The thing itself
Adam Roberts’s new novel has an explanation for the Fermi Paradox.
released 17 december 352 pages | Paperback/ebook Author adam roberts Publisher Gollancz
When Adam Roberts announced The Thing Itself to the world via his blog back in August, he chose a humorous tone. “It’s the novelisation of Kant’s Critique Of Pure Reason the world has been waiting for,” he joked. “Also, it solves the Fermi Paradox. You’re welcome.”
If nothing else, you have to give Roberts full marks for ambition, but it was ever thus. Most notably when conjuring up the paranoia of the USSR and its rulers in his most impressive novel to date, Yellow Blue Tibia (2009) – a book that riffed off how elastic the concept of truth can be in totalitarian societies – Roberts has consistently produced books that play with form and employ lit-fic techniques. Maybe that isn’t so surprising. His day job, after all, is as a professor of literature at Royal Holloway, University of London.
He’s a man who refuses to play the genre game in another crucial way too, preferring to write distinct standalone novels rather than a space opera or epic fantasy sequence that can be promoted with the reassuringly exciting words, “With this trilogy, Adam Roberts offers his unique and revolutionary take on [insert your own subgenre here].”
This is clearly admirable, and yet there’s a flipside to all of this. Could it be that Roberts is in danger of getting labelled as a writers’ writer, or even, god forbid, a critics’ writer? Could it be that his jocular tone in announcing The Thing Itself betrayed a sense of unease rooted in the idea that some readers might think Roberts a bit too clever for his own good?
If so, these readers are missing out, because while The Thing Itself certainly isn’t without flaws, it’s a fine novel, where it turns out Roberts was jokingly serious about the book’s ambitious intent. Primarily through the troubled relationship between two scientists, Roy and Charles (one violently insane), whom we first meet in an Antarctic research station, Roberts is intent on exploring the metaphysics of German philosopher Immanuel Kant, in particular the notion that we can’t “‘step outside’ our humanity” to see the universe objectively because, “Human consciousness is defined by reality, and reality is defined by human consciousness, both at the same time.”
If that sounds confusing, well, nobody ever said Kant’s work was easy and, perhaps inevitably, even as Roberts conjures up a narrative involving time-travelling “ghosts”, the birth of an AI, a secretive institute and a future “Utopia”, there are more than a few scenes where people spend much time discussing philosophy, to the point where the dialogue can start to seem like exposition.
However, this never overwhelms the book. That’s partly because Roberts is smart enough to ally the talkiest scenes to sections driven by a chase narrative. But it’s also because The Thing Itself isn’t just one linear story. Instead, it jumps around in time, with stories from one era finding echoes in other eras.
If that calls to mind David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, the comparison is apposite. To return to the idea of Roberts using lit-fic techniques and not playing by genre rules, he’s rising to the challenge that Mitchell sets down, which is in so many respects the ’60s New Wave challenge of writing unsettling fiction that goes beyond both realism and genre to push to somewhere new.
This time around, Roberts doesn’t quite make it – bits of the book are ragged. However, this is a heroic partial success (that’s the glass-half-full version of heroic failure) that involves not just solving the Fermi Paradox (well, sort of…) but, if not quite proving that God exists, at least offering some good reasons to suggest we should seriously consider the possibility the supreme deity isn’t dead. Jonathan Wright
You have to give Roberts full marks for ambition