Category Archives: Roberts, Adam

Brother Oliver shook his head. “I’m not entirely convinced a Freudian priest is a viable hybrid.”

It’s May, I know. I’m part of the UK Government’s Covid-19 response which means I’m working crazy hours. Blogging, including reading blogs, reading anything really, isn’t happening much right now.

March’s reading was prelapsarian. We went on holiday to Bangkok and on to Angkor Wat. We were out there two weeks as the news grew worse back home. When we came back it was straight into lockdown.

My March reading was almost all SF because I tend to buy SF on kindle and for a two week holiday my kindle was what I took. I read one book before we left, five while travelling and one in the two weeks after getting back. My April roundup post will be much briefer (two books). By the way, if you’ve no interest in SF you should still scroll down to the Donald E. Westlake because it’s huge fun.

Anyway, I hope everyone’s keeping well. Here’s what I read in March, back in a very different world.

Friends and Heroes, by Olivia Manning

This is the third of Manning’s Balkan trilogy, followed by her Levant Trilogy featuring the same core characters. I expect it to be one of my books of the year.

Guy and Harriet are now in Athens, as is Prince Yakimov (poor Yaki…) and several of their old associates from Bucharest. Guy and Harriet’s existence is now more precarious than ever before – they’re now part of the mass diaspora of people scattered across Europe fleeing before the chaos of the war.

Guy continues to be too unworldly for his own good, failing to see that just because he helped someone when they needed it doesn’t mean they’ll help him now that he does. Harriet continues to be the more practical, but at times she’s perhaps too cautious, and she can sometimes be too casual with the impact she has on others. It’s a brilliantly nuanced portrait of a marriage, all the better because Guy isn’t always wrong and Harriet not always right.

Manning doesn’t quite have Anthony Powell’s gift for making every minor character instantly recognisable. There were some who recurred from previous books who I could barely recall. The core cast though remains rock solid and Manning captures time, place and the internal and external strains on Guy and Harriet’s marriage perfectly.

I wrote about Manning’s The Great Fortune here. I didn’t write up the second, This Spoilt City, but I did refer to it briefly in my 2019 end of year post commenting that it was a “welcome return to Manning’s Balkan trilogy with some very impressive moments and lovely characterisation”.

Final thought. One of the benefits of series is the depth of characterisation they can achieve. At this point in the sequence Manning is able to explore nuances of Guy and Harriet’s characters, including times when they behave out of character. It’s possible because we already know them so well and would be much harder to pull off in a single book without them seeming inconsistent.

A Calculated Life, Anne Charnock

Anne Charnock is a British science fiction writer. A Calculated Life is about a young woman genetically engineered for desirable traits in a near-future Britain.

Effectively a slave, Jayna lives in a dormitory with others of her cohort. The company which engineers them leases them out as super-bright, super-reliable workers. The difficulty is Jayna’s generation have been tweaked for greater creativity and empathy, but the closer they come to ordinary emotions the harder they are to control.

Jayna decides she needs more data to carry out her work, which leads her out of her corporate bubble into the wider world. Outside a controlled environment her own controls start to slip. As so often in these stories, sex becomes a trigger for wider disobedience.

The idea of created beings becoming too human is hardly original. In fact, it’s an SF staple. Charnock delivers it well here though capturing Jayna’s inner life, the slow awakening of her peers, and the seemingly benevolent and very 21st Century corporate interest in their wellbeing and productivity.

Charnock also paints a depressingly plausible picture of a recognisable future Britain. A cognitive arms race has led to smart drugs and other enhancements keeping the well-off competitive, while an increasing proportion of the population is effectively written off as irrelevant. Sadly it’s all too credible.

Elysium Fire, Alastair Reynolds

We’re now solidly into holiday reading. Big screen SF set in a distant future with little connection to our real world (though the science is, as ever with Reynolds, pretty much rock solid).

Elysium Fire is set in a solar system dominated by a vast array of asteroid habitats known as the glitterbelt. Each asteroid contains its own society and is governed by its own rules. The only system-wide law is that citizens are free to choose which habitat they wish to live in and the rules that govern it. Police known as Prefects protect that fundamental right.

Reynolds previously wrote about this setting in his Aurora Rising, which I rather liked. The setting is great, but I was slightly less taken by Elysium Fire which has a less interesting threat for its heroes to contend with. If you like Reynolds it’s solid but not great.

Provenance, Ann Leckie

Provenance is a stand-alone novel set in the same universe as Leckie’s Ancillary trilogy. Again it’s star spanning distant future stuff. While the Ancillary series was big on action and intrigue, Provenance is closer to an Austenesque comedy.

In one not particularly important planet in Leckie’s future universe great store is set by vestiges – historical artefacts evidencing a connection to great people and events of the past. The most important families evidence their prestige through the quality of their vestiges, many relating to their own ancestors’ exploits.

All of which makes it slightly awkward when a young woman intent on proving herself to her own family discovers that many of her society’s most treasured vestiges may be counterfeit. Worse, some of the greatest families on her planet may rest their prestige on entirely forged historical treasures.

What follows is in one sense big action and intrigue, but with stakes that are a bit ludicrous. On its face it’s entirely serious, there’s a murder, hostage-taking, all sorts of dramatic events, but it’s also quite silly. I really rather liked it.

Brothers Keepers, Donald E. Westlake

Donald E. Westlake must have written some bad books at some point, but this wasn’t one of them.

Brother Benedict is a cloistered monk living with his brother monks in a small and not particularly noticeable monastery. His sins are small – taking a biro without permission, looking perhaps a little too long at a woman in a tv ad. His chief weekly pleasure is a trip out of the monastery to pick up the New York Times weekend edition.

Why the New York Times? Well, because unusually Brother Benedict’s monastery is located in the heart of Manhattan. It’s absolutely prime real estate, which is a problem when Brother Benedict reads in the Times’ architectural section that they’re due to be evicted so the site can be redeveloped.

One immediate difficulty is that the order Brother Benedict belongs to is “a contemplative Order, concerning ourselves with thoughts of God and Travel.”

Our meditations on Travel have so far produced the one firm conclusion that Travel should never be undertaken lightly, and only when absolutely necessary to the furthering of the glory of God among men—which means we rarely go anywhere.

Someone has to go out into the world to set things right. Who better than Brother Benedict who at least already goes to the local newsstand?

What follows is brilliantly funny. The brothers soon discover that when Manhattan real estate is at stake theft, fraud and all manner of villainy is rarely far behind. Can an unworldly group of monks defeat big capital? And can Brother Benedict reject the worldly temptations lying outside the monastery’s door?

I had not entered the monastery at age twenty-four completely inexperienced, but ten years is a long time, and now I stood before the concept of screwing the way a small child stands before the star-filled night sky, feeling its vast mystery and its close fascination in tiny tremors behind the knees.

This was an absolute delight of a read. It has a marvellous cast, lots of comic asides and set pieces, and it’s insanely quotable. Very highly recommended. I think I loved Somebody Owes Me Money slightly more, but this is still great.

By the Pricking of her Thumb, Adam Roberts

I’d enjoyed Roberts’ previous novel in this near-future crime series, The Real-Time Murders, which married a Holmes and Moriarty-style setup with a riff off Hitchcock movies. Here Roberts’ Holmes and Moriarty are back in the form of private investigator Alma and her bedbound lover Marguerite and the inspiration is Kubrick rather than Hitchcock.

This didn’t work for me, but whether that was the book or circumstances I don’t entirely know. I started it shortly before returning to the UK and lockdown. The news was worsening and a novel which has bereavement and grief as major themes wasn’t a great choice. For that reason I don’t think I can give it a fair review.

It’s cleverly constructed, the SF elements and crime elements combine well and Roberts takes a positive glee in setting up impossible crime scenarios which ultimately make sense by the rules of his world. Whether there was something lacking on this occasion in the chemistry I can’t say, but my guess is the fault on this occasion was in the stars rather than in the book.

Well, that’s a slightly depressing note to end on, but then that’s true of how March itself ended. While I didn’t quite take to the Reynolds or the Roberts this time, I did enjoy all the others (and I think I would have enjoyed the Roberts more had I chosen a better time in which to read it).

Hope you’re all keeping well and all going well I’ll see you on the other side, if not before (virtually anyway).

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Filed under Charnock, Anne, Comic fiction, Leckie, Ann, Manning, Olivia, Reynolds, Alastair, Roberts, Adam, SF, Westlake, Donald E.

The whole universe was idiotic.

Anticopernicus, by Adam Roberts

Of all the great philosophers and religious figures, it was Copernicus who was the greatest, for he alone had preached the truth to humankind: you are not special.

But what if Copernicus was wrong?

Adam Roberts is one of those writers I’ve long meant to read, but haven’t got round to. Enter Kindle Singles, which are a great way to try out new writers for less than half the price of a cup of coffee (not that cups of coffee are particularly cheap these days, I admit). 

There’s a grand tradition in SF of using short stories as a means to explore ideas which are interesting, but not substantial enough to support an entire book. Anticopernicus fits squarely in that tradition. Centuries ago we used to believe that the universe literally revolved around us. We were special. We were the most important thing in existence.

Over time that idea got discredited, slowly and at great personal cost to many of those who fought against it. Well, I say discredited, but of course while nobody really thinks the universe literally revolves around us anymore billions do still think it was created precisely for our benefit.

Among scientists though, among those who seek a material rather than theological explanation for our existence, everything we’ve learned suggests that we have no privileged position. We are not special. We are not central to the universe. We appear to live on an average planet in an average solar system in an average galaxy.

The only wrinkle in all that is that in one particular respect we seem very far from average, and that’s that we are here at all. Everywhere we look in the universe we see no signs of intelligent life beyond our own. We see no grand galactic building projects, we hear no radio signals, nobody comes to visit us. We listen to the universe and all we hear is a great and empty silence.

The working assumption right now is that there likely is other intelligent life, but that the universe is a bit more hostile to it than we initially thought so it’s rare and spread out. If that’s true then we’re still not special, just not that common, and the silence is just because our neighbours are very far away.

In Anticopernicus the aliens finally do come to visit us, but when they do it doesn’t turn out quite as we expected…

The extrasolar intelligence, or intelligences, or—who knew what they were, or what they wanted—they had approached as close as the Oort cloud, and there they waited, patiently as far as anybody could see, for the Leibniz to trawl slowly, slowly, slowly out to the rendezvous. Communication had been intermittent, although the aliens’ command of English was fluent and idiomatic. But most of the questions beamed out at them had been returned with non sequiturs. What do you look like? Where are you from? By what political system do you organise your society? Are you an ancient race of beings? How do you travel faster than light? Do you come in peace? How did you find out about us? Where are you from? What do you look like? Fingers are a mode of madness—and toes! Toes? Toes! What do you mean? Do you mean you don’t possess fingers and toes? That the sight of them distresses you? Do you have flippers, or tentacles, or do you manipulate your environment with forcefields directly manoeuvred by your minds? We can wear mittens, if you like. If it distresses you. We can wear shoes on our feet and boxing-gloves on our hands! Not that we wish to box with you … we have no belligerent feelings towards you at all! We love your fingers and toes! They are adorable! Adorable! But mad.

Ange is one of the astronauts sent out to the Oort cloud to greet our visitors, and to find out why they’ve come. She’s an introverted sort, someone who prefers her own company to that of others and is more afraid of the idea of an afterlife full of countless dead people chatting away than she is of simply ceasing to exist when she dies.

As Ange and the rest of the small crew of astronauts head out though something strange happens. The alien ship, massive, detectable even from Earth, vanishes. Why? What could bring them all that distance and then just make them leave?

Ange didn’t say anything, but it seemed to her more than likely that the departure was as random and inexplicable thing as the arrival. She believed (and this belief was as close to religion as she came) that the universe was not structured according to the logic of the human mind, despite the fact—ironically enough, perhaps—that the human mind is unavoidably part of the cosmos. The billions of buzzing homo sapiens brains craved pattern, structure and resolution; they saw the beauty of a story arc in every rainbow’s bend. The cosmos liked structure too, of course; but of a much less complicated, or perhaps it would be truer to say a much more monotonously replicated, kind. Hydrogen and helium everywhere in varying alternated clumps; the inverse-square-law everywhere in every direction. Everything existent, nothing mattering. And above all the cosmos had no sense of story whatsoever. If aliens arrive in a human story and set up a meeting, why, then there must be a pay-off of some kind! But neither set-up nor pay-off was not the logic of the cosmos; and most assuredly the latter was never intrinsically folded neatly inside the former, waiting to germinate. If the aliens had randomly vanished, as they seemed to have done, then that was (Ange thought) just one more unharmonious broken-off piece of the infinitely unharmonious piecemeal cosmos.

The answer, and there is one, is that Ange’s belief is utterly, utterly wrong. We do in fact matter to the universe. We matter a great deal.

I won’t say more since it would spoil the story, but I really enjoyed this. It’s not a meaty piece, it’s a fun little SF tale which takes an idea and runs with it. It’s not really credible, but then not all SF has to be. Back in the 1970s SF short story anthologies would routinely have a few tales in them that were just intended to be plain old entertaining, not to be taken too seriously, and this is firmly in that camp. In fact, if it weren’t for the fact that some of the scientific elements it (very lightly) references are modern concerns it could easily have been written in the 1970s.

All that said, I wouldn’t remotely recommend this to non-SF fans. If you do already like the genre though it’s definitely worth checking out (and if you don’t like it at least it’s short and cheap).

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Filed under Novellas, Roberts, Adam, SF, Short stories