Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Review of Stone by Adam Roberts

It’s been several days since finishing Adam Robert’s 2002 Stone, and I’m still unsure what to think of the novel.  On one hand, it could be a semi-jumble featuring a few strong ideas wedged inexpertly into a single story.  On the other, it could be something more profound: the strong ideas may prove to be something more in combination, the linkages yet to be made in my brain.  Regardless, the fact I’m still mulling it over means there is something to the book.

Stone is the story Ae, a convicted murderer living in a jailstar.  An epistolary novel, Ae writes journal entries to a stone while living in a prison inside a sun.  ‘Executed’ in the first few pages, he is rendered a mere mortal when all nanotech is removed from his body.  In the universe at large, Ae has the unique distinction of being the only criminal.  Nanotech evolving humanity into a utopian state, Police do not even exist.  People travel from one exotic world to the next, living a dream without fear of disease, ageing, death, and even crime.  It is thus that a special prison has been built to isolate Ae from the rest of society.  Watched over by two jailers, a strange voice comes into Ae’s head one day offering him a deal: if he is helped to escape, will he agree to kill all 60 billion people on a planet to be named later?  Agreeing to the conditions, his jailbreak is made and the story begins.

Starting from the prologue which features a Kurt Soldan quote explaining the physics of the Schroedinger’s Cat thought-experiment, Stone goes on to exemplify that paradox of quantum physics in story form.  Describing precisely in what manner would ruin the story, so suffice to say Roberts attempts to include equal parts ‘real’ physics and imagined potential for technology within the same frame.  Nanotech, faster-than-light travel, and a greater knowledge of the mechanics of the universe at large the result, these three elements play key roles in the plot.  Ae, in his quest to both destroy the inhabitants of the planet and discover who his employers are, utilizes the technology and knowledge to travel from world to world, yet suffers from all sorts of ailments, physical problems, and general troubles that the remainder of his culture do not.  Roberts does some hand-waving to make it all work, but the contrast is palpable enough. 

This leads to the second major paradox of Stone: utopia.  Ae’s culture named the t’T, all of its members have nanotech pulsing and flourishing inside their bodies and throughout most of their brains.  Death near impossible save freak accident or human intervention, the t’T live like post-human gods.  They travel, eat, sleep, make love, and adapt their bodies however they like without a thought to dangers, evils, crime and all manner of malevolence that plagues our lives today.  Ae the exact opposite (sadistic in fact), through his eyes the reader experiences someone who places his own well-being first and is not above manifesting the dark corners of his mind, even killing. 

It is thus that Stone in some ways feels like a commentary on Iain Banks’ Culture series, particularly Use of Weapons given the similarities between the ‘protagonists.’  Confirming Banks’ outlook, Roberts would seem to say that no matter how perfect the society, humans will still be humans, for better and worse.  They can be given every glorious desire and comfort, but there will remain inescapable vices lurking in the sub-conscious, or perhaps in the dynamics of society, which direct one human to want to harm other humans—to destroy the utopia. 

It is the tantalizing distance between this quandary and that of quantum physics—for a particle to be unquantifiable unless observed—which taunts me as to the coherent value of Stone.  As mentioned, describing precisely how the physics works with plot would ruin the story, so I will only state that the speculating Roberts does is not tied to Ae’s personal issues or utopia in any fashion I could detect.  This leads me to wonder whether the author knew what he was doing, or if the distance between is accidental, i.e. plot took precedence over potential allusion.

Identifiable issues with Stone, there are some.  Foremost would be the world-building.  Ae visiting no less than four different planets on his quest, all feel a bit rushed and lack detail which flesh them out as real spheres in space.  Were Ae’s character to undergo consistent development in this time, all would be ok.  But that this middle ‘on tour” section of the book could largely be excised and included as background information in the intro and outro, leads me to believe Roberts himself was half-hearted about Rain, the world where it rains all the time, and the other partially described planets Ae ends up visiting.

And there are two more minor issues—both of which indicate a lack of focus and hurried writing.  Roberts chose to include a scattering of footnotes and a short glossary explaining the language difficulties encountered with Ae’s native Glice tongue when translated into English.  This adds no degree of subtlety to the text. The fact that the narrative is straight-forward and features no ‘foreign’ words renders the notes extraneous.  (Mr. Roberts, if you are reading and I missed something with the footnotes and glossary, do fill me in.)  The second is writing style, particularly given the book is epistolary.  Choppy, there are moments of clarity and calm when the narrative rolls wonderfully.  There are also moments when the tone changes, and the syntactical ride suddenly becomes bumpy.  The book as a whole lucid and readable, certainly, but flowing and rhythmic it is not always. 

In the end, Stone is a thought-experiment on quantum physics couched in a story of a criminal at large in a utopian society.  From an ideological standpoint, the story is shored up.  Roberts covers quantum physics and utopia in interesting and thought-provoking fashion.  Where questions start to arise is the plot tying these elements together.  Sometimes feeling like a planetary tour simply for the sake of neat ideas and half-hearted world-building, little character development occurring in the meantime, much could have been elided with the same result.  From an sf-nal idea perspective, Roberts accomplishes something similar as in Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, yet lacks Simmons’ style.  But that the proceedings seem to comment upon other works in the genre (not to mention the brain candy of quantum physics) does give it relevance.  Published as part of Gollancz’s ongoing Space Opera series alongside such titles as Century Rain by Alastair Reynolds, Ilium by Simmons, The Centauri Device by M. John Harrison, Eternal Light by Paul McAuley, and others, readers of those books may enjoy Roberts’ novel.

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