Sunday, April 02, 2017

Adam Roberts, Anticopernicus (2011) and Bethany (2016)

Let us now speak of Adam Roberts, a man I hold in a certain amount of awe for his sheer intellectual firepower. He's a professor of nineteenth century literature, and writes and edits books in that capacity; but he's also a prolific critic of science fiction, around which most of his blogging centers. And then, he's a prolific science fiction writer himself. All this while also having a family; he's not some kind of hermit. One truly is unable to understand how there are enough hours in the day. I mostly know him through his blogging, which I've always enjoyed. He's always throwing out these great insights willy nilly. It's enough to make one jealous.

For whatever reason, though, I've never read much of his fiction. The only one I had previously was Yellow Blue Tibia, a novel with a dynamite premise--that a group of Soviet science-fiction writers had been instructed by Stalin to come up with an alien-invasion threat to give the country a sense of purpose; this mission is abruptly cancelled after a few months, but years later, it appears that this thing they invented may actually be real. Still, while I liked it well enough, I wasn't overwhelmed; I thought the execution didn't quite match the premise. Still! There's a lot more! I should read it! Or at least some of it! Probably! Why all the exclamation marks!

So, I read a couple of short, ebook-only things. First up, there's Anticopernicus. This is quite short; only forty-ish pages, but somehow, it feels more like a compressed novel than it does a short story. The idea is that humanity has made first contact with some mysterious aliens in a mysterious ship on the edge of the solar system. Our protagonist is a pilot who THOUGHT she was going to be chosen for the ship being sent out to meet them; this having fallen through, she's a bit miffed. To distract herself, she signs on for a cargo run to Mars and back. No time to think about aliens! Saying much more than that would be telling, but I'll tell you what I really admire about this story, and that is its ruthless economy. In a very short amount of space, Roberts sets up a mystery which climaxes with a suitable mind-blowing revelation--seriously, he has GOT THE GOODS in that regard--and deftly ties it into a neat little character arc. I'd actually go so far as to suggest that this might be the perfect place to start with his fiction--it's all killer no filler.

Then, we move onward and upward to Bethany, a short novel. When I describe the premise, it can't help sounding goofy as hell, but it's actually way more serious than, and works better than, you'd expect. A young red stater is brought up with an intense Christian faith. He comes to believe--for various reasons; his motives are intentionally overdetermined--that killing God would be the ultimate form of faith. This becomes more than hypothetical when he gets access to a time machine, and he goes back to Israel in the early first century with a plan, and the plan is to shoot Jesus with a high-powered rifle after the Resurrection but before he ascends to Heaven.

So there you have it! Roberts does a quite good job of presenting the setting in a convincing way, and, as predicted, the whole thing is very theologically interesting. I enjoyed it. Still...I couldn't help but feel a little bit of disappointment about something that was probably inevitable and not the book's fault anyway. So you can probably guess right from the start that the question of the mechanics of what would happen in this unlikely situation isn't going to be answered. Let's face it: an answer would only ever be silly and deflating. And yet...it cannot not feel like a cop-out that it doesn't address this somehow. Even if you know that that wouldn't actually work out well! You sort of feel like he's going to address things in some left-field way that you'd never see coming, but then he doesn't and then the book just kinda stops. Don't get me wrong; there's still a lot to recommend here, and hey, it's only a hundred-thirty-ish pages; you can't go too wrong. But that was my subjective impression.

Anyway, I'm definitely going to read more of his fiction in due course.