This brings me up to date on all the novels Roberts has written, although his New Model Army due out for 2010 might already be out. Pretty entertaining and substantive, although the major plot twists felt a bit more obvious than usual, and there's a bit of a disconnect with how unlikable the main character and the interest in following his narrative. Still, the final picture of a conservative, hierarchical society is well portrayed, and the questions this brings up with between two mutually exclusive universes are intriguing. Different in exact tone and format than Roberts' other stuff but similar as a meta-fictional exercise and imaginative science fiction exploration, probably enjoyable to people that liked his other works. This work is another one that gained substantially in value when seen at a bit of a distance.
The question of unreal universe as opposed to the "real" one is implicit across the book, and becomes the ending hook on which the novel concludes. Inhabitants of this invested solar system with different physics and political arrangements come into contact with our universe, at first believing it to be an elaborate computer simulation, later things become more ambigious and they begin considering that they might be the simulation. It’s deliberately done to indicate a certain pattern without being definitive--it would be underwhelming to definitively assert that the SF scenario wasn’t actually real, and it would be more disorienting than the work can really support to conclude that our reality was definitely the artificial one. That type of resolution would be practically obligatory for a Philip K. Dick novel, but Roberts isn’t in at least this case writing that degree of breakdown of normal consensus. What’s interesting about the setup isn’t the actual resolution but how chracter debate the validity of their own reality. Obviously it just seems intuitively more likely to them, but some of them recognize that doesn’t in itself suggest anything in comparing with another cosmos. The second stage of the argument is to claim that our world’s history, with it’s instability and hyperspace of technological innovation is manifestly absurd, a basic contradiction that isn’t compatible with a functioning civilization. What Polystom traces more forcefully is the connection between these social and physical aspects, the way that hard science musings fold back into unquestioned social assumptions. Ultimately the story indicates basic ways that the distinction between objective science and murky social construction isn’t intellectually supportable, and uses the speculative fiction potential to root the whole narrative in a breakdown of such binaries. It clearly positions itself as a liberating experience, in terms of the author and the reader.
All the more so because it’s so clearly shown as an oppressive context within the novel. For the established history of the system, binaries are rigidly enforced and the stability of discrete segments is taken as a main absolute. There is either effective aristocratic order or anarchic lawlessness, and to prevent the latter the polity justifies extremes of repression and brutality.
Most effectively, this is shown out in the gender angle, an almost self-contained segment that features at the beginning of the novel and that makes it impossible to have sympathy for the protagonist later on despite all the travails and haplessness he goes through. In the beginning, a marriage is arranged, its followed by an attempt to literally confine and switch the wife into her proper natural feminine role. Told from the viewpoint of the frankly abusive husband it’s a fairly stark sequence that ties into the larger themes of the narrative. The protagonist doesn’t seem himself as a monster or the type of person that would lock his wife inside her room until she became more obedient because he’s a sadist that enjoys her pain. Instead, he views himself as at a loss for other options, carrying forth general social norms, and is unable to think of a better pattern of behavior. It’s the failure to recognize viable alternatives that’s at the root of evil in this book, whether it’s the marital abuse, the government carrying out public torture and execution of rebel serfs or the larger trend of a brutal imperialist war. The protagonist never really comes to a repudiation of his earlier views, but the text itself offers a clear argument for overcoming binaries and rigid thinking, for the benefit in giving the non-dismissive consideration even to a whole different universe. Imagine different physical laws, and then perhaps one can start trying to figure out better rules for current social arrangements. Roberts’ book is meta not just in the sense that it comments back on its own universe as invented but in the way it implicitly endorses the genre of science ficiton as having benefits to the potential of moral imagination.
Worse than: Vellum by Hal Ducan
Better than: Splinter by Adam Roberts