August 2004

Adam Lipkin

fiction

Swiftly by Adam Roberts

Reviewers get fed a lot of hype. There's rarely an ARC of a book that doesn't have a sentence or two about how "imaginative" or "groundbreaking" an author is. More often than not, the author is also "important," and at least one in five is "the most important voice of his/her generation," or some variant thereof. Needless to say, when I saw that cover letter sent with my copy of Adam Roberts's Swiftly describing Roberts as "the best author you've never heard of," I figured that the writer was half right, and sat down to read the collection.

Twelve stories later, I'm not sure that statement wasn't the first truly accurate piece of hype ever sent with a review copy of a book. Roberts, a British author whose four novels have completely escaped my attention, shows an amazing ability to tell a story, whether dabbling in alternate history, fantasy, or hard science fiction. Regardless of what subgenre he's playing in, his ability to bring characters to life and have them evolve shines through every one of these tales.

The titular and opening tale is one of the few reprints, having appeared a couple of years ago in one of the Datlow/Winding Year's Best anthologies and in a webzine. It tells of an alternate England in the 1800s, set in a world in which the discoveries chronicled in Jonathan Swift's Gullivar's Travels were real. Roberts carries the theme forward, examining the implications of a society that realizes, shorty after giving up slavery, that there really are different races of "people" out there who might be exploited. The lead character, Bates, is one of the few who crusades for the rights of Gullivar's creatures, instead of using them or their resources. If Roberts doesn't attempt the complex satire of Swift, he still tells a great story that casts a critical eye on man's ability to rationalize anything.

As good a story as "Swiftly" is, the final story in the volume, "Eleanor," is a masterpiece. A novelette set in the same alternate history (featuring many of the same characters and events, in fact), "Eleanor" is a much more powerful piece. It tells the story of an educated but naïve upper-class girl, and her rapid exposure to some of the harsh realities of her world. As much a novel of Victorian class conflict as a fantasy story, this tale shows Roberts at his finest, with characters who never slide into the depths of caricature that period pieces so often allow. Eleanor's constant conflict between her innocence and her book smarts provides both excitement and pathos, and her few interactions with Gullivar's people shed light on her and the world she lives in.

The ten stories in between are set in a variety of worlds. "Stationary Acceleration," one of the stories set in present-day Earth, is a nice tale of theoretical physics. As with the two Swiftian tales, the story is less about the science than about people's reaction to science. In this case, we have the varying degrees of madness and denial that scientists themselves might engage in at discovering truly bad news. "Jupiter Magnified," another story set in the present day, presents something of a mirror image, showing how ordinary people react to unexplained scientific phenomena. Both stories display a solid grasp of human nature, and our ability to lie to ourselves to get through a day.

"Dantesque" is a relatively straightforward story, examining what an afterlife would be like if Dante had been absolutely accurate about the three worlds beyond. If the conclusion that Roberts comes to -- that Heaven is the most boring of all worlds -- is something that's been known ever since the first copy of Dante's Paradisio was released, the journey to that conclusion, like Dante's journey through the Inferno and Purgatorio, is the reason to read the tale. "Allen Met the Devil" is another quiet tale, and probably the only horror story in the volume. Aside from the very interesting interpretation of the Devil, it also provides a nice twist on the traditional "bet with the devil" concept.

Of the science fiction stories, "The Question of [query term]," if mostly straightforward, is an interesting examination of one of the things that makes mankind fundamentally unique. "The Time Telephone" and "Tour de Lune" are less fully-realized stories than they are interesting examinations of sci-fi concepts. As such, they're not as fascinating as "New Model Computer," which examines artificial intelligence in a unique environment.

"The Siege of Fadiman" is the token high fantasy tale, and it's a brutal look at the nature of war and of warriors. If the conclusions aren't anything new, it's still a good story, although not one for the squeamish.

The token weak story in the volume is "Blindness and Invisibility," a story that's weakened not so much by the plot, but by Roberts's inability to find an American voice in a story that, frankly, would have worked just as well set in Britain. With a slightly more derivative plot than most of the other tales, it just falls a bit too flat on too many fronts for me.

Overall, eleven good and great stories in one volume is enough to sell me on any author. Roberts has an ability to shift narrative style and genre without skipping a beat, and his talent for developing solid characters in such short works is something that contemporary genre writing is so often lacking. Roberts may or may not be the best author you've never heard of, but he's certainly one of the best I've read this year.

Swiftly by Adam Roberts
Night Shade Books
ISBN: 1892389711
256 Pages