Friday, November 7, 2014

Review of Gradisil by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts’ debut novel Salt was a story that balanced the meat and potatoes of conceptual science fiction with a political examination of the crossroads between anarchy and authoritarianism.  Later, his eleventh novel (excluding the parodies) New Model Army was the pertinent contrast of a purely democratic militia against a traditional army (an organization that historically has been, and is currently, totalitarianist).  Fitting nicely in the middle of these two is Roberts’ sixth novel Gradisil (2007).  An intriguing exploration of libertarianism, Roberts unpacks the political ideology with his trademark attention to society and the individual, telling the saga of one family’s rise into the highest ‘uplands’ of Earth possible and the turmoil that results.

Gradisil is at heart the story of three generations of one family—an atypical family, but a realistic one for it.  The novel opens with teenage Klara as she helps her father set up home in high orbit around Earth.  Wanting to escape the political trouble brewing between the European Union and the US, the pair are among the first people to fly into the upper atmosphere carrying a large metal tube and filling it with needed supplies: oxygen tanks, communications gear, food, sleeping hammocks, and the like—a truly Spartan freedom, but true freedom, nonetheless.  A tragedy interrupting their zero-g set up, Klara is left to pick up the pieces of life as war breaks out below.  Giving birth to a daughter, Gradisil, the narrative shifts ahead in time to when the Uplands, as the orbiting domiciles are called, have come to represent a political objective to the American government. The homes numbering in the thousands, most of which populated by rich dissidents, the President and his cabinet want to establish American governance and tax the burgeoning populace.  With violence between the land and sky threatening, Gradisil attempts to unite the Uplanders in defense of their “motherland”.  After experiencing catastrophes of her own, it is up Gradisil’s timid son Hope to resolve the political issues that have built around the Uplands, Earth’s most wide open frontier.

Categorically the wild west in orbit, Gradisil nevertheless paints a realistic picture of the next possible step in humanity’s migration.  Lebensraum if ever there were, Roberts treats the vast orbital space with plausible rigor.  The issues resulting from pregnancy in zero-grav, bone decay, muscle atrophy, radiation exposure, etc. are portrayed with some realism.  It’s thus only natural that the first people to inhabit the sky would be the mavericks, the rogues, the eccentrically rich, the criminals, the politically dissident—people who are willing to risk the exigencies of life in orbit for ultimate political freedom.  In short, it is the perfect place for libertarians.  As the ownership of Earth’s orbit is not down to any single country or government, the market is free and each person is truly on their own to exist as independently as they desire.  Beside the physical limits of life in orbit, the political ideology is truly built on liberty.  The conflict with the US that eventually results is thus an interesting inversion of American history…

John Brunner is not a name many American fans of science fiction know of.  His key novels portraying the American government in a realistic light, many readers have, unfortunately, taken his novels to be culture critique rather than the policy critique they are.  Thus, Roberts will probably not be winning any points with American patriots in Gradisil, either.  But there can be little argument.  Though the character portrayals are analogous to the Bush administration and therefore feel slightly exaggerated, what is not exaggerated is the presentation of US foreign policy.  Whether one views it as Monroe Doctrine in the late 21 st century or simply a nation exercising its political and military might, either way Gradisil parallels the mindset the US has historically and in contemporary times put into action in regards to ‘land for the taking’.  (Whether it be the real wild west or the Middle East, the US has often gotten its way, asserting its military where it wants control.)  The Uplands of Gradisil such a place, the lengths to which the President and his cabinet are willing to go to establish that control are maddening—precisely in the same fashion that American involvement in the Middle East is maddening.  (It goes without saying that should you be a reader who finds US involvement in the Middle East desirable, the novel will not be to your liking—or Brunner’s work, for that matter.)

I think of Gradisil as Roberts’ ‘big one’.  The longest novel he has published to date, the saga elements depicting the social and political evolution of the Uplands only make it seem bigger.  While not a James Mitchell offering, Roberts nevertheless uses the three generations of the Gyeroffy family to channel changes happening globally and in orbit.  The personal stories of Klara, Gradisil, and Hope are key to the novel, as likewise are the handful of relationships they form outside their immediate family circle.  Moreover, each generation represents a cycle within the larger cycle.  Revenge the leitmotif, the horizon of raw humanity is the result.  Another element that stretches Gradisil’s scope is the evolution of language, specifically orthography.  An ongoing evolution, Klara’s section features straight-forward, contemporary English; Gradisil’s some tiny changes in spelling; while in Hope’s more significant changes in the usage of letters are seen.  Certainly included to highlight the passage of time, for readers annoyed with such authorial license, be warned that Roberts does create a slightly alternate form of English. That being said, it’s only a partial creation, and minor at that.  Unlike Iain Banks’ Feersum Endjinn which creates a wholly phonetic version of English, Roberts makes only the slightest of modifications—enough to cause pause, but not enough to overwhelm or entirely disrupt. 

The final element figuratively expanding the size of Gradisil is the allusive value of Yggdrasil: the world tree.  While conjuring the idea of myth or legend, the pseudo-scientific manner in which the branches of the Earth’s electro-magnetic ‘tree’ are employed creates the symbolism backing mankind’s extension from surface-only dwellers into space inhabitants.  Though lightly used, it remains a nice narrative touch that highlights the stability of nature while dynamic human events occur, and in turn giving that extra little historical tweak that enlarges the perceived size of the story.

In the end, Gradisil, as Gollancz never misses an opportunity to point out on the cover of Roberts’ books, is ‘high-concept SF’. Fully unpacking the idea of humanity living in Earth’s orbit from a domestic and political perspective, the practicalities of life in Earth’s atmosphere combined with the underlying politics of libertarianism are utilized toward telling the story of three generations of the Gyeroffy family.  A complete cycle defined, the novel opens on a loss of innocence and closes on one, society having changed around the events yet remaining the same between.  While I ultimately believe Gradisil to be a critique of libertarianism, this will not stop adherents of the political ideology from reading and enjoying the novel as it is a realistic portrayal of the mindset/ideology in action.  But American patriots beware. Despite the fact the story parallels early American history in many, many ways, the portrayal of right-wing dogma—ahem, doctrine—may not be to your liking.

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