At an Antarctic research station in the 1980s, two men at their end of their respective tethers, alone in this lovely if unlovable land but for one another and a copy of Emmanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, see something that cannot conceivably be:
There was a hint of—I’m going to say, claws, jaws, a clamping something. A maw. Not a tentacle, nothing so defined. Nor was it a darkness. It made a low, thrumming, chiming noise, like a muffled bell sounding underground, ding-ding, ding-ding. But this was not a sound-wave sort of sound. This was not a propagating expanding sphere of agitated air particles. It was a pulse in the mind. It was a shudder of the soul.
Sound familiar? Well, it is—for a fraction of a chapter.
Would you be surprised if I were to tell you that The Thing Itself is not—not even nearly—what it appears to be? If you answered yes to that question, I’d be given to guess you’ve never read an Adam Roberts novel. If you had, you’d know that this is not an author who likes to linger on any one thing for long, so though the first chapter has a handful of callbacks to John Carpenter’s tentacular classic, the second is a short travelogue of sorts set in Germany almost a century earlier.
“Let me pick the threads of this story up again, rearrange the letters into a new form,” the next bit begins—which sentence, I’ll confess, had me panicking preemptively at the prospect of a new narrative in every chapter. But although Roberts does repeatedly rewrite the rules of the tale he’s telling, The Thing Itself is an easier and more coherent read than it appears.
Which isn’t to say it’s simple. If, for instance, you were thinking the presence of Kant’s most extolled treatise in the periphery of The Thing Itself‘s referential first chapter was some sort of literary Easter egg, think again. Rather, Roberts’ novel is a speculative extension of its central tenets:
“As I understand it, Kant had certain theories about the relationship between the human mind and the world around us. Specifically, he thought that space and time, as well as a number of qualities such as cause and effect and so one, were ‘in’ the way our mind structured experience, rather than being actual features of the cosmos. This provided philosophers with pleasant matter to discuss for several centuries. But it was all abstract discussion, because there was no way of testing it objectively. That there was no way of testing it objectively was a central part of the theory. Human consciousness is defined by reality, and reality is defined by human consciousness, both at the same time. Or at least our reality was defined that way. We couldn’t ‘step outside’ our humanity and get, as it were, a third opinion. Until now.”
Why now? Because while we mere mortals mightn’t be able to “step outside” our perception of the universe in terms of space and time, perhaps the kind of AI we’re this close to creating today can; AI like the 438 Petaflop JCO Supercomputer. That’s Peta to you and me, readers, and to The Thing Itself‘s protagonist, Charles Gardner: one of the two scientists the story started with. The other, Roy Curtius, is effectively the narrative’s antagonist.
After attempting to kill his colleague back in the Antarctic, Roy has been bound to Broadmoor, a high-security psychiatric hospital. Charles, on the other hand, still has his sanity, however he too lost more than a few fingers in the aforementioned fracas: he lost his confidence; then his sobriety; then his job; then the closest thing he ever had to a partner. It’s only when he’s called upon by a government-funded group known only as the Institute to assist in exploring the same subject that drove Roy round the proverbial bend—applied Kant, of course—that the downward spiral Charles has been circumnavigating since the incident dead-ends.
The whole thing—the entire experience of those weeks in the Institute—possessed the quality of some strange dream, or fantasy. Maybe I’d had a stroke, in the shower, back in my flat, and this was all some bizarre end-of-life hallucination. Or maybe it was really happening. After decades of misery, it hardly mattered. It was a time of existential plenitude. I can’t put it any better than that.
As it transpires, Charles’ continuing happiness is conditional on a confrontation the Institute insists on, because without Roy’s input, its ambitious initiative is going nowhere.
That’s the thrust of the first third of The Thing Itself, but as I mentioned earlier, every other section steps outside of the core story. Happily, there is a pattern to these chapters. I had an idea what it was early on—that Roberts was treating us to the experiences of the people over the years who have seen behind the veil of space and time—but I was wrong; the explanation at the end of the entire contextualises The Thing Itself‘s handful of interludes in a quite different light.
Frustrating as many might find it, unpicking this particular puzzle was, for me at least, an unfettered pleasure, largely because each interlude essentially stands as a short story in itself—two of which have been published independently in the past—and the author’s faculty for that form is as all-encompassing as his deservedly-vaunted abilities as a novelist.
Like Bête before it, The Thing Itself describes a deep-dive into philosophical thought punctuated by a rush of science-fictional stuff. In addition to an articulation of artificial intelligence approaching Kim Stanley Robinson’s in Aurora, Roberts’ works his way through a swathe of other subjects, such as the existence of extraterrestrials, remote viewing, space exploration, temporal transit, and last but not least, life after death.
It’s that last, in fact—and the existence of the divinity it prefigures—that Roberts is really writing about:
“Twenty-first century atheists peer carefully at the world around them and claim to see no evidence for God, when what they’re really peering at is the architecture of their own perceptions. Spars and ribs and wire-skeletons—there’s no God there. Of course there’s not. But strip away the wire-skeleton, and think of the cosmos without space or time or cause or substance, and ask yourself: is it an inert quantity? If so, how could… how could all this?”
I never imagined I’d find myself so readily recommending a novel “about why you should believe in God,” but by the end of The Thing Itself, Roberts—an atheist, according to the Acknowledgements—has so perfectly framed his case that I—another non-believer, I fear—came away from it with my spiritual convictions variously shaken.
No phrase of the praise I would happily heap upon the remarkable achievement this tremendous text represents could outstrip that there statement, so let’s call it a day, eh? Except to say that though The Thing Itself is many things, all of the things The Thing Itself is are evidence of Adam Roberts’ inimitable brilliance.
The Thing Itself is available now from Orion (ebook only in the US).
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.