Fiction Reviews

The Thing Itself

(2015) Adam Roberts, Gollancz, £16.99, trdpbk, ISBN 978-0-575-12772-2


The Thing Itself, a standalone novel from Adam Roberts, is a near-future fantasy.

Charles is a researcher, working in a remote location in the Antarctic with only one colleague for company.  This is the story of what happens to Charles and how the rest of his life changes as a consequence of just one night.

The book takes inspiration from John Carpenter’s The Thing, but it only remains in the Antarctic for about a chapter before departing the scene.

The main narrative follows Charles’ experience, but takes a side street now and then to other stories, perhaps past or future visions, perhaps alternate realities or even perhaps scenarios playing out in the minds of Charles or one of the other characters.  The multiple stories do come together into a whole by the end of the book.

The novel, true to its roots in speculative science fiction, takes a point of philosophical debate and extends it further. In this case the speculation of Immanuel Kant that the properties of our universe are shaped by the framework of our human perception, meaning that if we could move our perception to one outside of human experience, we would be able to alter and exploit the properties of the universe as we see it.  This could allow travel through time and space in a variety of ways as well as potentially creating a utopia of human consciousness.  However, how does a human see beyond human experience? This is where the book departs from philosophy and fantasy a little to the realms of science fiction, for the answer appears to be artificial intelligence or a computer called Peta.  Then, of course it is possible that the 'Thing Itself' is a consciousness or higher being that merely uses the technology as a mechanism.

Roberts, in the acknowledgements at the end of the book, notes that he is “an atheist writing a novel about why you should believe in God”, though for me, it did not come across as theist, more a story of not to rule something out, just because we cannot see or understand it.  It also raised the possibility that maybe if our frame of reference influences the reality of the universe around us, then maybe there can only be a God if we allow room in our perception of the universe to believe in one.

The dry style that Roberts brings to some of his other novels, such as The Snow, comes to the fore in Charles’ tale: a character tortured by something that he can’t or won’t totally remember, hunted, paranoid, exhausted.  The trials that Roberts sets for his characters lay them bare and vulnerable, body and soul.  The reader is drawn in to watch with a fascination, thinking that it cannot possibly get any worse, only to find that it does.

The book is not an easy read – the philosophy discussed and its outcomes are complex – but it hangs together as a tale, coherently demonstrating the immense ability of the author to put across difficult concepts in an engaging story.

Karen Fishwick

See also Ian's review of The Thing Itself.

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