Monday, 25 March 2013

Adam Robots, by Adam Roberts – reviewed by John Greenwood

Adam Robots is a real book - I have it here next to me on the desk in paperback format. Adam Roberts is, as far as one can trust the many internet witnesses to his physical existence, a real writer (although he has been known to use pseudonyms for the several literary parodies he has perpetrated). And despite rumours to the contrary, I am not myself one of Stephen Theaker's pseudonyms. I say this simply to forestall the possibility of meta-fictional regression. In the tradition of Borges, Calvino and Lem, Roberts has included in his first collection of short stories, a meta-review of Denis Bayle: A Life, the fictional account of an imaginary book dealing with the life of a non-existent science-fiction author, from the standpoint of a made-up reviewer Thomas Hodgkin (not to be confused with his namesake, the very real Oxford don and Marxist). So we are putting a stop to that right now.

I choose to believe in Adam Roberts, not merely because of the twelve previous novels Gollancz have put out in his name, but because most of the stories in this collection have already appeared in other anthologies and magazines over the past decade, and I find it hard to imagine the publishing industry as a whole managing to pull off such an elaborate Venus on the Half Shell style hoax. Denis Bayle, the invented science-fiction author at the centre of this puzzle, is rather a pathetic figure, floundering from one sub-genre to the next, stumbling on popularity with his space operas of the sixties and seventies, but baffled by cyberpunk, finally meeting his demise while still mired in the first draft of an opus described as "A La Récherche Du Middle Earth Perdu".

By contrast, Adam Roberts presents himself in this anthology as a trickster and bricoleur, ticking off each sub-genre of science-fiction in turn without getting bogged down in the conventions of any of them for more than a few thousand words. That's not to say they are parodies, more like tapas dishes, neat little mouthfuls of each style. They're often knowing and have one eye on their science-fiction heritage. A character trapped in a kind of time-loop, in which the rest of the world repeatedly forgets his existence, spends time watching Groundhog Day and Memento, and noting the differences between their temporal difficulties and his own. In another story, future archaeologists are unearthing the ancient heroic narratives of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert Heinlein and the science-fiction fantasy of how Neil Armstrong once travelled to the moon. And how would Wells's alien invaders have justified the invasion of Earth to themselves?

I got the impression that Adams is a speculative writer rather than a post-modernist playing with genre conventions. Perhaps I've been unduly influenced by the toy robot on the front cover: initially some of the shorter pieces put me in mind of a series of intellectual whirligigs, shooting off ideas in many directions. It's true that many of these brief pieces are too short for much of a plot, and occasionally dispense with it in favour of a startling "what if" and some dialogue between two characters (robots, souls in the afterlife, scientists) to explore the consequences. What if souls got bored in Heaven, because what they really craved was new information, and only Hell could provide such variety? What if irradiated forests around Chernobyl had become a kind of organic supercomputer? What if we put anti-psychotic drugs into the general water supply, just to make everyone that little bit nicer to one another? Given Roberts's flair for conversational zing, this is often all that's needed to keep the reader entertained and intellectually needled.

Sometimes the speculations wander outside the normal sf territory: in "And tomorrow and", Roberts applies a bit of Stewart Lee style pedantry to Macbeth, following the logical consequences of the witches' spell until we find ourselves in something resembling the film Highlander.

Stylistically, he plays with narrative conventions, often addressing the reader directly (ribbing her/him for not keeping up with the science, for example). When done to death, this sort of thing can be a bore, but I found Roberts's authorial interventions rather charming, and helped me overlook what sometimes felt to this fairly scientifically ignorant reviewer as rather hand-wavy scientific explanations. The only story I can't say I enjoyed was the long narrative poem "The Mary Anna",  but you have to admire the chutzpah of telling the story of a family business of interplanetary cargo ships in rhyming couplets.

The longest story in the collection - "The Imperial Army" - loses some momentum on its march through territory familiar from Orson Scott Card and the film of Starship Troopers. The other long pieces at the end of the collection are rather more ambitious and for my money the best. "The Woman Who Bore Death" creates a mythological narrative about the origins of death among a pre-scientific people, and owes a very honourable debt to Le Guin. "Anticopernicus" manages to combine what felt to me a very original speculation about extra-terrestrial life with convincing character-building and an engaging problem-solving plot about how an astronaut might survive a micro-meteorite impact. "Me-topia", in both its subject matter and elegiac charm, reminded me of Ray Bradbury (which perhaps shows how outdated my mental map of the genre is!) I couldn't say which of these was my favourite, but they're all serious (not over-serious!) science-fiction. There wasn't one of these stories that didn't leave me eager to get started on the next one. The range of ideas and styles is quite dazzling, but the later stories show a depth and erudition that one might not suspect from the slightly kitsch B-movie cover illustration.

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