Adam Roberts is one of the most unique voices currently writing fantastika—an extremely difficult thing to accomplish given the sheer volume of material saturating the market. Having the knack for striking upon something out of the mainstream ordinary and developing it in a speculative setting with a hook or at least a barb), the talent also extends to short fiction, something the eighteen stories in his 2003 collection Adam Robots (not a narcissistic self-promotion) exemplify—at least, mostly.
Adam Robots opens on the wonderfully biblical yet utterly sacrilegious title story. It tells of a robot brought into the world and instructed never to touch a certain jewel atop a metal pole. Curiosity killed the cat, but does disobedience damn the robot? Wildly scientific, wildly implausible, and a wildly, enjoyably readable story, “Shall I Tell You the Problem with Time Travel?”—as the title states—describes said problem with time travel, and of course, how to get around it—nuclear bombs, dinosaurs, and severed thumbs included.
It is a (blackly) humorous thing that severe court judgments in the US can run to multiple life sentences; absurd to think the guilty party would require more than one. In “A Prison Term of a Thousand Years”, Roberts has a laugh at the system in a man sentenced to a millennium behind bars, and what awaits him upon exit. In “Godbombing”, Roberts captures the religious synergy of a battle between the Americans and Arabs for fleeting moment. The Muslims having invented a ‘godbomb’, it affects their side and the West, but in differing, interesting ways.
Roberts’ parallel-universe story with a Groundhog’s Day tone, “Throwness attempts, and largely succeeds, to avoid a maudlin, Hollywood ending and ends up touching upon an ethical possibility the movie did not. Space opera in epic verse, “The Mary Anna” presents itself as a dying magnate’s last words to his son. The rhyming scheme surprisingly adds a bit of emotion to his wishes come the conclusion. In “The Chrome Chromosome”, two robots discuss the creation of sentience, down to the last cell, in computized metal. But is the result human? Perhaps Da Vinci could say a word or two about this slightly biopunk future.
Likely a short tribute to Borges or Lem (or both), “Review: Thomas Hodgkin, Denis Bayle: a Life” is a fictional review of a biography of a fictional sf writer. Not having the ambition of either Borges or Len, Roberts nevertheless captures a nicely sardonic take on the meta of sf the past several decades that will be appreciated by anyone with a reasonably good knowledge of the history of the genre. A-bombs are the result of atomic theory, and in “S-Bomb” Roberts imagines the same harnessing of string theory—a string snapped producing even more catastrophic results than Hiroshima or Nagasaki. All handled in restrained, yet sometimes tongue n cheek fashion, you might actually think s = string.
More scheme than story, in “Dantean” Avis meets the android-esque as he is passing from hell into purgatory. Roberts keying on one of the major issues I have with the idea of heaven, in the resulting conversation that occurs between the two characters, there is something to be said for information.
Christopher Priest wrote a whole novel speculating on what happened on Mars prior to Wells' War of the Worlds, and in The World of the Wars Roberts throws his own stick into the fire on events that might have preceded the great attack. Priest's novel remains the more complete vision, but for a fleeting moment Roberts captures a spark. Feeling almost like a dare to himself (how to punk the unpunkable: nature), in “Woodpunk” Roberts tells of a small group of Chernobyl explorers and the ‘trouble’ one gets himself into.
Aside from the opening masturbation line, “The Imperial Army” sets itself up as classic space opera: teenage boys reads alone in his room, dreaming of... joining the army to blast the evil xFlora out of their sector of space. Very reminiscent of Jack Vance, this quick moving story has all the elements that made Golden Age sf so entertaining. In terms of pure art, “Wonder” is the purest, most truly lyrical story in the collection. Roberts truly capturing something (cemented by the notes at the end), the stories (plural) are by turns referential, self-referential, and downright readable.
My personal favorite in the collection and one of its best, “Man of the Strong Arm” does a lot of things simultaneously but from very simple means. A science fiction expert in the future named Soop discusses the merits and fantasy heroics of Edgar Burroughs of the Rice, and how they bolster the spirit of his male-dominated (read: Handmaid’s Tale-esque) society. Secretly getting reading material from a female informant on the side, she feeds him one about a man named Armstrong landing on the moon. Fun, sometimes black, abounds. Meta-fictional, deconstructionist, cynical, and downright clever, Roberts brings a lot to bear in our genre in a humorous yet thought-provoking way.
Written (unironically) like a biblical proverb, “Pied” is a tale of the Christian version of Van Helsing who does his business, echoing the religion while undermining it. Like “Adam Robots”, heaven may not be the place you think it is... Another religious tale, “Constellations” is a satirical dystopia in which a Christian is attempting to smooth all the world’s coastlines in an effort to please god. (Remind anyone of any Great Wall of Mexico?) Roberts being the wisecracker he is, the story us often smirk-worthy.
Adam Robots is a collection that, strangely enough, gets better as it goes. The best stories located in the latter part, more of the shorter, less substantial pieces confront the reader, initially. Regardless, the stories are very unique—Robert Sheckley-esque, in fact. Given so few writers produce fiction with the same edge and wit these days, it's saying something.
The following are the eighteen stories collected in Adam Robots:
Shall I Tell You the Problem with Time Travel?
A Prison Term of a Thousand Years
The Mary Anna
The Chrome Chromosome
The Time Telephone
Review: Thomas Hodgkin, Denis Bayle: a Life
The World of the Wars
The Imperial Army
And Tomorrow and
The Man of the Strong Arm
Wonder: A Story in Two
The Woman Who Bore Death