By Adam Roberts (Gollancz, 2013, 391 pp, £12.99)
Reviewed by Tom Sykes, Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth
Before I had read any of Adam Roberts’s books, I met him in person at the 2011 Current Research in Speculative Fiction conference. He delivered an illuminating – and exceedingly funny – keynote speech outlining his theory of science fiction, which he encapsulated in this one idiom: “the knight’s move”. For Roberts, the finest sf takes its readers on a conceptual flight away from mundane and literal-minded ways of regarding reality and into spectacularly metaphorical representations of it. There are traces here of the Romantic concept of the sublime, and it is therefore apt that Roberts teaches nineteenth-century literature when he isn’t writing sf. Another of his passions is comedy, which he argues operates in much the same way as transcendental sf; the efficacy of a punchline can often be measured by how strange or surprising a departure it is from its setup.
Roberts’s new book, Adam Robots, is clear proof that he practises as a storyteller what he preaches as a critic. Manifest in these two dozen short stories are various “conceptual breakthroughs” (260) that elucidate a number of timely matters, from the theological to the political, the ontological to the technological. But while Roberts consistently takes us to new places and show us things we haven’t seen before, his referential, sometimes intertextual style never loses sight of the time-honoured conventions of the genre that excites him so much. Although in the introduction he admits to wanting to write “at least one thing in all the myriad sub-genres and sub-sub-genres of SF” (1), this doesn’t equate to some superficial box-ticking exercise in homage or fan fiction. It is much more about satirising, subverting and reinventing what has come before.
Thus, what better way to undermine the masturbatory masculinism of boy’s own sf than to write a story about an adolescent lad whose sperm is harvested to create an all-conquering galactic empire? While “The Imperial Army” works on a rollicking, action-packed narrative level – just as early space opera does – it is, at the same time, able to make sideswipes at space opera’s reactionary assumptions about colonialism, eugenics and the martial mentality.
Taking the military theme in a different direction, “Godbombs” posits a future war fought, as the title makes plain, with weapons that compel one side to worship the other like a deity. Here are vigorous nods to ‘Nam-era New Wave freak-outs such as Barefoot in the Head (1969) and The Forever War (1974) (Roberts’s protagonist is one ‘Captain Haldeman’), but also wry winks at the religious fundamentalisms that have driven more recent international conflicts.
If such extreme belief systems appear to be easy comic targets (and Roberts takes aim at them again elsewhere in the book), other stories treat more palatable religious ideas with a sincerity and open-mindedness seldom seen in sf. Whereas a number of high-profile writers in the genre have espoused a militant atheism wedded to an often uncritical scientism (obvious examples being certain Golden Age figures and Richard Dawkins’s good friend Douglas Adams), Roberts repeatedly uses the knight’s move to think more inventively – and less dogmatically – about the relationship between physics and metaphysics, and the limits of human understanding in both areas. In “Wonder: a Story in Two”, humanity gains the scientific capacity to “spread itself to ten thousand worlds” and is then faced with the challenge that “immortality, or God, [is] hidden in a world orbiting a star in the Kyd-blank zones” (256). “Adam Robots” places a robot by that name in an Eden-like garden and burdens him with an ontological crisis: in the garden is a jewel that contains all the qualities required to become fully human. Rather than programme him not to steal the jewel, his creators simply tell him not to, as an experimentum crucis on his capacity for free will. With a healthy amount of irreverence and irony, the tale brings the oldest Judaeo-Christian theology to bear on contemporary research into artificial intelligence. Perhaps Roberts’s most engaging response to the science-belief question is a memorable ‘test of faith’ cliffhanger in another story somewhere else in this collection (to explain it in much more detail than that would, I fear, be an unforgivable plot-spoiler).
Adam Robots is packed full of such “philosophical abstractions made concrete” (to borrow Philip K Dick’s definition of sf). The unsettling “Thrownness” crafts the classic sf conceit of inter-dimensional travel into an ornate metaphor for existential ennui. The disarmingly jolly narrator (“’My heart was chuntering on at a fair old lick’” (51)) is condemned to an eternity of leaping between alternate realities, all of which are eerily similar to the modern Britain where he originates from, although nobody in these other realities ever recognises him. He finds himself both liberated and trapped: never held accountable for his actions, he can do more or less what he likes in the short-term, but is denied the freedom to make long-term commitments or form lasting relationships.
In “ReMorse”, Roberts turns ethics on its head by imagining a drug that is supposed to boost human empathy and herald utopia, but instead leads to a fascistic dystopia sustained by new, unanticipated forms of sadism. The narrator is both sinister and salacious, a hybrid of O’Brien from Nineteen Eighty-Four and a bit player in a 1970s sitcom (“It’s – in a word – look, I’m sorry to use this word, but it’s sex” (137)).
As we progress through Adam Robots, its varied adventures in “radical otherness” (261) start to have a cumulative effect: we get the sense that the knight’s move means a lot more to the human experience than aesthetic transcendence or intellectual expansion. In the epic and cinematic “Pied”, Roberts’s personal vision of the apocalypse doesn’t doom mankind to a plague of locusts or a nuclear holocaust, but something worse: the loss of our “capacity for wonder” (272).
Originally published in Foundation: The International Review of Science Fiction