Brought To book
taking life at a Kanter… meet one of brit SF’s busiest and best novelists
prolific author Adam Roberts tells SFX how he’s doing more than ever with less time.
The writings of 18th-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant may not seem the most obvious starting point for a science fiction novel, but that doesn’t bother Adam Roberts too much. “SF writers so often extrapolate from scientists – Einstein, Schrödinger, Alcubierre,” he says, “Why not from the great philosophers?” Why not indeed? Accordingly, Roberts’ new novel, The Thing Itself, is steeped in Kant’s work, and in particular the notion that “certain things, like time, space, causality and so on, are facets of our consciousness, not features of the real world out there (what Kant calls the Ding an sich)”.
But there’s a problem with this idea. “It is simply unfalsifiable,” says Roberts. “It’s a claim about the nature of our consciousnesses, and we only have our consciousnesses, we can’t ‘step outside’ our own thought processes and perceptions in order to perceive them and analyse them ‘from the outside’.
“Ah: but then I thought – if we developed a proper AI or computer consciousness, then we might be able to triangulate our own perceptions with a radically other kind of consciousness, and determine once and for all if Kant was ‘right’ or not. That was the starting point: let’s say he is.”
If by now your brain is hurting, it’s worth adding the book begins with a chapter that, with its Antarctic setting, riffs off John Carpenter’s The Thing. Roberts may explore big ideas but, in his own words, “I’m trying to blend quite a highfalutin ‘novel of ideas’ with healthily disreputable pulp SF and a ghost story – which is quite tricky.”
Nevertheless, Roberts is not alone in this endeavour, although whether it’s SF novelists who are most often attempting these kinds of mash-ups is an intriguing question. When SFX suggests “literary” novelist David Mitchell (Cloud Atlas, The Bone Clocks) is writing the most compelling speculative fiction of the moment, and that by contrast genre conventions are becoming a bit of a straitjacket for many SFF writers, Roberts doesn’t disagree – although he does point out that interviews suggest “Mitchell has always been a big fan of SF and fantasy, and that he’s unembarrassed about it”.
He adds: “A lot of literary writers are writing SF now, or bringing aspects of SF to their work. I’m thinking of Karen Kay Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, or The People In The Trees, by Hanya Yanagihara: great books, and books in which genre features and a broader ‘fantastika’ sensibility inter-penetrates the literary sensibility.”
Roberts has an intriguing take on another reason genre writers should take more risks. The new Avengers two-parter is rumoured to cost $1 billion. “But with the novel the financial stakes are very small. That ought to mean that writers are much happier taking risks, being experimental and so on. But, with a few exceptions, they’re not. That’s a shame. Lots of especially younger writers are very cautious and same-y about the sorts of books they write. But why not write a pulp SF novelisation of Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason? What have you got to lose? Since it won’t cost a billion dollars, it can’t lose a billion dollars.”
To be fair, one riposte here is that Roberts has a relatively well-paid day job, as a Professor of Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London. Indeed, considering he’s got two children, and also teaches, writes academic books (he’s currently updating his 2007 History Of Science Fiction), blogs, writes comic parodies and reviews for newspapers, it seems something of a miracle he’s managed to turn out a novel a year since his debut, Salt (2000).
so little time
Then again, as your granny might have told you, if you want something done, ask a busy person. “Looking back, I genuinely have no idea what I did with all my spare time back before we had kids,” he says. “There must have been great deserts of open-ended free time back then, and yet I achieved very little with that time. I’m much more productive now, largely because I know that if I get an hour free I dare not waste it. One advantage I have is that I genuinely enjoy the writing process, sitting at my laptop, moving my fingers over the keys. It’s when I’m happiest.”
Especially since he learnt to finish books. A turning point, he says, was when he told himself “no more getting discouraged and giving up at page 55 and starting some other new novel”. Instead he had to keep going. “It was painful, but I did it,” he remembers. “Then I looked at what I had written and lo! it was shit. But it was at least a complete draft of shit. So I wrote another, and it was less shit. And then I wrote a third, and it sold.”
As for Roberts’ next novel, he says Alfred Hitchcock once had an idea for a movie that would begin with robots building cars. Then an inspector would come along, open the boot of one of the automobiles and discover a body. But Hitchcock could never work out how the corpse came to be in the boot. “So far,” says Roberts, “I can think of three ways the body might have ended up there…”
The Thing Itself is published on 17 December.