Shall I Tell You The Problem With Adam Roberts?

I have a lot of affection for the Russian Formalists, if only for that they are all but irrelevant now. They were the last literary critics to care about an objective definition of a work’s worth – whether a text was “good” or “bad”. Modern literary theory seldom if ever engages with that question, which we can see as effectively meaningless. A better use of literary theory is applied in studying the underlying assumptions of a text – what it tells us about its culture, its gender roles, its colonialising impulse.

Science fiction criticism, of course, is still very much in the Formalist stage. It is often obsessed with “good” and “bad” – it is a mode of review rather than of criticism. Its effectiveness, in the majority of cases, is questionable.

The Russian Formalists advocated one particular mode, one specific technique, above all others. They called it “defamiliarisation”.

I would argue that to understand the works of Adam Roberts – and the problematics inherent in his works – we must understand an unarticulated point relating to that concept, and to a superficial distinction between the so called “Realist” and “Fantastical” modes of fiction.

In short – I am simplifying a lot for the sake of this post – Realist fiction seeks to depict life-as-it-is. But, I would argue, in order to do that, it employs defamiliarisation – it attempts to make us see reality-as-we-know-it in a new and unfamiliar light. It seeks to make the mundane alien.

Science fiction, on the other hand – and the resultant fantastical literature emerging out of the – specifically – American pulp mode and tradition – seeks to describe the imaginary – the fantastical – but in order to do so must do the opposite of the realist writers, by making it feel real, by familiarising rather than defamiliarising. Science fiction, on the whole, is immersive, it seeks to explain, to make comfortable its otherworldly conceits. The act of science fiction is itself defamiliarisation – and therefore, paradoxically, it must use all its power to make the rest of the text feel known to us.

And it is in the works of Adam Roberts that we see the tension between the two being, quite consciously, broken.

Roberts’ work engages with science fiction without, it could be argued, being of science fiction. The problematics of his work for readers and critics alike is that he seeks to defamiliarise the unfamiliar. He employs literary techniques to describe worlds borne of the pulp tradition. The discomfort one feels on reading his work is due to that ever-present tension. His interest does not lie in convincing us this is real. On the contrary. His SF seeks to distract us, to point out to us the superficial structures and devices being used.

Roberts’ most successful engagement with that problematics is perhaps his 2009 novel Yellow Blue Tibia. It is a savage critique of science fiction’s social structures, of the people engaged in its – possibly unique – institutions, taking place in a Wellsian-viewed USSR (that is, it is a wholly imaginary USSR viewed by a decidedly British writer). It includes scientologists; UFO enthusiasts; science fiction fans; and, of course, science fiction writers. The novel has come under severe criticism by American author Catherynne Valente, in a blog essay titled – in the modern language of Internet-speak – Yellow Blue OH MY GOD NO. Her criticism is, of course, entirely justified under its parameters. It objects to both the made-up nature of Roberts’ Russia and, naturally, to his portrayal of science fiction’s esteemed fandom.

Yellow Blue Tibia encapsulates the Roberts problematics. It does not seek to endear, to immerse, to make one a fan of. It is both affectionate and savage. It attempts a three-fold act of defamiliarisation: of science fiction, of science fiction’s existence as a social world, and of the realist and non-realist modes of fiction themselves.

Or take Stone. The plot of Stone is easy to summarise. A murderer is trapped inside a prison. The prison is inside a star. The prisoner is released by a mysterious force. That force requires him to murder billions of people on a distant planet as the payment for her release. The would-be mass murderer travels around a far-future human utopia, seeing a few of its worlds, and finally carries out the murder. In the manner of the Golden Age Mystery Novel, the true murderer is then revealed.

Stone is fascinating as a prime example of Roberts’ work. Take its obvious pulp motifs. Had it been published in the 1950s or 1960s in America, it would no doubt be retitled Escape From The Prison Planet! or, perhaps, The Man Who Murdered Billions!

It would be published as an Ace Double paperback, perhaps, with a suitably lurid cover. Instead, we get that one-word title, Stone, and a cover depicting a rock. Already, even at this stage, we see the double act of defamiliarising the unfamiliar taking place.

Or take the model of interstellar travel used by the people of this novel. A staple of SF, few things can be used so effectively to portray that elusive “sense-of-wonder” science fiction readers are so enamoured with. FTL! Giant spaceships! Warp drives and hyperspace!

Not so in Stone, where the traveller merely gets covered up in foam and sets off across space: no ships, no glamour, no warp speed, if you please, Mr. Sulu.

Roberts even uses the old cliche of “one world, one country”. Each world described in the book has a solitary, defining characteristic. There is a Rain World. There is a Cliff World. And so on. There is no real excitement. If one were to compare Stone to – most obviously – Iain M. Banks’ culture novels, it would seem its exact opposite. Banks seeks to familiarise; to immerse; to make exciting. Roberts, on the other hand, shows us his utopia almost as if it were written on a blackboard. Even more, he seeks to distract us further by inserting footnote annotations by the supposed “translator” of the manuscript, most of which being of a rather mundane nature – very different to, say, the way Terry Pratchett would use footnotes for comic effect or Susanna Clarke for telling further stories-within-the-story.

Even the nature of the narration – addressed to the eponymous stone of the title – works to undermine our suspension-of-disbelief, to remind us of the nature of text as artefact, as artifice.

I suspect this, then, is the tension, the problematic, the inherent core of Roberts’ writing. He is not so much a science fiction writer as a writer engaging with – and skewering – science fiction as a mode, as a construct. In that he is both brave and, no doubt, from a commercial perspective, foolish.

He is both the Fool and Knave of science fiction.

7 thoughts on “Shall I Tell You The Problem With Adam Roberts?

  1. I should further note that the title is a reference to the recent Roberts story “Shall I Tell You the Problem with Time Travel?” in the Solaris Rising anthology.

  2. I think this is a perceptive analysis. Roberts’ novels always seem to have a moment where he brings the suspension of disbelief crashing down, revealing the artificial nature of the constructed world.

    However, it’s hard to know how to take these moments, given that we suspect they are accidental. For example, one might think that in Gradisil the various physical absurdities are cleverly satirising the libertarians-in-space genre, and in Splinter the confused descriptions of the geometry of the splinter are there to reinforce the theme of denial — but it seems likely that are they ordinary mistakes made by a writer lacking physical and geometric intuition.

    I guess it doesn’t matter, if the story works (or fails to work, if you see what I mean).

  3. In light of some of Mr. Robert’s commentary (dismissal) of various science fiction literary awards (he seems to attack the Hugos in particular on an annual basis), I find your analysis and conclusion(s) to be in agreement.
    The question then becomes ‘why’?
    It’s probably better to simply avoid both fiction and commentary than it would be to delve into that.

  4. I thought this was an insightful discussion of the different projects pursued by literary writers versus science fiction/fantasy writers. I would be interested in your views as to where slipstream fits into this continuum

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