Gradisil, Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2006, 458 pages, C$12.99 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07817-0

I’m not the first person to link the old “familiarity breeds contempt” with the new “uncanny valley”, but I don’t think anyone yet has used to expressions to refer to Adam Roberts’ interestingly flawed Gradisil.

Every one of Adams’ novels so far has tackled different sub-genres of science-fiction along with some stylistic experimentation. Results have been mixed: Roberts is very clever, but this doesn’t always translate in a satisfying reading experience.

I’ve been waiting a while for the Adams novel I would wholeheartedly embrace, and I had high hopes for his hard-SFish Gradisil. After all, hard-SF is the type of SF I know best and like most: I’m considerably more lenient about it than I am about other kinds of science-fiction. But I hasn’t counted on the possibility of someone trying to write hard-SF and getting it wrong.

We can quibble endlessly on the definition of hard-SF, or on whether getting the details is more important than portraying the correct attitude. Given Roberts’ iconoclastic output so far, it would have been unrealistic to expect slavish devotion to the often-simpleminded ideals of the crudest hard-SF, but that doesn’t excuse any of the gigantic science blunders that repeatedly slap readers across the brow as they try to make it through Gradisil.

The first and most obvious one almost gets a pass: The idea of harnessing unexplored properties of electromagnetic fields to get to space more efficiently than chemical rockets is pretty unlikely, but it’s integral to the rest of the novel. But what does not manage to suspend disbelief as well is the conceit that private individuals would seize upon this to colonize near-earth orbit while NASA, the military and large telecommunication companies keep struggling with traditional launchers. You would think that after a few successful private launches, the Big Players wouldn’t just move into the field, but would own it outright.

But Adams’ insistence on presenting a deformed mirror of American-libertarian hard-SF is pure enough that he ignores historical precedents, real-world technology and elementary physics on his way to the story he really wants to tell. In his imagined future, for instance, the might of the American military has somehow forgotten to track orbiting objects the size of buses, even while real-world satellite tracking is something that’s not much more than a Google query away. This gets pretty hard to explain when entire subplots of Gradisil depend on people hiding in plain sky while authorities look befuddled. Other blunders are much funnier to anyone with a good understanding of high school physics: The orbital colonists of Gradisil are somehow able to suck refreshing oxygen from the atmosphere out of 50-kilometer long capillaries and pumps that are somehow more efficient than, oh, space itself.

Sometimes, it’s hard to decide whether Adams is just kidding, because even his heart doesn’t seem into it. At the end of the novel’s first section, he introduces a fan-based pseudo-gravity system (in which, yes, big fans push you to the “ground” of a space station) that is so stupid that even the characters complain about it. It’s justified as another one of those dumb military innovations, which is perfectly in-character for a novel that tries to portray the military as being both terminally stupid and dangerously clever at the same time. After so many mistakes and missteps, the real question about Gradisil becomes why Adams has attempted to write something that looks like a hard-SF novel if he thinks so little of the form.

Because Gradisil is a pseudo-hard-SF novel. It attempts to disguise itself under jargon and science, but its obvious lack of authenticity only reinforces the fact that it’s an pretentious poser. It ended up annoying me like few novels I’ve read recently. It got on my nerves with a loathing born out of familiarity. I won’t always try to defend hard-SF’s failings, but it’s got a real heart underneath the mechanical trappings: A vision of a better world through human ingenuity and advanced technology. Good old-fashioned hard-SF may be too blunt for the rarefied sensibilities of the literary set, but it’s literature for the rest of us readers who would rather play around with high-tech toys than discuss literary theory. Gradisil makes a big show of being literature for engineers, but it ends up looking foolishly like a snarker dressing up with oversize glasses and pocket protectors. It’s not fooling anyone, and it falls right in the uncanny valley of novels that pretend to be “down with it” but really don’t have the slightest clue what “it” is and think they can fake it with big brains and fancy language.

I haven’t mentioned the characters or the story yet because, in many ways, they’re the most disappointing part of the novel. In another twist from the hard-SF gold standard, the characters are built to be hated. Meanwhile, none of the hilarious science errors are redeemed by the overlong multi-generational plot that barely warrants the “saga” description, nor a narration that gets increasingly showy as language drifts away from turn-of-the-century standard. It’s very clever, see, but it’s not doing much to make the novel better.

The flip-side of my annoyed, vaguely disgusted reaction to Gradisil is the very real possibility that someone else without as big an attachment to hard-SF would like it a lot more than I did. That’s OK in more or less the same ways I used to like some pop-music groups before learning better. Gradisil is, like many of Roberts’ novels, an outsider’s attempt to play with the toys of a subgenre. The problem is that in many cases, those toys are tools, and Robert doesn’t know what to do with them. Faced with such a flawed simulacrum, I’d rather see Roberts doing something else.

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