… because there’s a new Adam Roberts novel!
No one has yet said to me, “Of course you praise Adam Roberts’s novels, you’re his friend.” But if anyone ever did say that to me I’d reply that Adam and I have become friends in large part because I admire his novels — and his criticism as well. A few months back I commented to Adam that I couldn’t remember how we first connected, and he reminded me that it was in the comments section of a now-silent website called The Valve. His posts there intrigued me, I commented, he replied, I decided to read one of his novels — and a friendship was born, one that I greatly value.
So … am I prejudiced in his favor? Only in what we might call a Hazlittian sense, I would argue: I am prejudiced in favor of Adam’s writing because what I have read by him has consistently given me pleasure. And that is the right kind of prejudice to have.
But back to The Real-Town Murders. It’s a fantastic read, fast-paced, edge-of-your-seat stuff — but it’s also sometimes disorienting, and I want to emphasize the disorientation it produces, because that’s related to something Adam has written about before — with, I think, disarming honesty — which is, not to put too fine a point on it, his neglect by the SF world. Not complete neglect, mind you, but significant neglect, especially of a book with the ambition, profound intelligence, and emotional depth of The Thing Itself, about which I have written here. It’s in light of this neglect, and Adam’s understandable puzzlement at it, that I want to say something about The Real-Town Murders.
As I say, it’s a terrific thriller — Roberts writes masterful chase scenes — most of his books have chase scenes, and they’re always great — but it’s also kinda weird. For instance, it can be really hard in The Real-Town Murders to know if someone is dead. Sometimes you think people must be dead but they turn out not to be. At the risk of a spoiler, here’s an example:
‘You see,’ Pu said. ‘You see, you can’t reinvigorate the Real simply by decreeing it. You can’t make it happen by fiat. You have to make it more attractive than the Shine. More intriguing to the people who … Who …’ Her weight slumped away from Alma, and she struggled to continue holding her upright. But she had gone, and Alma was not strong enough. As slowly as she could she lowered Pu Sto’s body to the ground. The aircars banked overhead and came down into the turf fifteen metres away.
Pu Sto had fainted.
Fainted?? You said “she had gone,” and we know what that means! You said “her body”! Damn you, Roberts! So a little later on, when someone else seems to have been killed, I the reader am waiting, waiting, waiting for the revelation that my assumption was wrong … again … but no. This time the assumption is correct. (Isn’t it?)
Here’s another thing: sometimes in this book human language goes awry. That is, certain characters temporarily lose the ability to speak grammatically coherent sentences. Sometimes this happens to automated systems, bots, as:
‘Relevant company documentation and answer any question to podscrip pending in your legally permitted break for lunch,’ said the receptionist. It had been prodded into a less secure margin of its response algorithm.
‘Furious green ideas?’ Alma asked.
‘Profitability supersedes itself in a company atmosphere of positivity and,’ said the receptionist, smiling.
‘Realising that nothing changes,’ Alma tried, ‘change everything.’
‘Happy to leverage all options and drill down to the next level.’
‘Let me ask you a direct question: are you, in fact, not the Ordinary, but rather the Extraordinary Transport Consultancy?’
‘Thank you for your input,’ beamed the receptionist.
‘Teleportation?’ Alma tried. ‘Instant transportation devices?’
‘No comment,’ the receptionist replied, rather too rapidly, and shut down.
But it happens to human beings too — and Roberts never explains why. He just throws us into this weird world where sometimes humans, like digital machines, develop linguistic glitches — and perhaps for the same reasons, given that the future society he describes draws human beings closer and closer to as purely digital a world as can be managed. And there are people who just speak oddly, by my standards, for reasons that might be related to the online world called the Shine or because they have a regional accent that I don’t know about or…?
‘I know he works in the world, but his free time is all online. All of it! And you need to own dare stand – I make sure he eats. He has always ate. He used to weight a hefty number. Loves his food. He comes to mine, and I feed him till his stomach bulges. Then it’s o mama and gut-ache mama and I see it shrink down.’
There’s even a (relatively minor) character — one whose language is still more distorted — whose name seems to change: for most of the book he’s called “Lester” but there’s a period where he’s called “Ernest,” and I don’t know what to make of that, because, though I’m tempted to say that it’s just a copy-editing oversight, there’s another minor character whose name changes repeatedly through the handful of pages in which we see her. (So I’m thinking: is Ernest someone different? Did I miss something? Surely I missed something. But I’m caught up in this story here and don’t want to go back to be sure.)
With Roberts, you never know — this is my point. Roberts likes making fictional knight’s moves, which is another way of saying that he is a perverse rather than an accommodating writer. To me, this is endlessly delightful; I enjoy having my legs taken out from under me, from time to time, as I read. I laugh at how Roberts sneaks in a line from Pynchon here, a line from Shakespeare there. I love this novel’s extended, multi-faceted homage to and riff on Hitchcock — another guy who was good at chase scenes — who makes an uncredited appearance here, as he typically did in his own films, but whose name is never mentioned except as the provider of an epigraph for the novel’s second part: “Puns are the highest form of literature.”
It’s all enormous fun. But I suspect that there is a kind of reader — a quite common kind of reader — for whom it would be rather too much. Many readers like their fictional moves to be straight, like those of a rook, or (when they’re in an adventurous mood) on a diagonal, like those of a bishop. This starting out on one path and then suddenly veering off — well, it’s rather disorienting, isn’t it? Rather perverse. I say: let Roberts do his thing! Take a ride! But many readers will simply prefer writers who are willing to do more to accommodate the most typical readerly expectations. It’s the way of the world. And this, I think, is why Adam Roberts hasn’t won a major SF award, though he has written several of the very finest SF novels of this millennium.
In addition to the pleasures it provides, The Real-Town Murders is also an extremely thoughtful meditation on one of the classic forms of literary pleasure. People have long asked “Why does tragedy give pleasure?”, which is a very good question — but one might equally well ask why thrillers give pleasure, why mysteries do — why death does, the sudden appearance of death in the midst of life. (In tragedies the most important death comes at the end; in mysteries it comes at the beginning.) It’s a question you might expect both Adam Roberts and Alfred Hitchcock to have some thoughts about. And they do. We could talk about those thoughts once you’ve read the novel.
Another fun thing for readers: catch the specific Hitchcock references. I noticed several during my reading — the most important to North By Northwest — but I bet I didn't get a tenth of them.
I've never read any of Roberts' novels, thus I may be in the wrong place to speculate about this, but I have an idea of why human characters in his novels are temporarily unable to speak coherent language. Nicholas Carr, Matthew Crawford and Patricia Snow (in her First Things essay "Look at Me") have respectively explored how the fetish-ization of digital-technologies/media has lead to a self-imposed state of autistic-like repetition. In particular, we see this manifested in video slot-machines, certain app video games,and in types of social-media where the goal–rather than any type of real achievement or (with social-media) stream of conversation–is simply to keep the screen-induced stimuli on/going. Interestingly, there's an absence of both purpose and spontaneity in these examples. The infinite-content of the digital-games/communications-media described is all algorithm-generated (cold-calculation) yet the possibility of near endless play/communication eliminates any real sense of order. The life of free-time spent all online gives an allusion of leisure and connectivity absent the silence/contemplation that authentic culture-building and friendships require. Yet, insecurities and the need for both order,play, and friendship remains–so the always-on screen-world serves the role of a perverse type of security blanket. The streams of authentic-conversation in and about the world of flesh and blood are too daunting, so the algorithm-generated cliches–all about utility and productivity–serve as a type of palliative. A strong attachment to routine and repetition of, often fragmented, phrases are types of autism-spectrum behaviors. Perhaps Roberts' linguistically-impaired characters are stuck in a type of digital/screen-induced autism. Yet, based on what Dr. Jacobs has quoted here from and written about Roberts' SF, there's is an autism without the enlarge capacity for emotions and imagination but rather is a bot become man.
I haven't finished reading this post yet, but I ordered the book because I loved The Thing Itself, which I bought last June after reading your post. That was a disturbing book, and I need to read it again. (And this is unusual for me because I mostly only read dead authors — the only other living author I'm interested in is Wendell Berry.)
Well, that came out sounding like an insult. I meant fiction authors in my post above. I hope it's obvious that I'm interested in your writing. (I will stop commenting now and go back to lurking.)
Kelly, that didn’t sound like an insult!
If I am going to read perhaps only one Roberts novel, which one would your recommend?
Kelly: Laurus by Eugene Vodalazkhin. When I finished the last page I flipped the book over and started up again. I've never done that with another book.
Douglas, for my money the best of them are The Thing Itself (the most ambitious, and an extremely powerful book), Yellow Blue Tibia (the most delightfully weird), and New Model Army (a faced-paced thriller but also a very provocative extrapolation of the potential consequences of constant connection).
Douglas, several people have spoken highly of that book and it's been in my wishlist for almost a year. I may just have to buy it for myself.
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