Friday, May 27, 2016

Review of Polystom by Adam Roberts

In perhaps the least likely of combinations, author Adam Roberts has a PhD and teaches in the area of English classics, yet finds novels published yearly (even occasionally awarded) in the field of science fiction. Victoriana and space ships unlikely bedfellows, Roberts keeps the two separate, rarely giving hints to his science fiction readers of his Dr. Jekyll existence (it has to be Jekyll). Roberts’ debut novel Salt is a fresh take on a classic science fiction conceit: contentious political ideals warring on a new planetary colony. His second novel On, while not overtly science fictional, is nevertheless a work certainly more in line with Christopher Priest’s Inverted World than Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre. And his third novel Stone, despite its anti-hero, reverts back to more traditional sf tropes—a lot more than one finds in the poetry of Robert Browning, the subject of Roberts’ PhD thesis. With Roberts’ fourth novel Polystom (2002), however, something of his Jekyll appears in his Hyde.

Ostensibly three novellas rolling along, one building upon the previous, Polystom (despite that the title sounds like a setting) tells of the trials and tribulations of the eponymous man. Something of a dandy-dilettante, ‘Stom, as he is often called, lives on a massive estate. Waited upon hand and foot, he indulges daily in poetry, gourmet food, and long walks in the forest. His recent past colored by the deaths of both his fathers, as well as his newlywed wife, he consoles himself with airplane flights across the ether to visit his uncle on the moon. It’s upon reconciling his losses, however, that things get tough, and real decisions are required.

I opened this review with mention of Roberts’ Dr. Jekyll identity due to the fact Polystom is the first of his science fiction novels in which the reader can actually see some hint of its existence. Nothing overt, there nevertheless is a Victorian sensibility to how the characters (mostly aristocrats) are presented and developed as part of a setting that involves politics, regency, family drama, and foreign military affairs. The prose more modern than classic, a hint or suggestion of yesteryear nevertheless comes leaking through. Like most of Roberts’ novels, Polystom also has a quirk in presentation. The narrative presented as something of a lost recording, or a journal discovered after decades stuck under a floorboard, the narrative has occasional chunks of text missing (with appropriate notes), producing the overall feel of something old, and incomplete. In conjunction with the overall style of narrative, the steampunk-ish airplanes, computers, and other retro devices that pepper Polystom’s tragic story combine to produce something obliquely Victoriana, and interesting for it.

Despite that each novella has its own theme burning bright in isolation, there are some ideas common to Polystom. Riding atop these is the notion of having control, and perhaps moreso, the subjectivity inherent to control. Polystom, and by his side his uncle, all attempt to gain and maintain some degree of control over the things in their lives. For young Polystom it’s his home, time, and unfortunately his wife, Beeswing. Later, after some emotionally hasty decisions, it’s even his own life in need of being brought back under heel. For Polystom’s uncle it’s knowledge, or perhaps more specifically, the knowledge behind his biggest questions about space and existence. A tireless scientist, his life’s quest is to wrest from life as much as possible and bring it under thumb with advances in technology. And lastly are the generals and soldiers of the third and final novella, called “A Ghost Story.” Militaristic, the men surrounding Polystom fight for control of the planet Mudworld—no explanation required for the import of the name, and subsequently the futility of their attempts.

Taking all this into consideration, Polystom remains a book that, despite being published as a novel, is best viewed and understood as three interlinked novellas. A love story, murder story, and ghost story, the overarching themes and concepts are thin, making the major plot reveal in the final novella feel inorganic. Character presentation, steadiness of plot development, and intensity of theme in each novella, however, are where the book’s strengths lie. One of Roberts’ more carefully written novels (some seem fresh out of a first draft, but not this one), he would seem to bring to bear the styling of Victorian England he is so familiar with, culminating in a steampunk-ish success.

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