(2021) Adam Roberts, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 324pp, ISBN 978-1-473-23094-1
This book is a diptych of two, tenuously-linked stories. The main dystopian cyberpunk tale is bookended by a much more interesting space opera.
In the central novel Ottoline Barragão (Otty), a sixteen year old girl who keeps bees and runs her own online version of the deep net, is pursued by cops, a cyborg powered by a mobile phone docking socket, and others in a world close to full scale nuclear war.
Otty finds herself arrested and denied legal representation. She spends much of the book being transported from one prison to another, (several times) with rather a lot of focus on her toilet comfort breaks. Various good-cop bad cop strategies are used on her to no avail. This gets rather dull as the reader is left without answers as much as the investigators.
Later, this is repeated with one of Otty’s friends, Gomery (short for Montgomery).
Both kids eventually end up free and Otty makes a dangerous road-trip to get back home.
Lots of characters move from A to B, then on to C, D, and more of the alphabet. Otty has an aversion to foul language and ends up begging various potty-mouthed characters to stop swearing to no avail. She ultimately proves to be something of a Mary-Sue, having access to, and knowledge of just about anything the story requires.
There are numerous pop-culture references, especially to the Eagles flight from Tolkein’s The Return of the King (1955), Otty’s gang call themselves 'The Famous Five' (as in the Enid Blyton stories) and on occasion, the Droogs from Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962).
Though set just a few years on from the CoVID-19 virus, Artificial Intelligence runs rife, but somehow seems rather old fashioned and impractical.
The sandwich filling is less interesting than the bread serving as prologue and epilogue. Here, the action is set in the far future. A ship from Earth has found a mysterious giant artefact resembling that described in Dante’s Purgatory, the middle volume of The Divine Comedy (c.1320). A group of five investigators explore it.
Though human, the expedition team are extremely modified with cybernetic tech, becoming more robotic than flesh and blood and though not immortal, they can live foe eons.
The explorers name themselves after mythological gods, such as Pan, and feed on ordinary enslaved mortals referred to as pygs (short for pygmies), but Pan, behaving like Prometheus, sets out to give the Pygs back their freedom and independence. As this story angle dominates, the point and purpose of the Dantesque artefact that names the book is rather forgotten.
Again, pop culture references abound, including a starship computer called Hal (as in 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), though with the strange largely unexplained alien pyramid the story runs closer to Clarke’s other classic tale Rendezvous With Rama (1973).
Both of Roberts’s stories seem incomplete. The central novel has rather under-developed characters who just get moved around a lot and end up right back where they started. The outer and shorter tale ought to be the main one, but that too ends up ultimately inconclusive with many plot threads left open-ended.
Roberts seems to be trying to retell Dante’s Divine Comedy, and argues in the postscript notes that while the Inferno (Hell) and Paradisio (Heaven) parts of the book involve simply cataloguing people who are damned or saved in their various torments or rewards, the Purgatario is about people in a transitional realm that must ultimately be emptied as the subjects are relocated (usually to Heaven). The problem is that the central story is more Hell than Purgatory and we only see the characters of the support story as they find the new world and face the dilemma of continuing to serve their self-appointed gods there or pursue their secular independence. Whether they will be free or happy with their lot is not disclosed, so ultimately, the work is rather unsatisfactory despite great writing.
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