Fiction Reviews

The Roamers

(2018/2023) Francesco Verso, Flame Tree Press, £12.95 / Can$21.95 / US$16.95, pbk, ii + 265pp, ISBN 978-1-787-588332-2


Something I don’t often encounter – shame on me – science-fiction in translation. Francesco Verso is an Italian science-fiction writer and editor with several decades in the business and multiple awards to to show for it. The Roamers is his fifth novel, originally published as I Camminatori in 2018, but only now crossing the language barrier into English. Verso had to pay for the translation himself; a fact which doubtless speaks volumes for the difficulty genre authors from other countries face crossing over to an Anglophone readership.

The Roamers is an ideas novel – the big idea in this case being the use of nanotechnology to transform the body and radically reduce its dependency on food. This is presented as an answer not just to a warped political economy of plenty amid global hunger but also to the dysfunction of urban civilisation itself. Why stay in one place, why work, why accept the status quo, Verso says, when you can live on practically nothing at all?

The story this is all packaged in takes us to a semi-functional Rome of the future, where a mother’s desire to heal her son leads to a chain of events resulting in the clandestine circulation of nanites that heal the body and remove its need for physical sustenance. The epicentre for this subculture of transformation is an anarchist collective of rickshaw pullers known as the Pulldogs – having already partly extricated themselves from the 9 to 5 they see the nanites’ gift as the next logical step in their social evolution towards freedom.

Note: this reviewer has never been to Rome but a quick Google assures me that rickshaws and tuk tuks are a common sight in the city, so this does make sense in context. The Roamers (the Rome/Roam pun is intentional) makes few concessions to the reader who doesn’t know the city – a map and glossary would have perhaps been helpful additions to the translation.

In theory, there’s a lot to like in The Roamers – it’s ambitious, it’s clever, and it follows through it’s ‘the street finds its own use for technology’ premise to its logical conclusion. It does a good job of suggesting through accumulated detail a civilisation that still functions after a fashion but is inexorably in decline. It certainly fulfils the mandate of speculative fiction to show us possible futures and potential answers.

And yet it didn’t particularly speak to me. For me, at least, there was a lack of drive to proceedings and neither the setting nor the characters connected. How much of this is a translation problem I cannot say, but the prose did not fizz like intellectual SF, in my opinion should, either. And while the info-dumps and digressions into future history were comfortably my favourite parts of the novel, one cannot live by world-building alone.

So, if you like some combination of Italy, concept-led SF, cultural pessimism and nanotechnology The Roamers is certainly the novel for you. It is without doubt a novel with something to say, with some radical and thought-provoking ideas even. It’s good that works like this are appearing in translation, too.

But I’d file it under ‘interesting’ rather than ‘must-read.’

Tim Atkinson


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