Roberts, Adam

Tagged: Author | Critic

(1965-    ) UK academic (currently Professor of Nineteenth-Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London) and author who began his two intertwined writing careers – as an sf novelist and as a critic – in the same year with the release of his first work of fiction, Salt (2000), and his first work of scholarship, Science Fiction (2000; rev vt Science Fiction: Second Edition 2006). He is better known for his fiction than for his alertly told, strongly argued criticism, as most of his Critical and Historical Works About SF have been published by academic presses for a specialized readership. In a sense, however, the same may be said of his fiction, with the exception of the Parodies, listed separately below, which are clearly intended for those familiar with his targets. The reader versed in the history of twentieth-century sf may find that the Thought Experiments that shape most of Roberts's novels are strangely detached, that the worlds described are remarkably remote. Though his novels reiterate and intensify many of the central topoi of twentieth century Hard SF, they do so within contexts that seem estranged from the paradigm hard-sf focus on worlds extrapolated directly from our own, tales whose outcomes are conspicuously consequential for Homo sapiens. Roberts, several of whose novels are clearly meant as Satire, seems relatively indifferent to consequences; and he displays, moreover, little of the hard sf writers' typical bias in favour of non-governmental protagonists whose Inventions or applications of new Technologies fix the planet.

Roberts has written no series, each novel tending to present a new, self-contained Thought Experiment whose expression exhausts the frame of the venue, leaving little room for sequels. In his first novel, Salt (2000), two groups of human migrants settle on the eponymous planet, whose radical and demanding simplicity – it is salt-covered – make it into a sounding board (see Islands) against which the dire incompatibilities of the two societies become drastically clear: one of them being a patriarchic hierarchy and the other anarchical. The tale was criticized for excesses of diagrammatic clarity, and for Roberts's disinclination to carry his tale through rounded and/or likeable protagonists, though the analogues with Frank Herbert's Dune sequence were telling. These faults, or characteristics, similarly marked his second novel, On (2001), which depicts human societies scrabbling for existence on ledges protruding from an overwhelming cliff or Wall that descends forever, being in fact the surface of Earth following a scantily rationalized upheaval which (as though the planet were transposed into a bizarre Alternate Cosmos) has turned gravity sideways. Stone (2002) – set in a far more exuberant, Far Future, Utopian, hedonistic, galaxy-spanning venue – seems at first an homage to Iain M Banks's Culture, both universes being argued in terms of a non-scarcity Economics, with Nanotechnology-assisted Immortality, though without AIs in this case; but soon darkens into acerbic Satire, as the Fantastic Voyage undertaken by its protagonist (a man once a woman; see Gender) uncovers a series of viciously irresponsible societies, almost (it seems) justifying his mission, for he has been freed from Prison in order to commit planetary genocide. Polystom (2003) is placed in an Alternate Cosmos, a solar system whose planets, which are only thousands of miles apart, share one atmosphere, as vacuum is impossible in this universe; the tale initially combines Steampunk and mild Satire through its protagonist, who is clearly modeled on P G Wodehouse's Bertie Wooster; but deaths and War soon terminate the idyll. Daft young Polystom's search for reality gains a pyrrhic victory: the war-torn planet he may die on, like the rest of the universe, may be a Virtual Reality artefact housed within a Computer platform in our own cosmos (though the reverse may be true); whatever the truth, the war he is caught in is likely to kill him. In The Snow (2004), rather more simply, the world is transfigured by a Disaster – a three-mile deep snowfall whose surreal inevitability clearly hearkens back to the apocalypses of the early J G Ballard – which becomes an image, veering dangerously into allegory, of darkest Entropy: personal, political, planetary.

The cruel experimental clarity of these early novels is muffled in Gradisil (2006), a Near Future tale in a world magically immune to Climate Change, where near-space settlement has been enabled by the Invention of craft able to surf the Yggdrasil-shaped magnetospheres at each pole upwards into orbit. The well-to-do Libertarians who live there, parasitic on the planet beneath them, soon manage to free themselves from American near-space hegemony, but this Thought Experiment in Politics is muffled by a simplistic family romance, and is unable, within the procrustean coherence Thought Experiments typically demand, to address the planet below in all its troubled plenitude. Roberts's next few novels, though troubled by this difficult fit between experiment and the multifariousness of the actual, continue challengingly to test various arguments, always with an obduracy of intent that sometimes strikes gold. Land of the Headless (2007), perhaps his most savage Satire, unerringly guys the hypocrisies of Religious fundamentalism: on the planet Pluse those guilty of almost any "serious" crime are beheaded (see Crime and Punishment) at the behest of a theocracy which represents a chilling mix of Christian and Moslem obsessions about Sex and other issues; but as a shaming aspect of their punishment, the beheadeds' minds remain alive through Upload into a Computer attached to their spines. The headless protagonist, obsessed by Sex and guilt and worry, becomes a soldier on another planet (a typical Roberts estrangement technique), until he is able to return to Pluse and resolve his issues. Splinter (2007) – written in conjunction with his own deft and convincing adaptation/translation of Jules Verne's Hector Servadac (1877 2vols) as Off on a Comet (2007) – is an enjoyable homage to and gloss upon the Verne novel. Swiftly (2008) is an Alternate History tale in which the various societies depicted in Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726; rev 1735) did in fact survive into the nineteenth century, where they have variously become enslaved or compromised in the coils of a Steampunk world, with Britain suffering from a stunning Invasion in 1848: an outcome radically different from the fate of the Lilliputians in T H White's Mistress Masham's Repose (1946).

More recent novels continue to apply clear concepts to muddled words, with increasing novelistic success. In Yellow Blue Tibia (2009), which is set in a possibly Alternate History USSR, Thought Experiment is rendered in term of a hoax (see Edgar Allan Poe) created in 1946 by a cadre of sf writers obeying Stalin's demand that they create for him a post-World War Two external enemy to sustain his reign of terror. They duly describe a UFO-inspired conspiracy whose climax is an imaginary Disaster at Chernobyl. But in the event, sf – which the protagonist defines sf as "a kind of conceptual disorientation of the familiar" – may have imposed its own strait lines of argument upon the real world, as of course forty years later Chernobyl does suffer a nuclear meltdown. The protagonist, seemingly killed at this point, suffers Reincarnation into the presence of a Robot-like steel Stalin, who may be an Alien, or a Thought Experiment toon, or the ruler of some alternate world come to mock. New Model Army (2010), less impressively, posits a kind of Near Future mercenary army composed of Computer-savvy geeks who outthink conventional forces in a conflict-torn UK by (obscurely) joining their minds together into a kind of wiki: five thousand minds coming together simultaneously to make correct combat decisions. This wiki-like harmony of martial minds is known as Pantegral, after Rabelais's Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532-1564), but the implication that the New Model Army is itself a kind of giant entity is perilously abstract. By Light Alone (2011) is a Satire set in a world where solar energy directly fuels human metabolisms through head hair; those rich enough to buy traditional food shave their heads. The storyline savages this world.

Jack Glass: A Golden Age Story (2012) again explores issues of Crime and Punishment, in this case in a spacegoing thriller frame which expands into a Satire directed at the kinds of culture flourishing in an era where hugely numerous semi-autonomous Space Habitats showcase a wide range of human follies. Sharpening the satirical thrust of the tale, Roberts's protagonist, by frustrating humanity's ill-advised drive to exploit the further reaches of the universe, specifically repudiates an sf vision first promulgated in the Golden Age of SF. This book won the BSFA Award and John W Campbell Memorial Award. Twenty Trillion Leagues under the Sea (2014) is another Verne homage, beginning in 1958 as France's first nuclear submarine – on its first trial Under the Sea – sinks endlessly through an ocean that seems bottomless, echoing the impossible depth of snowfall in Snow; the book's numerous illustrations, by Mahendra Singh, are composed in a style that evokes 1958. Bête (2014), relatively short but very densely told, ranks with Jack Glass as Roberts's most accomplished work to date. In a Near Future world where animals injected with Computer chips either mimic sentience or are in fact conscious beings (see Uplift), complex conflicts are generated between those who affirm animal rights and those – like the protagonist, a travelling butcher – deny those rights to bêtes (French for beasts), and who make a habit of cutting out their tongues to keep them from talking. Interplays with recent popular music are constant; as are references to contemporary speculation about the likelihood of AI's gaining consciousness. George Orwell's Animal Farm (1945) is cited indirectly but tellingly. The Thing Itself (2016) complexly presents a Time Travel tale here possible through a proper understanding of the arguments of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) to the effect that (vulgarly) the perceived structure of the "real" is a construct of the human mind.

Roberts's Parodies hit their targets – including J R R Tolkien, Doctor Who, The Matrix (1999), Star Wars and Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) – with considerable energy. His nonfiction has not in the main been written for the general reader, though he is a very much clearer presenter of story and idea than many of his academic colleagues. Conceptual Breakthrough: Two Experiments in SF Criticism (2007) with James Holden and Simon King contains some enjoyably gonzo critical pieces. Roberts's most substantial critical work, The History of Science Fiction (2006; exp vt The History of Science Fiction: Second Edition 2016), is most interesting in its argument about the nature of the various literatures that eventually came together in the last century (which he has little time for) as a recognizable mode; the heart of that argument is that science fiction began to take root around 1600 in a "specific religious-ideological clash between Catholic and Protestant ways of viewing the world", and was most significantly articulated in tales of spatial exploration (see Fantastic Voyages). The future as a central point of interest and platform is of less interest to Roberts, and consequently he treats nineteenth-century sf as essentially a continuation of earlier modes. [JC]

see also: Strange Horizons; Zombies

Adam Charles Roberts

born Croydon, London: 30 June 1965



Book-length parodies are listed separately.


collections and stories

works as translator


nonfiction works as editor


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