Adams’ usual world-building prowesses and gentle stylistic experimentation are back, but I’m sorry to find out that they’re not used to significant impact. And that’s too bad, because I keep hoping that Adams will turn out a book that I will be able to enjoy whole-heartedly. As it stands, I’m still partial to Salt and Stone: Maybe The Snow will be a step in the right direction.

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