Gollancz, 389pp large format paperback,
£12.99 cover price, £4.99 on Kindle (Dec 2015)
Reviewed by Alex Bardy (Twitter: @mangozoid)
I have previously read a small part of Adam Roberts’ vast output and had more than a wee bit to say about his writing style, mainly because I find some of it a tad too clever and over-written at times. Yes, he does continually push the boundaries, but he also tries too hard to sucker-punch his reader. Far too often for my tastes: “You will accept my clever writing even if I have to beat you over the head with it…”
A recent discussion I caught on Twitter raised the issue of modern genre writers trying to be too smart nowadays, leading to an alarming trend of writing that feels forced, weird, and generally hidden behind that all-encompassing mystic buzzword known as ‘style’. For me, writing of this type does little other than distance me from the story the author is trying to tell, making things harder to follow and often leading to a look of befuddlement and an amicable parting of the ways between me the reader, and whatever message the author is trying to convey. Imagine then, a whole book of this kind of thing —24 stories, in fact— as Adam Roberts takes up the baton: “I like the idea of writing at least one thing in all the myriad sub-genres and sub-sub-genres of SF” (quoted from back cover). One can perhaps understand how I initially thought my own personal reading hell had arrived, quite literally, at my doorstep… Imagine then, also, if you will, my pleasant surprise to find that more than a few of these stories were perfectly accessible even for one such as I: a man of relatively simple tastes, as it were.
As with any short story collection, there will always be those that hit the mark and those that drift so far off base they end up sprouting in someone else’s playground, and this is no exception. The majority of the stories have appeared previously, but this is apparently the first time they’ve been collected into one publication in the UK. Space doesn’t permit me to go through each individual story, but here’s a quick snapshot to give you some idea of what you may be letting yourself in for…
Adam Robots examines the question of robotic purpose in a very twisted take on the standard tale of Adam and Eve, this time involving robots Adam 1 and Adam 2 discussing why a blue jewel has been put atop a steel pole in the centre of the garden and both robots given explicit instructions not to touch it…
Shall I Tell You the Problem With Time Travel? is probably the most widely read from this collection, and takes a sideways look at the subject of time travel, including an admission that history is usually written by those who don’t necessarily know the whole truth.
Throwness is told in the first person, and is a haunting study of how one might behave if they were given carte-blanche to do as they please, knowing full well that whatever they chose to do all memory of their existence would be erased every three days. Can a life of no consequence be considered any kind of life at all?
Dantean and The World of the Wars are both classic takes on tales of yore. Here, the Divine Comedy feels neither comical or interesting, and not particularly clever, either; while the classic H. G. Wells story is given a Martian viewpoint, with a tiny little sting in the tale… Ahem. Similarly, Pied is a classic fairy tale retold, but didn’t exactly stick in my mind, either.
The Imperial Army was one of the stronger stories in this collection I think, and whichever way you choose to interpret it, this read like a clever ‘homage’ to Heinlein’s Starship Troopers; with a subtle dig at Orson Scott Card’s Enders universe thrown in for good measure.
The Man of the Strong Arm is my personal favourite of the bunch, telling an amusing tale in which real-life history is re-interpreted as a series of corking, ‘pulp-like’ stories from the likes of Edgar Burrough of the Rice, Wells from World’s-End, Robert Highline and the Jew, Verne; also featuring such colourful historical pioneers as Sir Arno of Bergerac, and the preposterous concept of flying to the moon on a giant firework full of gadgets… A very tall tale this, and a funny one at that.
The Woman Who Bore Death felt like an attempt at fantasy that failed completely for me, serving as a timely reminder that an author should usually stick to what they do best, frankly.
Finally, Anticopernicus is another clever tale, this one expertly carving a return to man’s ‘rightful place’ as the centre of the universe. Or not…
In conclusion, I was genuinely surprised and pleased by the number of stories I enjoyed in this collection, and no-one can say the author doesn’t have a fantastic flair for the written word — it’s just that I personally struggle with a lot of it. That said, the University of Lincoln has declared Adam Roberts’ work as the subject for an academic conference later this year  entitled New Genre Army: An International Conference on the Writing of Adam Roberts [search ‘Adam Roberts conference’], so he must be doing something right, right?
* This review originally appeared on the British Fantasy Society website here