Brought To book

tak­ing life at a Kan­ter… meet one of brit SF’s busiest and best novelists

SFX - - Contents - Words by Jonathan Wright /// Pho­tog­ra­phy by Will Ire­land

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.”

ex­pand­ing uni­verses

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.

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