Tag Archives: Adam Roberts

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.

The Snow, Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2004, 297 pages, C$24.95 tpb, ISBN 0-575-07181-8

Canadians enjoy a worldwide reputation as easygoing, unflappable, even dull people. It’s long been a national contention that our long winter have something to do with this placid nature. Good government and central heating really do sound like excellent ideas in a country that spends at least four months per year in freezing temperatures. But don’t think we can’t be scared out of our wits. If you want to give nightmares to a Canadian, just start talking about a winter that never ends.

That’s exactly how The Snow begins. Snow starts falling on September 6th… and never stops. Our narrator for most of the novel, Tira Bojani Sahai, is a young English woman of Indian descent that manages to survive the snowfall as London gets buried under a blanket of snow of glacial thickness. Not that the rest of the world has done much better, she finds out once she’s rescued after this harrowing first section: As far as anyone knows, the entire globe is now encased in an icy shell. And yet humanity endures. But to what purpose?

As the stuff nightmares are made of, The Snow is top-notch. Straight in the conceptual footsteps of J.G. Ballard’s catastrophe novels, Adam Roberts’ fifth novel starts off by killing billions of people. Promising start, delivered with matter-of-fact prose that only makes the horror more obvious. But those of you expecting the hard-SF version of THE DAY AFTER TOMORROW may be disappointed: In Roberts’ typical fashion, this is a novel about precariousness, weird environments, unreliable narrators, ludicrous plot twists and unsatisfying developments. As with the author’s previous novels, it’s both lovely and frustrating in equal fashion, praiseworthy and damnable for never doing the expected thing. One thing is for sure: this is not a boring book.

The narrator alone is a piece of work: While it’s easy to feel a lot of initial empathy for Tira as she struggles through a situation that would kill most of us, latter developments refine her personality in increasingly complex fashion. We come to doubt her narrative, a doubt that is rewarded late in the novel as her unreliability is exposed in a short heartbreaking conversation. As far as characters are concerned, Tira is one of Roberts’ most achieved creation.

A shame that one can’t be so complimentary about the story that surrounds her. The Snow may be a clever metaphor for many different things, and that’s part of the problem: Readers flail around like Canadians without snowshoes, sucked into a bottomless pile of fluffy stuff.

Reigning in my runaway metaphors, it suffices to say that The Snow goes nowhere for a while, spends some time describing yet another repressive regime, spends more time doing nothing, backtrack to a current-day narrative (a first for a Roberts novel) then goes on a wild tangent in which the real story behind the real story of the Snow is exposed. The end takes a loony turn that is as endearing (in a “Whee!” fashion) as it seems clobbered out of thin air. Lengthy delirious passages leading to the conclusion don’t do much to prepare anyone for the last few twists.

By this point, you can figure out that The Snow leaves a scattered impression. Parts of the novel are brilliant, and other parts feel like filler. (A digression about skin colour never quites gels, even as an instance of the narrator’s unreliability) As with most other Roberts novels, there is a hidden narrator between the text and the reader: Here, an unseen censor peppers the text with [Blank] character names and a few [expletive deleted], warning the reader of dire consequences if those top-secret pieces are read by unauthorized personnel. Interesting, although the tell-all epilogue takes away part of the fun.

In some ways, The Snow is the best thing that Adam Robert has done. The initially endearing narrator, the suffocating first fifty pages, the layering of an unseen layer of interpretation are all top-notch. Heck, even some of the disappointing elements are pure genius. But the final result lacks cohesion even as the novel works overtime to drive readers away. While it’s easy to appreciate Roberts’ constant refusal to do the easy thing, how hard would it be, once in a while, to throw a bone to his audience? Could that explain why, even after a string of disappointing novels, I keep coming back to his stuff in the hope that this, finally, will be his novel that truly satisfies all expectations?

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.

On, Adam Roberts

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.

Salt, Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2000, 248 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-575-06896-5

Having been favourably impressed by Stone, my quest in reading the whole Adam Roberts back-catalogue properly begins with his first novel Salt. Even without the benefit of more than two data points, I can see a few trends in the entire Roberts oeuvre.

The first is, obviously, Roberts’ fondness for weird planetary environment. Salt‘s main claim to distinction isn’t the story (an early-colonization tale of war between cities of different cultures) but the environment in which it takes place. As the title suggests, the human colonists of Salt end up on a planet covered in deserts of fine salt. There are only two main water bodies to provide essential fertile ground and we’re constantly reminded of the difficulties in colonizing what remains a hostile planet. Life on Salt is dominated, well, by salt. Howling winds that can sand-blast everything through fine grains of NaCl. An atmosphere containing mostly chlorine. Vegetation that isn’t much more than an organic salt arrangement. Undrinkable water. High levels of solar radiation. It’s not particularly convincing (you’ll have to suspend your disbelief for a while as the colonists manage to raise the oxygen content of the atmosphere from zero to fifteen percent in a few years, and believe a world map with only a few distinguishing features) but it’s a fine and original playground for a short novel.

The second of Roberts’ distinctive traits would be a tendency toward gentle stylistic experimentation. Salt‘s tale of strife is told, alternately, by Petja and Barlei, two representatives from opposing sides. The Alists are anarchists without a central government, organized only through strong motherhood rights and computer-selected work rotas. The Senaarans, on the other hand, are ultra-capitalist fundamentalists with an absolute belief in hierarchy and military power. You can see the basic problem between those two factions, and it doesn’t take a long time (say, half the book) before shots are exchanged. Roberts chooses to tell the tale through self-serving alternating viewpoints, with both sides colouring events and perceptions to suit their own beliefs. (With sometimes curious ironies: Petja, we quickly learn, is an anarchist who takes up leadership quite naturally) As with Stone‘s “translation footnotes”, Barlei’s manuscript is occasionally interrupted by vocabulary notes from a transcription machine, raising the possibility of built-in censorship in between the teller and the receiver. It’s easy to be fascinated by the alternating viewpoints, which makes the structure of the book more than an empty trick.

Unusual world-building and gentle structural/stylistic experimentation are both admirable in a Science Fiction book, and they do much to gain goodwill amongst hard-core fans of the genre. Fortunately, Salt benefits from a certain innate interest beyond those two characteristics: I’m a sucker for colonization stories and so the nuts-and-bolts details of how Salt is tamed into (slight) submission were almost endlessly fascinating. Later, the details of the military engagements between Als and Senaar are similarly interesting, without falling in the usual military SF tediousness. Some may have problems with the pacing (and I do have issues with the last tenth of the book) but hard-SF fans should breeze through Salt.

But easy reading and a bunch of good ideas aren’t all it takes to deliver an above-average reading experience. In fact, they may make obvious fundamental problems that wouldn’t be so glaring in a badly-written novel. In Salt‘s case, what quickly becomes obvious is that the opposing factions are so unspeakably dumb that all pretences of a realistic conflict are erased. The “negotiations” between the two groups have no basis in reality as we know it; even the most elementary political rudiments are ignored. Heck, all of Salt‘s decks are stacked: think “ADD-addled Hippies” versus “Fundie Patriarchs” and reflect on how such political structures could exist. They can’t (and neither could such monolithic ideologies stay pure in a population numbering at least hundreds) and so Salt feels a lot like a contrived moral lesson.

And what’s the lesson? Wars are pointless. Many die. Wow. Good thing that the book is only 250 pages long, because as it peters out to its weak ending (including a last twenty pages that tells nothing new), I may have been frustrated by the novel’s lack of a stronger point. Oh, wait, I am.

No surprise, then, if Roberts’s debut is such a mixed bags of impressions. It fulfils a basic level of expectations, but at the same time contains such fundamental flaws that it’s hard to take seriously as a contemporary piece of SF. As a fable, it may have worked back in the sixties. But with the amount of serious details and sophistication, it simply invites a degree of real-world scrutiny that it can’t withstand. Oh well; on to Roberts’ next novel then.

The McAtrix Derided, Adam Roberts (as "The Robertski Brothers")

Gollancz, 2004, 300 pages, £6.99 hc, ISBN 0-575-07568-6

I would like to write that after reading Adam Roberts’ Stone, I was so blown away that I bought everything he wrote and then tracked down everything he’s done under pseudonym and ended up with The McAtrix Derided in my hands. It would be a good story.

Unfortunately, it wouldn’t be true. While I was impressed by Stone enough to buy the rest of Roberts’ SF novels, the truth is that I would have bought this Matrix prose parody regardless of the author. To know that Roberts was the not-so-pseudonymous author of it only made it more amusing to me.

Now, I’m told that parody is a hot genre in the UK right now. Driven by such titles as Barry Trotter and the Unauthorized Parody and The Soddit (another Adam Roberts product, as “ARRR Roberts”), the category has known a brief white-hot flash of popularity in 2004, and The McAtrix Derided rides squarely on the crest of that particular wave. I’ll leave it to other scholars to discuss the pop-cultural implications of such a parasitic phenomenon, but the bottom line for me is this: I’m such a whorishly undiscerning fan of THE MATRIX trilogy (despite my progressive disenchantment with the latter volumes) that any parody is all right with me.

Certainly, The McAtrix Derided has the decency to use the usual tools of parodies: The thinly-disguised puns on characters’ names (here, “Nemo”, “Thinity”, “Smurpheus”, “The Frurnchman” and so on), the roughly-parallel plot structure, the silly alternate explanations, the gentle jabs at the source material’s plot holes and the affectionate take-down of the pop phenomenon surrounding the original work. It’s all quite amusing, especially if you’re ready to be amused. After all, parodies are usually as good as the amount of slack you’re willing to cut them.

The good news are that I was indeed quite amused by the whole book. It starts before even cracking open the covers of the book: As -I gather- is the case with other parodies, The McAtrix Derided comes in a tiny 6"x5"x1” hardcover scarcely bigger than my hand: if any book format can be called “cute”, this is it. Beyond the twin functions of cutting down on costs while making the thin narrative seem longer than it actually is (most pages contain less than 250 words!), it’s a format that, like most needlessly tiny objects, asks you to smile before you even start reading.

Given that this is a parody, a summary of the story is probably irrelevant. Suffice to say that as Gordon Everyman (Database Coordinator) discovers the hidden truth about his world, readers are asked to follow along the usual slight gags and silly comedy of an extended MAD-magazine satire. Particular highlight include “Gents” antagonists (as in “Oh no, a gent!”), a mad dancing sequence, perpetual befuddlement from Gordon/Nemo (which allows Roberts to poke holes into THE MATRIX’s most dubious assumptions) and a series of bonus pages treating the book as a DVD release (along with Author’s Commentary, Deleted Scenes, promotional offers, previews of other “Victor Gollum” videos and promotional trailers that had me laughing like an idiot.)

But the real treat comes late in the narrative: While most of the book is a parody of the first MATRIX film, the latter half touches upon the second film and then leaves the whole original trilogy behind for the conclusion. It’s not for nothing that the third part of the book is titled “The McAtrix Derrida’d”: It’s a clever conclusion that tones down the comedy and works both as a conclusion to the book and an alternate explanation for the original movie trilogy. Most interesting, and I say this despite the deliberately ambiguous conclusion. MATRIX fans will find here a reason to track down the book independent of the appeal of a parody.

The best part of The McAtrix Derided (why couldn’t they call it The Mactrix Derided?) is that it’s a product by a real SF author, and not simply a literary hack chosen at random: Roberts knows his science, likes THE MATRIX, understands the appeal of a good story and never lets his natural decency as a human being stop him from cramming another lame pun in the story. You have to respect that kind of commitment.

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.