(2008) Adam Roberts, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 288pp, ISBN 978-0-575-07589-4
Well over a century has passed since the publication of Gulliver's Travels, the purportedly genuine memoirs of English explorer Lemuel Gulliver which were, in fact, fictions written by Jonathan Swift; but not fiction to the characters of this book. The original tale(s) feature very briefly in this novel and little mention is made of them... Thankfully the novel is free from any ironic references. Swift's world is used as background instead, specifically his Lillipution and Brobdingnagian creations, to the story of two lovers caught up in a war that is far more far-reaching than either of them has realised. Abraham Bates is working to free the Lilliputions from slavery under the British, a campaign that results in him collaborating with the French invaders. Eleanor Burton has married an industrialist and enslaver of the miniscule people, but above all he is a man who physically repels her. Both are pushed to actions that will leave them with lingering guilt, and their paths will cross in the midst of war and plague that rages across Britain.
War is a key theme in Roberts' sequel to/re-interpretation of Swift's original and it is played out on many different scales. In an intelligently spun (albeit not entirely unpredictable) twist, he develops the concept of scale in this war, where Lillipution assassins and Brobdingnagian siege-breakers are employed as readily as any engine of war, and to further extremes... As the final revelation comes to the characters, Roberts manages to overturn this rip-roaring period adventure with a suitably subtle, and enormously Earth-shattering, science fiction concept. But it is the story of Abraham and Eleanor's developing love for one another that drives the novel. Thanks to Abraham's melancholic personality, and Eleanor's cold and distant demeanour, the relationship is a tense and unnerving affair. Indeed, extreme events that occur in their early meetings seem to destroy any impression that these two people will have their 'happy-ever-after' and it's difficult to overcome the feeling that perhaps Roberts has gone too far in his efforts to undermine the romanticism of the era. However, what follows is a bizarre and perverse affair that is as amusing as the novel is unrepentantly unconventional. And this is perhaps the one element that is carried over from Swift's original more than any other: there is a satirical edge to the novel that makes the events and characters seem absurd. There are characters who are unlikeable in the extreme. Poor Abraham goes through misfortunes that are beyond revolting. But, intentionally or otherwise, it all seems larger-than-life; either a parody of the type of historical adventure novel that has become popular in recent years, or of the attitudes of the period itself.
Swiftly seems to continue on nicely from Roberts' previous novel, Splinter, in which he re-wrote a little-known Jules Verne novel. On this occasion, he has left the story and characters behind and taken on the background and used it to very good effect. My only complaint would be that the conceit at the heart of the novel was a little too predictable, not that it detracts from your enjoyment of the story at all. It is also a far more accessible novel than Splinter and, perhaps, any of his other novels. It could be because of the satirical edge, or perhaps it is due to the genre he is trying to emulate. I am not certain if this would be a novel I would recommend for those new to Roberts though. While this is a worthy and enjoyable addition to his output, it does not elicit a reaction in the same way as his earlier work, typically uncomfortable though the reading of some of it is, it is just not necessarily as impressive.
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