Friday, 20 September 2013

Book Review | Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

"I like the idea of writing at least one thing in all the myriad sub-genres and sub-sub-genres of SF — so the the first story here is a robot story, the second a story about immortality, the third a time-travel story, the fourth religious SF, the fifth philosophical SF, the sixth an exercise in classic Golden Age SF, the seventh a time-travel story, the eighth a story of SFnal genetics... but, look, this list is getting wearisome.

"They're all different (apart from the one which isn't; you can work out which one I mean yourself). Even the ways in which they differ differs. So in fact the first story is an Adam-and-Eve tale, the second is a prison story, the third a tale of scientific hubris, the fourth military SF and so on. You'll see what I mean." — A. R.

Gathered together here for the first time are 24 superb and varied glances into and out of the world of science fiction. Adam Robots is the first collection of short stories published in the UK from one of the genre's most exciting writers.


The title of the first major collection of short stories by the academic, critic and satirist Adam Roberts tells us almost everything we need to know about Adam Robots.

It's a joke, of course: a suggestive enmeshing of two created creatures delivered with a wink and a nod, if not a jarring slap across the back. "Adam" is either Adam Roberts the author, or Adam the first man — according to Christian theology, obviously — whilst "Robots" refers to the thinking things which feature in many of Roberts' shorts; most notably the titular tale, which happens to take place in a reconfigured Eden, and revolve around its own forbidden fruit. 

The latter term could also be said to represent all of the twenty four stories, short or not, brought together in this exceedingly clever collection. For what are each of these if not machines — i.e. "apparatus using mechanical power and having several parts, each with a definite function and together performing a particular task" — capable of carrying out a series of complex tasks?

Be it a juxtaposition of the created man and the machines he creates or of the storyteller and the stories he tells, one way or the other, Adam Robots is a play on words. A pun! But is it funny?
"The person laughed at this. Laughter. See also: chuckles, clucking, percussive exhalations iterated. See also: tears, hiccoughs, car-alarm. Click, click." (p.3)
Well, it is, and it isn't. It is in the moment of many of these frequently fleeting fictions, when the reader realises what Roberts is about; what this or that idea is inspired by, what well-worn trope he's tipping his hat at. Yet it isn't when one grasps that the cost of this canniness is often character and narrative, the very building blocks of story as we know it. 

The author acknowledges as much in his page-long preface. "Some of the pieces in this collection reflect the usual forms and rituals of 'short storytelling'; but quite a few don't. Textus disrespectus." (p.1) And that's the best explanation you're going to get.

Roberts also begins a list of the multitudinous ways the many and various tales which follow could potentially be read in this amusing introduction — "the first story here is 'a robot story'; the second a story about immortality, the third a time-travel story, the fourth religious SF," (p.1) and so on — before admitting how "wearisome" a business this is, and letting the stories speak for themselves. Inasmuch as they can be seen to... though some can't, or don't, or won't.

In any event, I'm going to take a different tack in this article. Rather than touching on each and every one of Adam Robots' twenty-four stories, I'll discuss a couple that I loved, and a couple that I loved less — like the closing story, 'Me:topia.'

The tale of four neanderthal astronauts who crash-land on a circular celestial body resembling "the map of Europe rendered in some impossible geographic form of photographic-negative," 'Me:topia' differs from Adam Robots' most disappointing shorts in that it has what they in large part lack: a plot, plus characters to carry us through it; characters I dare say we come to care about. Our protagonist, Vins, strikes out from the wreckage of his shattered shuttle to discover the nature of the strange, man-made place he has made landfall upon. In so doing, he attracts the attention of the space-coin's creator, who is less than pleased that his sanctuary has been trespassed upon. Vins proceeds to seek out the companions he had abandoned in order to alert them to this danger.

And then?

And then, 'Me:topia' simply ends, by way of an abrupt interruption courtesy the tale's unnamed narrator, who essentially says than what happens after that doesn't matter. Instead of resolving any of the elements we've become interested in, the narrator deigns to discuss the sunrise. "The light, the translucence of matter, the inflection of the photons, the grass singing. That's where it's at." (p.388) The end takes the shape of a playout groove as cruel as it is unusual.

I'm sure all this is in service of something significant that I'm simply missing, but whatever Roberts' point, 'Me:topia' left me glad that Adam Robots was over as opposed to wanting more.

That said, I certainly don't regret reading it. Some of the science fiction collected herein is stunning, as essential as it is eclectic, but perhaps an equal quantity of it can be summarised thusly: here's an idea. Isn't it interesting? Next! "What is not always a question that gets answered. Nor is why." (p.310)

Roberts is to my mind a much more satisfying author in the long form, where he's beholden to the same building blocks he's so cavalier about here, so it's no surprise that my favourite stories from Adam Robots were longer, largely, than those I liked least. 'Thrownness' a terrific riff on Groundhog Day in which a perfectly decent, albeit temporarily displaced human being finds himself behaving more and more badly when he realises that nothing he does has any measurable consequence. The novelette 'Anticopernicus' chronicles the first contact between humankind and the so-called Cygnics through the luckless lens of Ange Mlinko, an anti-social astronaut overlooked for the very visible mission mounted to meet these beings.

These are superlative stories both, blending the incredible conceptual breakthroughs Roberts draws attention to elsewhere — in this instance regarding the multiverse and Einstein's discarded dark energy respectively — with adeptly-drawn characters and enough good old-fashioned narrative to manufacture measurable emotional investment in addition to the at best intellectual interest with which I responded to a number of others, like 'ReMorse®,' 'The Chrome Chromosome' and 'Godbombing'; fragmentary narratives which struggle to strike what is to my mind the right balance between playful experimentation and outright obscurity.

As best-in-class sf stories, 'Thrownness' and 'Anticopernicus' are far from alone in Adam Robots — the very finest "actually seemed to vibrate with joy, a pure, high, warbly sound like a finger running round the lip of a wine-glass" (p.125) — but there are as many of the other sort of short in this difficult, if intermittently excellent (and certainly representative) collection.


Adam Robots
by Adam Roberts

UK Publication: January 2013, Gollancz
US Publication: September 2013, Gollancz

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