The thing it­self

Adam Roberts’s new novel has an ex­pla­na­tion for the Fermi Para­dox.

SFX: The Sci-Fi and Fantasy Magazine - - Reviews -

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

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