Meet Adam Roberts: the King of High Concept

Adam Roberts is one of my favorite science fiction writers going. He is the author of ten science fiction novels and two novellas, all of them brilliant works of epic scope and scale. Adam jumps from hard SF to biting satire, from the ends of time to the decades just ahead. Jon Courtenay Grimwood called him, “the king of high concept SF,” and I couldn’t agree more.  He’s also the author of a number of critical works, including the the Palgrave History of Science Fiction.  Under the pseudonym A.R.R.R. Roberts he even writes a series of parody novels. (Of the lot, my favorite title is Doctor Whom: E.T. Shoots and Leaves.)  DeathRay wrote of him recently that, “You never know exactly what you’re going to get with an Adam Roberts novel, and that’s a strength: each of his books is very different in feel from the last.”

I certainly think it’s a strength, but somehow—I’m ashamed to say—refusing to do the same old thing over and over can hurt you over here in the States when it comes time to building a dedicated readership. And Adam excels at difficult protagonists, often employing people whose values are starkly in contrast to our own, and he loves utilizing the “unreliable narrator,” someone who has reason to lie and therefore can’t be entirely trusted. It’s a technique that is very familiar in the mystery genre, but doesn’t always go down well in SF. Honestly, I think if he’d been published over here by a mainstream publisher, he’d be regarded as a serious literary genius like Michael Chabon. As it is, I hope he will forgive me if I say he’s something of a well-kept secret.  But perhaps that’s beginning to change.

I first encountered Adam in an interview in which he was discussing his novel, On. It’s a brilliant work about a boy named Tighe who lives on the side of an impossibly vast wall. How vast? It’s called the “WorldWall.” The son of a local chieftain and goat-herder, his self-assurance is rocked when he falls off the wall, plunging for miles and miles until he is miraculously saved in a manner I won’t spoil.

Whereupon, Tighe discovers an entire civilization that he never knew existed and is soon drawn into its latest war. I was intrigued by the interview. The interviewer was asking Roberts if the Wizard of Oz vibe he was picking up on in the text was deliberate. Adams responded that the book was about a world turned on its side, and that he should turn the novel’s title on its side as well. That’s when I knew I had to read this guy.

I was in the middle of editing my first fully-professional anthology, Live without a Net, and I knew if I waited until I’d read On it would be too late to get him involved, so I emailed Adam something like, “I’ve never read you, but I just bought both your novels and I think you’re a genius, and if I wait to find out for myself it will be too late, so can I have a short story?” I’m a little better at sweet talking writers these days, but nonetheless he responded with a story. In fact, he sent two: “New Model Computer” and the longer “Swiftly.” They were both great. I chose the shorter, strictly for space reasons, then changed my mind and emailed him back within 24 hours, only to find that Ellen Datlow had already accepted “Swiftly” for Sci-Fiction. (Damn!)

I’ve been a fan of Adam ever since. And yes, I did go on to read On, and loved it utterly. And I’ve worked with him every chance I get. When I edited the dear-to-my heart-but-commercial-failure Projections: Science Fiction in Literature & Film, an anthology of new and original essays on SF&F by authors of same, he wrote a brilliant piece on The Matrix Trilogy, arguing (somewhat tongue-in-cheek) that, “these films are in a vital sense about the monstrous surplus that overwhelms any pigeonholing reduction at the level of the symbolic.” (Whazzat?) He also allowed me to reprint his essay, “Delany: Nuances of a Theme by Stevens,”  which argued that Samuel R. Delany’s “Time Considered as a Helix of Semi-Precious Stones” must be understood in context of Wallace Stevens’ 1923 poem, “The Emperor of Ice Cream.” Man, he convinced me.

Meanwhile, his novel, Gradisil—the title comes from the Norse world tree, the Yggdrasil, and is the name of the central figure—that we published at Pyr, is the best SFnal response to the War on Terror I’ve read (though equaled in this by Paul McAuley’s Cowboy Angels, I should say.) One part Greek tragedy, one part The Mouse That Roared, it’s a novel about the colonization of the “Uplands,” the near earth orbit space that eventually becomes a nation in its own right. It’s both a wonderful work of almost-Mundane SF and a subtle satire. I was hooked from the opening lines:

Take this printed page, the very one you are looking at now. Take away all the letters, and all the commas and the dashes, and take away the apostrophes, and leave only the full stops, the colons, the dots over the “i”s. You will have a star map, cartography that describes precisely the sky of my imagination. I want to go there, you’ll say. So do I.

Meanwhile, the chapter-long scene where an astronaut falls to earth from orbit is an absolute triumph that has to be read to be believed. Ain’t It Cool News wrote of the book, “It’s epic SF in the vein of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars trilogy or Allen Steele’s Coyote trilogy, although it feels like it could have been written in the days of Heinlein. And perhaps most profoundly, it’s a story about two Americas….Gradisil is written as if there hasn’t been a dozen books and hundreds of shorts out each year since the 50s about this subject…. but therein lies the genius….It reads like watching a wide-eyed child looking up at the sky, after you’ve sneered at the stars in contempt for so long.”  (Gradisil was also nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award, but Adam had a thing or two to say about awards lately over on Futurismic, which forces us to take this information with his own grain of salt.)

When Solaris Books published his novel, Splinter, which took its inspiration from Jules Verne’s Off on a Comet, they produced a beautiful, limited edition slipcase that featured both books side by side. However, Adam felt the existing English translations of Off on a Comet left something to be desired. He told The Guardian:

But when I checked the 1877 translation against the original my heart sank. It was garbage. On almost every page the English translator, whoever he, or she, was (their name is not recorded), collapsed Verne’s actual dialogue into a condensed summary, missed out sentences or whole paragraphs. She or he messed up the technical aspects of the book. She or he was evidently much more anti-Semitic than Verne, and tended to translate what were in the original fairly neutral phrases such as “…said Isaac Hakkabut” with idioms such as “…said the repulsive old Jew.” And at one point in the novel she or he simply omitted an entire chapter (number 30)—quite a long one, too—presumably because she or he wasn’t interested in, or couldn’t be bothered to, turn it into English.

His solution? Adam did his own translation of the Verne, the first such in over a hundred years. (The link is to a free PDF download that Solaris kindly made available for those who couldn’t score one of the limited editions.)

Now, his latest two novels are taunting me from a table in my library as I type this, demanding that I push aside the looming Pyr submission pile and read them instead. First there is Swiftly, the novel that grew out of that short story from the beginning of our association. It’s his sequel to Gulliver’s Travels, set in an 1848 where the British Empire has grown rich exploiting Lilliputian slaves, themselves experts at miniature engineering, making everything from watches to a certain Babbage Engine. But the French have formed a regiment of Brobdingnagian giants and invasion looms. I am so there.

And then there’s the just-released Yellow Blue Tibia, a novel that promises to be as amazing as its cover is gorgeous. 1946, and Stalin gathers Russias top science fiction writes and tells them, “I want you to concoct a story about aliens poised to invade earth … I want it to be massively detailed, and completely believable. If you need props and evidence to back it up, then we can create them. But when America is defeated, your story must be so convincing that the whole population of Soviet Russia believes in it—the population of the whole world!” The Stalin changes his mind, ordering them to forget the project. But decades later, the aftermath of Chernobyl, their story begins to come true. Intrigued? I am. And it looks like Adam is having fun with titles again. I haven’t verified this, but someone on io9 commented that “yellow blue tibia” is a phoenticism for the Russian phrase meaning “I love you.” Whether that’s the case or not, Yellow Blue Tibia is already causing something of a stir in the blogosphere. It’s making me wonder if it won’t be the novel that takes him to the next level Stateside. But whether it is or not, don’t you think it’s time you got in on the secret?


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