July 29, 2008

Book review: "Gradisil," by Adam Roberts

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By Adam Roberts
Pyr / ISBN: 978-1-59102-538-2

Well well, so what do you know; we're finally at the end of a special series of reviews I've been doing here at CCLaP this month*, taking a look at eight out of the twelve science-fiction novels nominated this year for either the Hugo or Philip K Dick award, basically two out of the four most prestigious awards in the entire SF community (the others arguably being the Nebula and the Clarke, although I'm sure many would disagree with my assessment -- fanboys, start your hate mail!). And as I've explained here before, this has been an especially interesting exercise for me, in that I was raised on the genre by a dad and uncle who were Silver-Age fanboys themselves, hence me growing up in an environment containing hundreds upon hundreds of SF novels from the '40s, '50s and '60s; in fact, it's almost exclusively what I read until reaching college, at which point I realized that if one simply read contemporary human-interest authors and cutting-edge poets instead, one could get laid a whole lot more than I currently was (which was "never"). And thus it was that the "cyberpunk" movement in the '80s was the last period of SF I followed in any deep way; until this month and the intense re-immersion into the genre that I've done, I had pretty much lost touch with all the latest developments and hottest authors, other than occasionally picking up the latest by the aging William Gibson or Neal Stephenson.

Gradisil, by Adam Roberts

Re-approaching the genre this year, then, now with the kind of sophistication as a reader that I simply could've never achieved as a teen, has made me realize in a much more detailed way than ever what exactly about SF I like, and especially what things within the genre I like the most; for example, in the ensuing years since high school, I've come to realize what a slobbering fan I am of alternative histories and fake histories of future events, and can now see that the majority of the projects I liked the most back in the '80s (Asimov's Foundation, Herbert's Dune, etc) contain these exact types of elaborate fake histories that I'm talking about. So it should be no surprise, then, that here at the very end of my little month-long look at contemporary SF, I should gravitate to Adam Roberts' Gradisil in a deep and profound way that I didn't with any of the other seven nominees; because Gradisil is not just one but two fake histories, related to each other and spanning basically the next hundred years or so of human history, touching on all kinds of important hot-button issues from our own exact times of 2008, written as a supposed oral history by the people surrounding the Ghandi-like figure in the middle of it all (the "Gradisil" of the book's title), looking back on events with outcomes they already know. I can't say in all honesty that it's for every SF fan -- many will find it tedious and politically wonky -- and I can't say that it even deserves to win the PKD Award for which it had been nominated earlier this year; but I can definitively call it my personal favorite of all eight of the nominees I read this month, the kind of book that will make certain people go absolutely gaga with complex narrative excitement.

Like I said, the book is actually two related yet distinct fake histories of the future -- part one covers the funky, libertarian beginnings of humanity's first-ever space colony, while part two details the efforts of this group to fight a revolutionary war against the US and gain independence for itself, the events covered basically lasting around a hundred years altogether, making this essentially a fake history of the entire 21st century. And in fact, Roberts starts the tale with an imminently believable idea, just the tiniest extrapolation from events that are actually happening in our society in this day and age; he starts by imagining a time just thirty or forty years from now, where there are basically now several hundred eccentric people who own their own private spacecraft, most of them bored trillionaire entrepreneurs who believe heavily in libertarian and/or Objectivist ideals. See, it turns out that someone figures out a way to get ships into space at an insanely cheaper cost than the rocket-obsessed NASA ever could; they basically invent a way for a regular plane to "glide" on the massive magnetic waves found in the Earth's magnetosphere, making it essentially free to travel and hover once actually within its borders. And since the magnetosphere actually touches the planet at the north and south poles, getting higher and higher as it reaches the equator, these entrepreneurs figure out that the costs of actually getting that plane into the magnetosphere "stream" is especially cheap when done from the far north, places like Iceland and Norway where the stream hovers just a few hundred feet above the ground itself.

And thus does this chaotic little community start amassing within this magnetosphere, which the "locals" start coming to call the "Uplands;" such people end up owning terrestrial homes in northern Europe for legal purposes and floating homes within the lawless Uplands that they spend more and more time at, coming back to Earth less and less and starting to think of the Uplands as their real home, moving back and forth freely through the use of their tricked-out Cessnas and Learjets and whatnot. And in the meanwhile, see, according to Roberts, by the 2050s or so things between the US and the EU have gotten downright hostile; in Gradisil's fake history, see, the US never does get over its neocon obsession with censorship and torture and perpetual warfare, turning them into a violent "evil empire" in the eyes of most Europeans, igniting a "Second Cold War" that occasionally flares into moments of very real violence. And thus it is that these Uplands "citizens" slowly start becoming more and more of a pawn in this cold war, because of most of these citizens being terrestrially based in northern Europe; the US wants to "take over" the Uplands, the EU doesn't want them too, while the Uplanders themselves mostly want to be left alone, the whole reason they packed up and moved into space in the first place.

I don't think I'm giving too much away by stating that the Uplanders eventually gain their independence, and that a remarkable (almost worshipped) figure named Gradisil turns out to be the catalyst for it all; there are plenty of hints and clues inserted throughout the manuscript to this effect, even from the beginning, making it not very much of a secret in my opinion. And in fact that's one of the many things that makes the novel Gradisil so fascinating, because the character Gradisil isn't even born until a third of the way through; instead, the first third of the novel is simply about the anarchic settling of the Uplands to begin with, as seen through the eyes of Gradisil's eventual mother when she was a young and sexually adventurous "space slacker" herself. And of course this is another remarkable thing about the book, that it's not just a look at these big events and fake history, but ultimately a small story about complex human beings as well, with Gradisil's mom Klara being a perfect example; the daughter of a Romanian hobbyist scientist who helped invent some of this maglev technology, she was one of the first people to live in the Uplands almost full-time without being filthy rich, an optimistic idealist and pessimistic realist at the same time, someone more than happy to exchange her "love" for access to technology she couldn't nearly afford, and especially after the bizarre death of her father and the stealing of her floating home by the Uplands' very first serial killer.

That in a nutshell is what makes Gradisil such a rewarding book -- it examines simultaneously not only this massive fake history of space settlement, not only the precepts behind anarchy and libertarianism and other radical political movements, not only the bizarre culture behind all these real activist billionaires of our actual Web 2.0 times, but also the deeply sociopathic and calculating personality behind this one particular character, the woman who is to eventually give birth to the "Mother of a Nation." And Roberts manages to do with as well with a great mix of humor and drama, knowing winks to real events that he never needs to explicitly state, not to mention a solid and unshowy personal style that makes this 550-page book a breeze to actually get through. (And let's not forget, mind you, everything plot-wise I've been talking about only covers the first third of the book; I haven't even touched on the real meat of this story, of the way this Gradisil woman ends up whipping all these spoiled trillionaires into a nationalistic and revolutionary frenzy, a story so complex that I'm intimidated by the idea of even trying to get into it here.) And in fact that's what makes reviewing this book so frustrating, is that it's actually the combination of a thousand little details that make it such a great read, not just two or three or four big things I can easily mention. I loved this book because of its examination of zero-g pregnancy; I loved it for its concept of "matriotism," which is basically what you get when you combine anarchy and the creative class. I loved it for its concept of war in the future, of how it had become more of an excuse to affect quick legal change than to actually kill people, of how the armies of the future have tens of thousands of lawyers as well as soldiers, and must brace themselves for thousands of lawsuits once the actual fighting is over. And I loved the way the book took advantage of this, of the way the rebels used the very tools of their oppressors precisely to escape their clutches. I loved that Gradisil herself was a former soldier, and wasn't afraid to spill blood the few times it was legitimately needed; I loved the way Roberts examines true loyalty to a cause versus lip-service loyalty.

You see what I mean? It's hard to say, "Read Gradisil because of this and this and this;" it's more about the hundreds of unexpected little treasures that pop up along the way, of all the infinitely smart little details that Roberts so expertly builds into this seemingly simple premise. Like I said, it's not going to be for everyone, because he's definitely more of a talky and policy-oriented writer than an action-based one; there's a very good reason, after all, that this reads and feels so much like an oral history being compiled long after the facts, mostly concentrated on people's reminisces about what was learned more than accounts of the action itself. (And I also have to admit, the main reason the book didn't get a higher score today is because of part 3, essentially a 75-page coda that seems superfluous and unnecessary; and by "unnecessary," I mean that you could literally stop reading at the end of part 2 and not miss a single additional element of the storyline itself.) That said, those who do get attracted to Gradisil are going to get heavily attracted to it; this is one of those books simply born for intense cult followings, making it especially appropriate that it should be nominated for the PKD Award in particular. It's one of those novels I urge all of you to at least take a chance on, even if it turns out to not exactly be your cup of tea.

Out of 10:
Story: 8.9
Characters: 10
Style: 9.5
Overall: 9.0

Read even more about Gradisil: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia

*Other nominated books now reviewed: Charles Stross' Halting State; Jon Armstrong's Grey; Sean Williams' Astropolis: Saturn Returns; Ian McDonald's Brasyl; M John Harrison's Nova Swing; John Scalzi's The Last Colony; and Robert J Sawyer's Rollback. That leaves only four nominated books that I still haven't read -- Michael Chabon's The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Minister Faust's From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, Elizabeth Bear's Undertow, and Karen Traviss' Ally. We'll see whether or not I'll ever be able to get my hands on these last four sometime in the future.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 3:04 PM, July 29, 2008. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |