Monday, March 2, 2015

Review of Saint Rebor by Adam Roberts

Liberace revived, a neural net guillotine, robot brain builders, designer illnesses (like perfume!), endorphin drought, lunar Kafka—Adam Roberts is one of the most dynamic figures in science fiction at the moment, and his 2015 collection Saint Rebor (NewCon Press), which this list of ideas is a partial representation of, proves precisely why. 

Containing eleven stories (and one poem), three of which have never before been published, Saint Rebor is a brisk, vibrant collection that highlights the elasticity of Roberts’ imagination. “Gerusalemme Liberace” is the story of that flamboyant pianist, brought  back to life and parading the streets of the ancient city.  Preaching universal love in an awkward manner, Islamic and American governments join forces to put an end to the ‘threat’ in witty, relevant fashion.  Wikipedia defines ‘anhedonia’ as “the inability to experience pleasure from activities usually found enjoyable”.  After aliens arrive in the solar system, humanity experience the phenomenon in the story of the same name.  Begging aliens for the secret to interstellar travel, what are they willing to pay?

With Stanislaw Lem whispering in Roberts’ ear, “Mocputer”, one of the stories original to the collection, is about robots who build a brain that can “intuit and imagine” in an attempt to learn what came before Year Zero.  A larf from Roberts, the robots get what they wanted.  “A Distillation of Grace” tells of the potential pitfalls and opportunities of gene control.  An ambitious far-future patriarch attempting to create the Unique (the distillation of 12 generations of single children, evenly balanced between boys and girls, down to one child) a person has to appreciate the time needed in order to see whether or not the idea may come to fruition.  A single concept stretched thin—almost to the point of snapping, “What Did Tessimond Tell You?”  is science fiction as it once was: a grand idea populated by two dimensional characters.  Roberts builds suspense admirably, and the ultimate payoff will cause every reader to pause and think.  But it is not enough to prevent proceedings from being an idea indelicately injected into the lives of standby characters.

Tucked in near the beginning is the charming little “Moon Poem”.  An ode to Earth’s major satellite, Roberts achieves both a sentiment of romanticism and science fiction—not an easy thing to pull off.  Another very brief piece, and likewise original to the collection is “The Sixth Star."  A vignette of what’s left after humanity has exited Earth, it forms a nice segue into “Noose”.  Borrowing an idea for Robert Charles Wilson’s novel Spin but ratcheting up the tension, an inexplicable sphere of energy has settled around the Earth and is drawing tighter every day.  Killing every human it touches as it descends, one lovelorn man wallowing in a lost relationship barely notices as humanity flees high altitudes. 

Defying categorization is “Trademark Bugs: A Legal History”.  Reading like a university essay (including a finely humorous bibliography), this paper—ahem, story—about the future of designer diseases highlights a lot of ugly truths about modern civilization from legal, financial, and pharmaceutical perspectives.  Wonderful satire.   “Metametamorphosis,” as the title implies, is Kafkian—just Kafka never imagined his creation taken beyond the Earth.  The final story, and the last original to the collection, is “Saint Rebor.”  A fictional biography written in playful tone, perhaps the editor knows the reference?

Nina Allan, Tanith Lee, Stephen Baxter, and Tony Ballantyne are just some of the authors collected thus far in NewCon Press’s Imaginings series of short story collections.  Roberts makes for a ninth author to be included and is a nice addition to the indie series.  While I was disappointed not to see “Baedeker's Fermi” or “Thing and Sick”, both quality Roberts’ shorts from 2014 anthologies (Paradox and Solaris Rising 3, respectively), what is collected is more than interesting enough to warrant reading.

In the end, Saint Rebor, is a dynamic, unpredictable collection of science fiction shorts (and a charming little poem) that displays the imagination of one of the field’s most interesting writers currently writing.  Difficult to trace threads of commonality throughout the pieces, the variety will make the reader smile and think, sometimes at the same time, and always off kilter as to what will come next.  The prose may not be as tight as Roberts is capable of, but science fiction is, after all, a language of ideas.

The following is the table of contents of Saint Rebor:

Introduction (by Adam Roberts)
What Did Tessimond Tell You?
Moon Poem
Gerusalemme Liberace
The Sixth Star
Trademark Bugs
A Distillation of Grace
Saint Rebor

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