Fiction Reviews

The Thing Itself

(2015) Adam Roberts, Gollancz, £16.99, hrdbk, 369pp, ISBN 978-0-575-12772-2


One of my favourite films is the western Valdez is Coming based on the novel by Elmore Leonard. Right at the end, Valdez suggests that maybe the bad guy should have paid one hundred dollars after all and avoided all the grief that led up to that point.  With hindsight, in The Thing Itself scientist Charles Gardner shouldn’t have accepted ten pounds from fellow scientist Roy Curtius, not that he got it for free.  He sold Curtius a letter, because the two of them are at the edge of the world in an Antarctic base, looking for signs of extraterrestrial life.  Charles is a regular guy, with friends and a girlfriend.  He gets regular letters. Roy does not and doesn’t seem to care: he is too busy with the research and his reading of the Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason  But as their relationship becomes more strained, Charles sells him a letter for a tenner which is a lot back in the 1980s, but having read it, Roy won’t tell him who it is from – his girlfriend?  An old professor?  Junk mail?  Roy won’t tell and it starts to eat Charles up, but Roy has read the contents and gets an idea, a murderous one that will change both their lives forever…

The title and the setting and the mention of John Carpenter’s The Thing on the cover is perhaps a little bit of a red herring if readers are expecting something a bit more chilling, and viscerally horrific, but we know from that film what a great setting snow-bound research stations can be, and Michelle Paver did a similar claustrophobic trick with her novel Dark Matter a couple of years ago.  Roberts does that here too, with two men getting on each other’s nerves until murder is almost committed.  Charles survives but almost at the cost of his sanity and physically – due to frostbite – he is not the same again, and mentally he is on a downward spiral.  But his fate is still linked to Roy Curtius especially when the shadowy organisation know as The Institute takes an interest in Charles, a former scientist, then teacher, now alcoholic bin man living in Bracknell, while bogey man, Curtius, is an inmate in Broadmoor, but he was ahead of the game with his thinking and the Institute would dearly like Charles to visit the man who nearly killed him.

Curtius has latched on to 'the thing itself' or Kant’s 'Ding an sich', a different way to perceive reality because we are constrained by our senses and the way we think.  Charles gets a glimpse of that otherness and what might dwell within it and is almost driven mad.  But if there was a different way to think, perhaps the way an AI might think, then could it tap into a world outside our own, and be able to bend time and space?  You could travel anywhere, go forwards and backwards in time, manipulate reality, manipulate the bodies of other people, but of course, some people see only the military applications, the ability to place troops instantly behind enemy lines, or into any situation.

Thus, Charles finds himself as an overweight, not very mobile, middle-aged man, in the middle of a bewildering conspiracy thriller involving the government, shadowy agencies and the Devil sitting in his cell in Broadmoor.  One of the joys of this novel is the character of Charles.  He is such a self-obsessed, sex obsessed loser that some his scenes are actually very funny, but also when Curtius reappears, they can be quite horrific.  Also slightly disconcerting is the fact that Charles is haunted by what seems to be the ghost of a boy.

He is our main narrator, but interspersed between his story are shorter tales (and some have appeared elsewhere) which combine to form the greater whole, taking place in the recent, or more distant, past with their own very unique style and voice. We also have one excursion into the future where you can elect to catch a disease from the past, even become mentally ill if you want to try it, with a chilling, killer ending.  In the past we join two men holidaying in Europe with some H. G. Wells added into the mix. We go further back than that in other sections, but do not worry, it all adds up.

The Thing Itself is a thought-provoking, challenging read, but I enjoyed it immensely.  (Besides any book where the characters end up in the East Neuk of Fife where I go on holiday every year is all right with me.)  Roberts is one of the best writers around and you can trust him to come up with something different from anything else he has written, and anything else anyone else has written. We are not long into 2016, but this already, has to be, one of the books of the year.

Ian Hunter

See also Karen's review of The Thing Itself.

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