(2007) Adam Roberts, Solaris, £9.99, pbk, 237pp, ISBN 1-84416-490-5
In his personal reflection on the creative process behind his writing of this book, Adam Roberts blames Eric Brown and Mike Ashley's short story anthology The Mammoth Book of Jules Verne Adventures for the whole thing. The inspiration to re-imagine a Jules Verne novel with a 21st-century sci-fi perspective was part of the brief of that book; Roberts' choice of the little-known Verne novel Hector Servadac, voyages et aventures a travers le monde solaire as his contribution was born from his being late into the project. Yet he was impressed enough with the result to spin the idea out into a full-length novel. The original Verne story concerned the result of an apocalyptic catastrophe: the apparent destruction of the Earth, and its sole survivors living on a chunk of the planet on the surface of a speeding comet.
In Roberts' hands the story loses the spectacle, but becomes a pot-boiler drama about the nature of belief in one's self and those around us. There is little focus on the technicalities of how a clod of Earth, maybe fifty cubic miles in size, could support life. Or even how such a chunk would survive an impact that would otherwise destroy a planet. Such details are quickly whisked away, dealt with briefly by characters discussing their predicament, or the main character throwing a few theories around. Instead this novel is a character study, and very unusual in that respect. Main character Hector jr is much like the splinter of the Earth he now lives on, thrown out of the orbit of his seemingly larger-than-life father. Hector sr, meanwhile, is the absent father who is now the prophet of a Doomsday cult. His concrete belief in the certainty of his visions is difficult to separate from either simple mental instability, or the cynical exploitation of weak-minded followers. But for Hector jr to find any kind of resolution with his father, he has to decide whether he believes that he really is flying out of the solar system on a splinter of planet Earth. As Hector comments early in the novel, the world doesn't end with a bang: things just go on as normal. For the survivors this is true: the cult continues its work just as before, with renewed vigour, as if the world ending was just any natural disaster they heard on the radio.
Roberts' portrayal of this world is wonderfully mundane. There is an undercurrent of paranoia as well, Hector never quite believing what he sees before him. But Hector himself is no hero; fantasising about the female survivors, nursing deep grudges against random members of the group. Even his paranoia is based on the egotistical notion that only he can see through the conspiracy he believes is all around him. The novel ends on a particularly ambiguous note as well; despite all that occurs, you are never left certain that Hector's father is right, that they are living on a small remnant of the Earth, that Hector sr is communicating with an alien intelligence, etc. If anything, the sheer force of Hector sr's belief, his aberrant odd behaviour and the obsession of his followers leaves you wanting to believe that the whole thing is a clever fake. If anything, it is up to the reader to decide how far-reaching Hector sr's influence is. It's a nice way to illustrate the extent of faith, but some readers may find the lack of a proper resolution infuriating. This is a novel full of contradictions and no easy answers. It begs constant questioning and discussion. In all honesty, this review only scratches the surface of a very thought-provoking book, and it is tempting to keep digging further into it. But then, there are those that would be put off by this complexity, the lack of resolution, or the slow-burning plot that will tend to drag. It's a sharp reminder of how science fiction can still concern itself with the 'Human Question' and dig deep into characters. This is an impressive work from Roberts, but I can see it being a book that opinion will be divided over.
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