(2007) Adam Roberts, Gollancz, £10.99, pbk, 275pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-7799-7
It is a rather ingeniously thought-out concept cunningly disguised as a rather lame plot device, practically out of a cheap horror movie. The title says it all really... Roberts' latest novel is about a world with people without heads. As a hook, it is a rather surprising one and I must admit that I was quite keen to see how Roberts played this one out. He does not disappoint: his rendering of the idea is immaculate. The technical issues are swiftly covered, even smartly worked into the plot. Roberts has thought of everything.
Except, it seems, what to do with his characters. Roberts is almost expert in world-building, but this conceit lacks any real mileage. Jon Cavala is the decapitee who narrates this tale. A poet found guilty of adultery, the law of a strict religion decrees that he should be beheaded. However, technology is advanced enough now that the headless body can be kept alive, with the individual's thoughts and personlity stored in an 'ordinator'. The irony is pretty sharp: society follows the literal Word of God, whilst maintaining the spirit by not really committing murder.
Then Jon is sent back into the world. His obvious deformity sets him apart though, and carries with it a social stigma. Accompanied by the pious Siuzan Delage, and two other headless, he sets out to find his 'victim' and make his amends. In the process, he falls in love with Siuzan only to find that he and his two companions are later suspected of raping her. In order to avoid being blamed himself, he is forced into joining the army as little more than cannon-fodder but finds that events take him further and further away from the man he believes is guilty. He can only plot his revenge and hope he survives long enough to enact it.
The trouble is, the plot seems to lead nowhere all too often. After setting up Jon's reason for revenge, and leaving ample doubt to convince us that he could have the wrong man, it gets somewhat forgotten amongst the action of the middle of the novel. Which is, essentially, not that different from any other army-based story: we have the tough drilling at boot camp, the grim reality of war itself - with a unique twist restricting only the headless to the fighting - and the action of a daring escape from enemy hands. But Jon's own mission seems lost amongst all this. It seems that Roberts is trying to portray this world through the eyes of a very ordinary man with simple motivations. But by some annoying quirk, this character seems unable to give us any interesting information on the world. He does not seem that interesting a person really.
As usual, Roberts writes in a very eloquent, confident style and his attention to detail is often astonishing. But as a central conceit, the 'headlessness' does not have much to wring out of it. Which is disappointing from an author writing such intelligent science fiction. It starts off great, ends pretty well (despite a twist not quite as well executed as it should have been) and it is just a shame that the middle, the majority of the book, loses its way somewhat
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