On by Adam Roberts

Imagine the whole world is a cliff, a wall stretching out above and below you farther than the eye can see. The sky arcs not above, not a dome above your head, but rather from the hazy depths below, to the hazy depths above, the otherness that hangs alongside the wall as you do.  You are a young man who lives — who has always lived — on a small ledge of the cliff, among a small cluster of ledges where your village is situated. There are no trees, no roaring ocean waves nearby — you have no word for ocean — just grass and insects and worms and goats and the people of your town. Your family is royalty, which means not very much: your village is still poor, and even if you’re a Prince, it’s not as if there are many to know it, or bow before you. There is an outside world — traders bring strange things from elsewhere, for example — but travelers are few, and often desperate, and news from faraway is nonexistent. How big the wall is, or how small, is something you can only guess at; the religion of your people is random guesses, and heresies are really just alternate fantasies. As you live your quiet little life clinging to a precipice, you are drawn to questions about the nature of this world, this place in which you live. Dangerous questions. But you cling, somehow. You manage to keep your footing, even when things go wrong…

A precarious existence. And then you fall off, and on and on and On

(Photo (modified) by Simon Bisson. Click to see original.)

Well, it took me some time to warm up to the work of Adam Roberts.

I am very happy to say I’ve finally figured out why it took so long, and also finally figured out how to read an Adam Roberts novel.

Now, I don’t mean that in some universal, this-will-work-for-you sort of way, as in, “I’ve finally discovered the cipher code that unlocks his texts!” or something like that. After all, tons of people out there have no trouble reading his work.

But as for me, I’ve had some trouble figuring out why Roberts’ novels have always elicited a kind of uneasy, annoyed pleasure. I’d read three of them and kept finding myself both blown away, and rather put off at the same time… despite the fact I think he’s a great storyteller.

Well, I think I’ve finally figured out why, and found a way of positioning myself in relation to his books that allows me to read them in a way that allows me to enjoy the more, to get much more out of them, and to approach them with what I hope is a great deal more sophistication than I could muster in the past.

(And I should note, I probably came to Roberts, in the beginning, with a very silly set of expectations. I picked up Salt thinking, “Hey, if Gollancz publishes him, I’ll probably like him,” when I found copies of a couple of his books in a used bookstore in Toronto years ago. After all, the only books I’d seen published by Gollancz before then were Greg Egan’s, and I’d very much enjoyed them. But Roberts’ work is, well… nothing like Egan’s.)

My review of Salt was not particularly intelligent or meaningful — just a brief note that I’d read and enjoyed it. What I had to say about Stone (which is the second book reviewed on this list) was more positive, though warier (and also unfinished in a few spots… what utter sloppiness!), and when I wrote about The Snow, I think I became somewhat guardedly hostile. I actually came out and inelegantly complained that I felt he sometimes played what I then even more inelegantly termed “the postmodernist litcrit card,” which was some awkward attempt at a snipe about his apparent interest in playing with narrator reliability, with textual form, with texts structured as explicitly metafictional as well as fictional, and other supposedly postmodern literary conventions (which have after all existed for ages and ages). Oooh, the man uses footnotes! Ooooh, the man likes to remind us that narratives come from narrators, whose points of view are not absolutely trustworthy!

(Huh, you never seen me snipe at Iain M. Banks for his unreliable narrators, his metafictional games, or his play with textual form, though, have you? Then again, I’ve not read much by him since I started reviewing novels, so…)

What I was doing, when reading Roberts, seems a lot clearer to me now when I look again at my comments on Stone, linked above. I was saying, “Tell me a hard-SF story written with wonderful literary sensibility.” It’s like picking up Analog and saying, “Make me weep with passionate sympathy for the misunderstood narrator of this small personal story from a world overturned by technological change.”

Okay, okay, I rarely go out looking for a good weep, but the clear priorities that shape stories in Analog are a poor match for the things I go out looking for in stories, most of the time. However, this was why I was always so puzzled about my response to Roberts’ work. After all: I wanted good characterization. I wanted lovely, stylish prose. I wanted some intellectual challenges, and some philosophical dilemmas to wrestle with. Roberts had all of these things in spades. How come I always emerged from his novels finding myself so very frustrated, or at the least so very uneasy?

Well, a good part of it — not all of it, but a good part of it — has to do with the insistences and expectations I was bringing to his work. It was, in large part, because of how I was reading him.

I only see this after having read his 2001 novel On in a different way. I decided to read the novel, which has sat on my shelf for something like four years, after seeing Rich Puchalsky’s review of a completely different novel by Roberts, titled Splinter (a novel I have not yet read). On reading Puchalsky’s review, I was reminded of how compelling a storyteller I’ve always found Roberts despite the things I haven’t liked about his books — of his wonderful style and distinct imagination — and so I decided to pick up On, and then while reading it simply to step out of the way and let Roberts tell me the story he wanted to tell, with the nuances he wanted to polish and shine.

I decided, in other words, to stop insisting that he ought to be some other kind of SF writer, and see what Roberts-as-Roberts had to offer me.

I think part of this especially difficult for me is because I also somehow find myself wanting him to be more like the kind of SF author I want to be when I get around to writing novels. That’s a weird kind of a thing to realize, to look in the face, and I’ll bet if I were I able to chat with Harold Bloom long enough to talk about this weirdness, he’d accuse me of being an Oedipus in search of a daddy to kill — an author anxiously searching for an influence about which to be anxious. Which is pretty weird, because I already have a few pretty good influences, whom I’m pleased to note thus far I have not needed to slay.

I’m not going to recount the plot for you, not after so many reviewers out there have done so: the book is almost a decade old, as well, so I feel no reason to worry about “spoiling it” for you. I will agree with Nick Gevers that this is a book of “oddly helter-skelter elegance,” and I can happily say that I fall on the side of those who enjoyed it and recommend it to others. I have a lot to say, though, so I’ll put a break in the post and those who are interested can read on, and see what I do with what Roberts has given us to work with…

I really enjoyed the experience of being drawn into the world of On, finding myself clinging to the Worldwall, but also grappling with the task that Roberts set out for the reader (and for his protagonist), which consisted of trying to make sense of what was being shown about the world as the revelations and the various claims about its nature started popping up. The novel’s world is alien-familiar: I felt certain right from the start it was our world, after something had changed it completely, from all the little details, the goats and such, but Roberts took his time introducing aspects of the life of his protagonist, a young man named Tighe.

Tighe’s name, by the way, with the gendered pronoun in it, and the way many titles and names in Tighe’s society use this structure: pashe, grandhe, Wittershe) is one of those little things which — in the way I’d read Roberts in the past — would have turned me off. But I just shrugged and said, “Okay, so in Tighe’s society, gender is explicitly part of naming in this way, instead of like in our own. (After all, how many women do you meet named “Gord”?) It’s a bit overt, but, okay, some societies are. It let it go, and it faded into the background.

Tighe’s trip across the face of the world, as one or another reviewer put it, works out as a kind of planetary adventure, with the protagonist being flung from one neat chunk of the Worldwall to another. But it’s not just a sort of planetary adventure — it doesn’t quite feel like, say, Neuromancer, either, where the different backdrops (am I remembering a ganja-farming space station right now?) are sort of wheeled onto and off stage just for the sheer woah-cool of it. There’s a kind of reason to all of it, and Tighe’s “adventures” involve all kinds of interesting tasks and challenges, like the process of learning a language (Roberts makes it seem easier than in my experience it is)… yet it also feels like Tighe’s life just happened to unfold this way. It doesn’t feel much like Roberts is pulling the strings, though of course he is, and this, I attribute in part to the pacing of the novel: it’s slow, its somewhat organic, until about three hundred pages in where the secrets begin to get set out in daylight.

There were little moments where I got the sense he was banging me over the head with something, the way a literature professor might do in a lecture — such as the fact that the enemy of the Empire is called, ahem, The Otre, and what everyone knows about The Otre is basically founded upon wild, lurid rumors of what they do to their war prisoners, to their own boys, and so on. This is, of course, a pretty textbook dramatization of the concept of Othering, a familiar concept to anyone who’s encountered even a little postcolonial literary theory (or just not lived under a rock in the past 20 or 30 years, intellectually speaking), and it feels like one of those in-jokes that never makes me laugh, made mostly for the effect of a sly wink at those in the know. It’s not just a philosophical joke, either: Imperial tongue is clearly modeled on some version of French, and Otre looks like it is probably said “autre” which is the French word for “Other.”

But I’m not complaining. These are the kinds of things that, the way I’ve always read Roberts to date, always felt like design flaws. But Roberts is clearly no dummy, so I’ve reconciled myself to seeing that he must intend them as particular design features.

This is where I run into the dilemma rephrased. One gets the sense Robert isn’t only putting these things into the text for narrative purposes: that he is also structuring, quite consciously, metanarratives and managing literary-critical responses to his text. And like the distortions to the gravity well of the Earth made in the novel’s cataclysm, such conscious metafictional games do make their mark on the functioning of the text. So, if Roberts has seeded the text with such references, why has he done so? What is he up to?

To go back to the point about The Otre — of course, when we witness a war between two civilizations, each side will claim the other is monstrous. It is true in every social situation we see, indeed: the Imperials revile the Otre (and vice-versa); the heretics in Tighe’s home village despise the village cult, as led by Tighe’s Grandhe; the Wizard, too, has enemies and we get to hear from both sides of that duality as well. Who is right? Who is the good guy, and who the bad? These are the simplistic dualities we learn to look for, to trust, but we learn they are not descriptive of the real world: Wizard tells us that both the village cult and the heretics had things all wrong: there was no God on the top of the Worldwall, and no God down at the bottom — because there was no top of bottom to the Worldwall. The oppositional relationships we get caught up in look absolute, look all-encompassing and definitive to us when we are in the thick of it — like the two wars to which we are witness, that between the Otre and the Empire, and that between The Wizard and his enemies — but they reflect us, the precariousness of our own grasp on the world, of our own understanding.

So it seems that Roberts isn’t just doing a wink-and-nudge about Othering: he’s actually really exploring it to a pretty intense degree, from the beginning of the book — where his maternal Grandhe shows up and talks shit about Old Witterhe and young Wittershe — until the end, where the über-powerful Wizard and his enemies talk trash about one another to Tighe. Othering dramatizes the precariousness of relationships; it dramatizes the precariousness of knowledge, as well, and of interpretation, and of all social life. Maybe I would not have understood this if I had not, in the last year and a half, found myself in an utterly precarious situation and then found a way to navigate through it, to stay upon my own Worldwall. But it is clear, as a reader having done so, that Roberts — as a writer having navigated through some sort of precariousness around the time he wrote the book — is working pretty hard with what at first glance looks like a flimsy bit of clever, academic reference. It makes me wonder what I’ve missed in the books of Roberts’ that I read earlier, and in which I seem to recall seeing similar things.

About the ending: it’s obviously ambiguous, but it’s not as great a shock as some might have felt. (A few of the reviews I saw online complained of it.) There’s an important moment near the end of the book, where Mulvaine calls Tighe “Master” even though he’s been told not to — just as Tighe referred to the Wizard as “Master” over and over in the section previous. Tighe, for his part, is baffled at why slaves are so miserable, and keeps insistently asking what makes slaves feel the need to cry so darned often, which of course shows that he’s been hardened by his experiences, but I think also suggests something else.

After all, when he wakes on the crag aftyer being dropped off by the Grandhes, he has a patch of shaved scalp where “interfaces” had been established during that encounter — interfaces which seem to be something the Wizard and his enemies share in common, since they refer to the incompleteness of Tighe’s hardware. It’s made clear at several moments that Tighe wasn’t let go without doing a bit of tinkering around in his skull, with a net effect similar to what The Wizard claims — that Tighe’s sense of conscience and capacity for sympathy will be reduced. Tighe isn’t just callous about how painful slavery is — and is so unsympathetic that it seems never to occur to him to give his girl slave her freedom — but he also seems to have turns surprisingly cold when he relates how he feels about the idea of “using” his little female slave in a sexual sense: he decides not to do so not because she might suffer,  but simply because she doesn’t really turn him on.

So what has happened? Has Tighe been transformed into an “other” of himself, which does not perceive its own otherness? Whatever comes of the confrontation with the Wizard, one cannot help but feel that the Grandhes will be involved, and that Tighe has somehow become a pawn in their war, just as he once was in the war between the Empire and the Otre. What will happen is unclear, of course, but I can’t help wondering if there’s a hint buried somewhere in the Appendix — which, by the way, won’t spoil much for you if you’ve read this far, but you still might want to save till the end. Is one of the Doomsday scenarios about to be played out, foreshadowed here in the metaphor of sheets of ice falling off the edge of the world? Or is the ending exactly the point of the novel: the precariousness doesn’t end, it’s always there within us — the eternal child standing before his grandhe — and any “ending” comes only in death… so that we should be grateful for the precariousness, we should recognize it as the basic state of life and retune our aesthetics of narrative and of experience to acknowledge it?

Or is it, indeed, also some kind of metaphor for the act of ending a book — of sending a character off changed, with Roberts posing as the Wizard? Certainly it makes sense: the Wizard set up Tighe’s home village as a kind of experiment, he manipulated characters through their minds, he himself is a version of another self, and he struggles to control, yet also not completely to control, Tighe and others. He kills off characters, and he tortures others — Tighe’s pashe’s suffering is quite apparent, unexpected as her appearance is in the Wizard’s calabash. So is this about a kind of authorial anxiety, as well, and the precariousness of the very act of literary, science-fictional creation? It seems likely something of this sort, at least, is at play in the ending.

I’m not sure what exactly to make of it, how to weave those threads together, but I do have the strong instinct that this is so difficult by design — a kind of performative rendering of the text itself as inherently precarious. There’s a lot going on in that last little scene. It’s not just a disappointing, kill-off-the-character ending, in other words, as much as some sort of slap in the face that acts as an invitation to meditation on precariousness itself.

In the end, I am happy now to say now that I’ve begun to warm up to Adam Roberts’ work, now that I’ve found a way to read him without imposing too many of my own authorial aspirations and my own demands onto his work. I can understand why the reaction to this novel was so mixed, or rather, like the world in the novel, like the Empire and the Otre , so fundamentally polarized into extremes, as Roberts notes on his own website’s page about the book. After all, it takes some serious work to puzzle out some of what he’s up to — it certainly took me an afternoon of thinking the book over, and hammering out ideas and following them up, to get what I’ve got here. Roberts invites you to play with ideas, but this is not like playing Tonka trucks in the sandbox, where you can just bash one another in the head with ’em; it’s more like a chess game, and he is dead-set on making you work for it. But this novel, at least, seems well worth the mental effort.

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