My socks are currently in orbit around Jupiter, having been blown plumb off by Adam Roberts's Gradisil.
First published in the U.K. in 2006 by Gollancz, whose imprint is almost always a mark of goodness, Gradisil was released in March in the U.S. by Pyr, an imprint of Prometheus Books. If you’ve already purchased the Gollancz edition, then you already know how stunning Gradisil is in its ability to remix several tropes from science fiction’s Golden Age into a startlingly original form that is respectful of the past while giving it a good airing out. Those in places served by Gollancz already know how gorgeous and engaging Roberts’s work can be.
Without smaller imprints like Pyr who are willing to reprint excellent works that may not stand a snowball’s chance at making it in the U.S. -- like Night Shade’s recent Iain M. Banks’s title or Pyr’s own Justina Robson release -- these authors might not get a shot at the readers on this shore. Given that I didn’t discover the wonder of Roberts’s until the Pyr publication of Gradisil, I, for one, think that would be a damn shame.
(But don’t just take my word for it -- if you are a U.S. based speculative fiction reader, Pyr editor Lou Anders cogently explains why it is in your best interest to buy from Pyr, if only because it increases the odds that more of Roberts’ work will make it across the pond and onto our store shelves. As much as I love the wonders of the modern age, what with its Amazon.uks and its relatively cheap shipping, it’d be even better to not have to fuss around with customs and prove that there is a market for such titles here, even if it is a small slice of the larger pie. Here endeth today’s lecture on global economics.)
On its surface, Gradisil -- the title is derived from a Viking myth rather than the cervical cancer vaccine -- is a simple story about a driven man whose jones to escape the Earth causes nuclear-grade fallout that effects at least three generations of his offspring. That one line could describe any number of science fiction page-turners. Most writers, if given that brief, could weave lovely little stories that momentarily entertained but failed to leave any lasting impression. Roberts, however, isn’t most writers. His take on this brief is so exquisitely layered that it is hard to know where to begin teasing out what makes it all come together without giving away too many of the surprises.
The easiest bit to explore is the essential human-ness (as opposed to humane-ness or humanity) of his vision of the future. In Gradisil, only the world’s wealthy colonize the “Uplands,” the bands of space just outside of Earth’s atmosphere. The colonists aren’t pursuing a noble dream for the species but merely want to avoid taxes and other governmental controls. “They were really only interested in getting themselves into space;” Roberts writes, “theirs was a fundamentally selfish dream.”
The Uplands don’t look like the sort of habitat you’d find in a space opera from the Golden Age but are deeply informed by it. Here you will not find polished chrome or shiny tech. An almost lifelike computer doesn’t gently manipulate an Upland house’s ambiance. You have a very real sense that duct tape and bailing wire are all that keep the vacuum at bay. In Robert’s world, even the very wealthy are trapped by their meat-based bodies, ones that sweat and sneeze.
“A dozen varieties of mould grew on the walls of this house, fed by the moist funk of combined breaths and warmed by our body heat… Crumbs, thread, scraps of paper and plastic, all floated through the air; all eventually made their way to the walls, into bends and crevices. To touch the walls… was to press fingers into a slimy gritty layer, and to come away oilily dirtied.”
Roberts’s world is emotionally messy as well. His characters aren’t Heinleinian heroes or Clarkian geniuses. Their motivations aren’t pure. Klara, the narrator of the first chunk of the book, doesn’t seem driven by much at all. She lacks the capacity for any real ambition and instead fosters a talent for selfishly reacting in order to get what she wants, which is to stay in the Uplands. She is not the ur-science fictional heroine with pneumatic breasts and a take-no-prisoners intellect. She is, at best, someone things happen to. Despite her passivity, Klara still works her way into the reader’s heart.
Roberts’s deftly captures so much of the untidy business of emotions. Even though these space dwellers are living the dream that so many writers have limned out before, Roberts’ never relies on that ideal of only the best and brightest making it out of the Earth’s gravity well. His characters always remain fallible; they make poor decisions based on faulty information or suffer from despair or fail to repair generations worth of psychological damage. Sadly, my descriptions make Gradisil sound more like an encounter group than the ripping read that it is.
Rest assured that there is plenty of action, especially once the second chunk of the book starts and Klara’s daughter Gradi takes the reins. She is the active yang to her mother’s passive yin – and she does the impossible, more than once. While the costs of Gradi’s machinations to unite the Uplands are interesting and, at times, heart-wrenching, it’s Roberts’s knack for exploring the relationship between parents and kids as well as between men and women that makes sections of Gradisil deeply satisfying.
Like a late-night infomercial -- wait: There’s more. Roberts keeps adding layers of pure genre porn like quantum space planes over a structure with rich emotional resonance. He takes us on an old-fashioned catalog of space wonders and cultures whenever we’re in the Uplands. He envisions what will happen to language over the next two millennia, dropping silent letters from his prose as the century passes. If that weren’t enough, he sketches out a plausible outline for the geopolitical future that is completely believable and never bogs down in detail.
There’s more -- Gradisil is also a sly wink to pop culture lovers. The references don’t draw attention to themselves like they would in the hands of, say, Pratchett, but they are there for the careful eye to spot. Like this one, which concerns the color of a new sort of spaceship: “…they’ll paint those babies blaker than coal at night. None,” she adds, “more blak.” These moments aren’t a wink-wink wallop on the head so much as reminders that Roberts’ is having one hell of a good time telling you this story and wants you to know how much of a thrilling lark the experience is for him, too.
If anything, the biggest complaint one could make about Gradisil is that the ending fails to tie up every last loose end. There are, however, two things working in its favor -- first, it is satisfying in that each character has arrived at a new place from where he or she started and, second, it makes you want to know what happens next because the information that’s about to be revealed is bombshell-sized. Which isn’t a call for a sequel, mind you. Even though with the coming explosion, you don’t necessarily need to see the carnage, and to dive back in would destroy the delightful tension that Gradisil ends with.