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Adam Roberts

Orion House / Victor Gollancz

UK Hardcover First

ISBN 0-575-07178-8

Publication Date: 05-15-03

304 Pages; £17.99

Date Reviewed: 06-06-03

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2003



Science Fiction, General Fiction

02-14-02, 03-14-02, 04-15-02, Interview (08-19-02), 08-20-02, 12-13-02, 02-25-03, 05-23-03

Adam Roberts has got some very particular bees in his bonnet. He doesn't merely cross genres - he finds wormholes between them. He is the wormhole between horror, science fiction, political polemics and war stories. With an anti-sentimental streak as wide and As vicious as an LA freeway, he's not exactly a friendly writer either. Good thing he writes easy-to-read prose and has a powerful mind able to nail down those obtuse and imaginative worlds of logic he loves to create. He's an expert at putting readers simultaneously on the ground, in his characters' shoes and in the sky-high pie that he's inevitably constructed. His characters are so grounded largely because they tend to be most unpleasant. Roberts, like Chuck Palahniuk, isn't in the least bit concerned about sympathetic characters. His men are clueless and often vicious thugs. His upper class twits tread on the underclasses with nary a concern. It's all so realistic one is grateful to find these characters placed convincingly into Roberts' scientific flights of fancy. And they are welcome, as nobody comes close to Roberts in whipping up a scenario that is simultaneously mind-boggling and oddly credible. Well-written, vaguely hostile, wildly weird and convincing - that's what you get with an Adam Roberts' novel.

'Polystom', his fourth novel, is no exception, but it's certainly an extension. The ingredients are as intriguing as ever. 'Polystom' is set in a solar system where the atmosphere extends between the planets. The feckless aristocrats who run the worlds are able to fly from one planet to another in biplanes. Polystom is the fiftieth Steward of Enting, unlucky at love, unlucky in his family relationships and unlucky in war. Each of the three books consists of chapters called "leaves". The first tells Polystom's love story, the second is a "murder story" about the death of his uncle Cleonicles, the third a "ghost story" that is really a tale of war and woe.

The book may seem a bit slow at first, but Roberts' prose is very smooth and the pages eventually start quickly melting beneath the reader's assault. Roberts' universe design allows for some spectacular visual bonanzas, and he parlays these into some very effective scenic descriptions. Polystom's love story is vintage Roberts, all pent-up frustration verging on violence combined with fumbling stumbles towards genuine emotion. Seeking help from his romantic woes, Polystom consults Cleonicles, his famous uncle who has invented a Computational Device far larger than any before it. But Cleonicles is caught up in his invention. He's not much help for Polystom. Even after he's murdered as part of social insurrection, he causes Polystom problems. But it is Cleonicles' funeral and a horrific act of execution that combine to send Polystom as a volunteer captain in the fight against rebels on what is called Mudworld. There he experiences war a la Roberts - gritty and horrific. But that's only the start of the journey.

One of the great charms of Roberts' work is that in spite of all his SF trappings, his books don't read particularly like SF. Here we have a Roman setting that strikes the reader as very much like a retro-Asimov piece. The civilization of 'Polystom' is actually at a lower technological level than ours. It makes the books very easy to read, and creates an odd tension between the almost reality of the novel and the actual reality experienced by the reader. Of course, all of this is simply part of a larger plan by Roberts.

Roberts has an idea behind 'Polystom' that will certainly mess with readers' perceptions; it's a book that will directly affect how you see what you see around you. He's also got some pretty damn fascinating physics for the reader to unravel. It's so fascinating that there's no reader who won't at least want to go to the Polystom Website ( Once you get there, prepare to lose the rest of whatever daylight is left, and much of the night that follows; but don't go there until you've read the novel. Stanislaw Lem, Philip K. Dick, and Isaac Asimov are all granulated into Roberts' very original mix. But Roberts' is going for even more; he conducts a literary, not a merely science fictional experiment with 'Polystom'. As you read, as your perceptions are warped without your permission, you'll realize that you're a test subject. Sit back; relax; read. This isn't going to hurt one bit.