Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Review of The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts

Tucked into the middle of Ian Whates’ 2014 anthology Solaris Rising 3 is Adam Robert’s short story “Thing and Sick”.  Garnering little to no notice, it tells of two researchers sitting out long nights in Antarctica on a SETI project.  Together they maintain radios and machinery, cables and computer programs, but their free time serves only to widen the divide between their personalities.  One an introverted Kant fanatic, the other a more extroverted, pop culture kind of guy, trouble brews when the latter agrees to sell the former one of his personal letters from their weekly mail drops.  Possessing just the right tinge of something-else-ness to make the story science fiction, I thought “Roberts amalgamates philosophy, suspense, the isolation of Antarctica, and a minor character study in a truly compelling story. And the last line?  Beautifully slingshot.”  The slingshot, apparently, was into a novel.  In 2015 Roberts revealed the arching shot, titled The Thing Itself.

Positively non-standard in structure and form (a refreshing break from the glut of less-than-inspiring sf currently flooding the market), The Thing Itself extends the story of the two Antarctic researchers, Roy Curtius and Charles Gardner, to make the short story a prologue for the two’s later experiences in life, as well as the wild array of tributary fiction.  Missing toes and disfigured by frostbite, Gardner is unable to return to normal life in the UK after his time in the Antarctica with Curtius.  He descends into bad relationships and alcoholism and ends up working at a landfill for years before he is contacted by a scientist from a cutting edge institute.  Lured to the facility with promises of monthly compensation, car, and living quarters, it isn’t long before the secrets of the institute start revealing themselves.  Curtius living in a mental institution, he demands to see Gardner before he will reveal to the institute any of the advanced SETI programming he wrote while in Antarctica.  Gardner finally agreeing to meet with Curtius, it turns out to be a decision he will regret.  Reality slipping steadily away underfoot, the thing itself becomes as muddied as it does lucid.

Roberts overlaying his story on Immanuel Kant’s finely tuned philosophy of the reality of reality, The Thing Itself is as much about the thing (reality) as it is an abstract take on John W. Campbell's own Thing in the novella "Who Goes There?".  Reality slowly spun beyond realistic, Roberts uses AI, time travel, advanced communication technology and the subjectivity of perception as means of slipping and sliding beyond what the average human sees and understands on a daily basis to probe potential reality beyond.  Or, Gardner’s tale becomes ever more surreal even as his understanding of the true nature of existence deepens…

But for the ostensible dependence on Kant, there remains the presence of David Hume in The Thing Itself.  Physics—space and time—at the forefront of the novel, one might think Hume's billiard balls clicking and clacking across the velvet might be the subject matter I'm referring to. Surprisingly, no. It’s Hume’s later philosophy, particularly that which wrestles with the likes of first cause that becomes Roberts’ focus.  As Hume felt forced to admit, that there must be a supreme being of some type given the lack of any other evidence, so too does Roberts dance with the notion of a ghost in the beyond—an inexplicable causative to mankind’s understanding of realia.  An odd angle for a contemporary novel, it should be pointed out Roberts does not offer the novel as proof of faith, rather as a thought experiment.

Regarding the atypical form of the novel, it’s for a couple of reasons.  First is that Roberts uses the subsections of Kant’s theory of reality as a means of chapterizing The Thing Itself.  Second is that said chapters are non-linear in the sense that it’s only every other chapter which follows Gardner’s storyline. The intervening chapters completely abandon Gardner to shoot to different places and times and tell others’ stories, sometimes in a fashion directly related to the novel’s main storyline, and sometimes only indirectly.  “Badeker’s Fermi”, for example (which happens also to be yet another short story from a separately published sf anthology), is the novel’s second chapter.  Offering an ineffable experience comparable yet distinct from Gardner’s, it bears no relation to a later chapter/story telling of an abused boy in Victorian England and the demons which come to haunt him.  Nor does the chapter telling of humans—“ghosts”—traveling from the future to our time, a bizarre tale unto itself.  All in all, for readers tired of standardized sf, the novel is a gold mine.  

A thought hovers in the back of my mind almost whenever I read an Adam Roberts’ story: he’s not really taking this too seriously.  Not all but most stories feel tossed off, like a last minute homework assignment—still a good mark, but unpolished, just largely refined.  And The Thing Itself is another example.  Of course, part of Roberts’ genius is that he is way ahead of the curve when it comes to originality, story momentum, and ability to turn on crackling prose when the moment requires.  He jumps on ideas and rides them hard.  And background knowledge, intelligence, and a writerly something are all fully evident evident in The Thing Itself.  But at the detail level—the figurative crossing of t’s and the dotting of i’s—the narrative feels a little turbulent, a touch ramshackle.  With the non-linear structure there is bound to be some feeling of disjointedness, thus I should point out I’m referring more to the smoothness of transitions within the chapters, the eye to relative features, attention to tone at more than the surface level—these and other details that usually get treatment in a third or fourth revision.  The Thing Itself shows the potential for such detailed spit and polish, but only the partial realization of it. 

Regardless, Roberts remains one of the tip-top, most original voices in contemporary science fiction, and The Thing Itself continues to prove it.  John W. Campbell's Thing becoming Immanuel Kant’s The Thing Itself is no mean feat.  Slingshot, indeed.*

*Note: post edited March 15, 2017 to update original Thing reference.


  1. 'A thought hovers in the back of my mind almost whenever I read an Adam Roberts’ story: he’s not really taking this too seriously. Not all but most stories feel tossed off, like a last minute homework assignment—still a good mark, but unpolished, just largely refined.'

    Well put.

    1. I'm sure you're aware he is an English scholar, and therefore he knows what a refined, polished story is, which makes me wonder if he's just reserving his energy to write the great British novel... :)

  2. I don't think it's that he's saving his energies.

    There's an old Thomas Mann remark to the effect that a writer is someone who finds writing harder than other people do. So, yes, I'm aware that Roberts is a professor, specializing in 19th century British literature IIRC, because I've seen him throw off 3,000-5,000 words about, say, Coleridge without apparently breaking a sweat and then go off to do whatever he's got to do at work, and then come back and throw off another 3,000-5,000 words the next day. I suspect that Roberts is just a really facile writer, who hasn't needed to learn to rewrite because his first and early drafts are -- relatively speaking -- just that good.

    But in my limited experience -- if I'm honest, YELLOW BLUE TIBIA is the only Roberts novel I've plowed all the way through from beginning to end, but I've skipped through JACK GLASS and others -- his SF novels usually have good sections and ideas that are usually towards the book's front end, but they fail somewhat in execution overall, usually becoming slacker and failing to deliver in the back end.

    I see you're reading Tom McCarthy's REMAINDER. I'll be interested in what you make of that. If you're a SF-reading Ballard fan, what McCarthy's doing may not strike you as being so unfamiliar and avant-garde as it apparently struck a mainstream writer like Zadie Smith ...

    1. I've yet to read Yellow Blue Tibia, and thus cannot comment. To date, the best written novel, in terms of technique, I've read of Roberts' is Polystom. He brought some of his Victorian suave to bear, and the result is less slapdash. I have found New Model Army his best in terms of concept development. (The Hobbes/Leviathan ending is great.) But don't you just wonder what he could do if he really applied himself? I mean, I fully agree he is a facile writer, that writing for him is like other people brushing their teeth, but that doesn't mean he is incapable of revising numerous times... Guess he just doesn't have the time. :)

      Regarding Remainder, I'm about one-third through, and the name Ballard has appeared in my notes once or twice. Thanks for the links. Indeed Smith's ignorance (or perhaps inability to put 2 and 2 together?) is somewhat humorous. Somehow it all seems to come down to that perverse arrangement wherein an author who is marketed as literary will tend to be taken with more seriousness than a writer marketed as sf, regardless if the ideas they examine are the same. (Of course, it doesn't help that the sf community continually, and in ever greater quantities, awards its most mediocre material...) I daresay, however, that science fiction "reviewers" miss out on a considerably larger volume of avant-garde literary novels than literary reviewers miss out on avant-garde science fiction... I say this because, indeed there are sf novels marketed as "literary" and therefore get attention by the literati, whereas I feel a smaller portion of sf readers tend to branch out and read in the literary mainstream. But I ramble...

  3. An excellent review, although I liked the book a bit more than you did, as I didn't feel the narrative was too turbulent. I must say that I do think that's a valid observation on several of his works, for example By Light Alone, so I might be forgiving some of the same pattern here just because I enjoyed the read so much. Personally, I'd place The Thing Itself near the top of the author's works, which I would also say about Bête, his previous novel. So, at least in my opinion, Roberts is in near-peak form right now, which made the reason for my comment, in the next paragraph, all the more disheartening.

    I'm commenting to draw your attention to the blog post Roberts made regarding the reception of The Thing Itself, in case you've not seen it:
    It's self-aware enough that it opens with an image of Kant tearing up, and includes all of the appropriate qualifiers, but I do think he's got a valid point about the lack of recognition from awards and relatively little attention from typical genre fans. As I said above, I've found his last two books to be among his best, which put them among the best novels of 2015 and 2014 in my opinion. Yet The Thing Itself made only two shortlists (the Campbell and the Red Tentacle) and Bête only one (the Campbell again), with neither winning, out of the many, many genre awards out there. These are not the most famous awards, either, with the Campbell awarded by the Gunn Center of Science Fiction being arguably the second-best known Campbell award, behind the new-writer Campbell award given at Worldcon. I admire Roberts for his originality and for bravely putting out stand-alone novels of widely varying ideas (I could do with far fewer trilogies being hyped), so I do find it sad that Roberts says he's turning to more mainstream tastes--"My next novel, coming from Gollancz in 2017, will be a lot less ambitious (a lot less pretentious, you might say)" and similar quotes from the post.

    1. To be honest, I find it a backhanded compliment to Roberts not to be included on awards lists. If there is anything in science fiction which champions mediocre material, it must be its awards. (Just as an example, Jack Glass, perhaps Roberts' most commercial book, is the one which won him an award, not New Model Army or Gradisil, for example, both of which are a step above.) Save a good run in the late 60s and early 70s, and perhaps a year or two here and there, the awards have failed to recognize the most literary of sf. I don't think I would have picked The Thing Itself as book of the year, but certainly if there were any justice, Roberts, along with several other writers, would have been better recognized in 2015.

      I gotta read Bete, gotta read Bete...

    2. Yeah, I find it a bit amusing that Jack Glass is my least favorite of the Roberts I've read (which is only about half of his prolific output), yet it's the one that won an award. One of the ones I have yet to read is Gradisil, so I should get on that. However, I just finished reading your review of Ian R. MacLeod's The Summer Isles, which reminded me that I've not read a single one of his books. I have copies of The Summer Isles and The Great Wheel, so I have no excuse...

      On the good run for awards in the 60s/70s, I read the Hugo-winning Stand on Zanzibar for the first time not that long ago. I already knew it was considered a classic, and yet I was blown away at how well-deserved that designation is. I did find myself wondering afterwards if a book of similar literary effort would be considered Hugo-worthy today.

    3. Fully agree with what Mark said below. It goes without saying The Thing Itself has more in common with Stand on on Zanzibar than Harry Potter...

      If you read The Great Wheel first, I hope you'll believe Macleod can write much better. :) It's his debut, and not as good as The Summer Isles, or any of his other novels...

    4. I'll definitely keep that in mind regarding The Great Wheel. I'm probably going to start with The Summer Isles, anyway--seems a good fit for the times!

  4. 'I did find myself wondering afterwards if a book of similar literary effort would be considered Hugo-worthy today.'

    In 1969, STAND ON ZANZIBAR competed with the likes of Samuel R. Delany's NOVA and R.A. Lafferty's PAST MASTER for best novel Hugo. In 1970, Le Guin's THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS won in that category.

    In the 21st century, conversely, things like HARRY POTTER AND THE GOBLET OF FIRE and Scalzi's REDSHIRTS have been favored with the award.

    The world changed. The dividing line was 1977, when both STAR WARS and Del Rey books manifested themselves, and made the genre accessible to the marching morons.

  5. 1695 = Victorian England ?

    Possibly a small point to revise.