Fiction Reviews


The This

(2022) Adam Roberts, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 296pp, ISBN 978-1-473-23090-3

 

There are great SF books that are gung-ho enjoyment, there are great SF books whose concepts are distilled sense-of wonder, there are great SF books that use science to solve problems or take a 'what if' look beyond the research horizon, and there are great SF books that explore an SFnal trope. Adam Roberts' The This is one of the latter. The concept it explores is that of the hive mind.

Now, hive minds have been around SF for yonks. H. G. Wells' Selenites in The First Men in the Moon (1901) is but one early example. Though the term itself does not seem to appear in SF until 1950 with Schmitz's Second Night of Summer. Yet all too often hive mind portrayals are just a little one-up from descriptions of eusocial species consisting of pre-programmed drones. My own first meaningful encounter with an SFnal hive was in T. J. Bass' Nebula short-listed The Godwhale (1974).  More recently, in terms of popular SF, a commonly known example of a hive mind species might the Borg in Star Trek: The Next Generation, but that really just used the hive-mind as a formidable foe, one that could have been a metaphor for communism as US fiction has a thing about that (cf. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, 1956), though the concept was explored in a little more depth in Star Trek: Voyager especially through the character of Seven-of-Nine. But this trope rarely gets a New Wave-ish treatment: I can't think of a notable recent one the past decade. It is this that Adam Roberts gives us now.

In addition, The This fires on a number of cylinders. We get wide-screen meta-physics, quasi-time travel, interplanetary war and even a first contact in the mix. It is all solid stuff.

The This begins with a short opening chapter that basically establishes that re-incarnation exists before moving on to the first meaningful part of the story. In the near future Rich lives in Putney (London) – which coincidentally is an area I know very well – as a struggling journalist come copy writer in part of the gig economy. It is a time in which a fad is beginning for people to install a kind of app, called 'The This', within their brain that enables them to connect directly with others and even access a kind of group consciousness.

For some reason The This wants Rich to join them and this in turn piques the interest of the government who want access to The This from the inside.

Next, we get a brief sojourn to the future in which a human is being interrogated by a collective intelligence that has evolved from The This.

Interlude over, we return to Richard who decides to help the government…

The second half of the book takes us back to the future with an overweight, video games player whose mother – on whom he financially relies – decides to join the collective. Unable to make a living without her, there is nothing for our wastrel to do but join the military and fight a war he barely understands against the hive mind that has now evolved a Terminator style Skynet dimension to itself.

Though by the novel's end matters are resolved, it is done with some metaphysical hand-waving, but fortunately very briefly (such ontological considerations seem to me to be a largely meaningless exercise in futility): the substance and value of the book is how we get there; here, the journey is well worth the ride.

This summary necessarily leaves out much lest there be spoilers. But there are a number of great set pieces: I particularly liked the segment that riffed on Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four. And then there are concepts and cultural references galore. Some cultural references are possibly a bit too of-the-present for this novel to be memorable many years hence. Others stem from the arts and in the afterword Roberts himself says that this novel follows the philosophy of Hagel, of which I know little: my philosophical knowledge (outside of science philosophies) is largely limited to Python's 'David Hume could out-consume Wilhelm Freidrich Hegel'.  However other concepts covered include that of the multiverse and (though not attributed) Feynman's single particle zipping back and forth in time making up the Universe. Though as for the number of realities, Roberts seems to have gone for a random number between Edinburgh and Glasgow, unrelated to the extra dimensions associated with either bosonic string theory, superstring theory or even M-Theory. But then Roberts leans to the arts and this is Science Fiction.

The This is not a long novel – its length perfectly fits its purpose – but it certainly punches above its weight. It's the sort of novel that might make the Clarke Award short-list: I'd be incredibly surprised if it did not make the Clarke long-list. But then Adam Roberts is no stranger to SF Awards' short-lists and he has even garnered a few. With The This Adam Roberts demonstrates that he is still on form.

Jonathan Cowie

 


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