Land of the Headless (book, Adam Roberts, 2007)
Adam Roberts took exception to this review, mainly on the basis that I described his work as “clever”. Apparently, in the rarefied atmosphere of academe (he’s a professor of English Lit), there is no higher insult! Still, he and I enjoyed a good correspondence over it, and became friends.
My reservations about Headless aside, Roberts is among the best SF writers in English of this generation. Land of the Headless is a good book, but he has written great books. Why the fuck he hasn’t won a major award yet is absolutely beyond me. His hallucinogenic description of Stalin in Yellow Blue Tibia as a monstrous man forged from alien steel is one of those passages that lodge in the mind, and is one of my all-time favourite literary passages. He’s a marvellous stylist, and a fantastic ideator. Give him a try if you haven’t yet. Seriously. Do it now.
From Death Ray 04.
Newly headless pompous poet wends painful way to self-discovery in picaresque SF tale that is, at times, too clever by half.
Tricky, tricky Mr Roberts. He’s a tough one to evaluate. An accomplished sculptor of prose, a cunning satirist, Roberts writes playful SF with concepts so high you need a stool to get them off the shelf. Like On, which takes place on an Earth where gravity has swung round to work at 90 degrees to the norm, or Salt, where rival bands of colonists battle pointlessly over an uninhabitable planet. Or this, his latest, in which criminals on the strictly religious world of Pluse are beheaded for their misdemeanours. Fitted with computerised brains and plastic neck valves, they are sent out to live the rest of their lives bearing the obvious mark of their sins.
There’s a big part of me that loves Roberts’ stuff, it’s all that SF should be, packed with brilliant ideas and clever examinations of the human condition. Land of the Headless does both, taking the hero Jon Cavala on a painful road of self-discovery before finally, finally his eyes are opened to his inner self.
But he can be a plodding read. He’s a good writer, so good that he feels he can happily stuff a paragraph with analogies and similes until it chokes on literary merit, and this is bad. It slows the pace right down, as do the long discursive sections (which, to be fair, are an integral part of the tale), and robs the story of vitality.
There’s an additional annoyance with Land of the Headless, in that you’d quite happily cut Cavala’s head off yourself. He’s the most pompous ass since Lucius Apuleius, and though the story is concerned with his enlightenment, spending 275 pages with Sieur Cavala’s morbid whining is not an easy thing.
Of course it’s all a very clever parable on perspective, makes sly use of the picaresque form, and has a good deal of satire on fundamentalist societies (and the woe-filled, self-pitying mentality of writers, for that matter). Cavala’s character is at the very heart of this, but that doesn’t mean you won’t want to thump him, a desire shared by, and acted on, by quite a few of the other characters too.
However, Cavala’s salvation, when it finally comes, is a satisfying experience, and there are many great ideas in here, so hats off, if not heads, to Roberts.
Did you know…?
One suspects Roberts is referencing Candide with this text. Similarities include Cavala’s fall from grace being precipitated by sexual desire, the resurrection of characters, and his experience of war. Roberts has played with early modern literature before – witness his excellent short Swiftly (see the Infinity Plus review), a clever story that follows on from Gulliver’s Travels.
Did you know?
Roberts has been nominated twice for the Arthur C Clarke Award. He also writes parodies of Famous SF and fantasy books, such as The Soddit.