Swiftly (book, 2008)
Adam Roberts is one of my favourite writers. Here’s a review of Swiftly, from Death Ray 11.
Another intriguing novel from one of the UK’s most important writers of SF.
I’m going to call this literary, and that’s going to get me into trouble. We rail against the tedious taxonomic classification of books, especially using such an emotive term, connoted with superiority. No doubt this hypocrisy on my part will plunge like a Lilliputian dagger into the eyes of various readers, but it stands, because you know exactly what I mean. By small conveniences do we aggravate one another.
Swiftly is an expansion of Robert’s short story of the same name, an ingenious extrapolation of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. It is 144 years after Gulliver returned home, Britain and France are at war, and the marvellous creatures Gulliver encountered have been inevitably subdued and enslaved by the European powers.
There are many areas where the book excels. Its description of a world made wondrous by the advent of Brobdignagian sheep, talking cavalry and Lilliputian craftsmen whose tiny hands allow them to construct fantastical machines is entrancing, the middle act is an amusingly apt rebuke to the 19th century romantic novel, and in the final stages we are treated to an imaginative dissection of Swiftly‘s multi-scalar universe.
Less successful is the book’s theme on the worthiness of a man to be loved. Roberts goes too far in his abasement of his protagonist Abraham Bates; among many other penances, he makes Bates a coprophiliac who loathes his own arousal. Admittedly, Roberts does nothing without reason – Bates’ peccadilloes illustrate the gloriously physical reality of love, furthering the story’s debunking of Victorian romantic myth, and it forms a sly scatalogical adjunct to the book’s discourse on scale and corruption. But Bates begins with indignity already heaped upon him, and to have him have to redeem himself through yet more indignity seems suffering for suffering’s sake. It’s almost Catholic, and Bates is no Christ.
Yet this is a small criticism. The book fully takes up the beat of Swift’s drum on the contrariness of human nobility, and Roberts cleverly carries on the mode of reversal that the original book employs. We have the Houyhnhnms, the most rational of Swift’s creations, recast as broken beasts of burden, the simple Brobdignagians forced to fight as soldiers, and arrogant Europeans compelled to embrace their own insignificance. Finally, Bates finds peace within his own grubby world, whereas Gulliver did not.
It’s a good taste of Roberts’ work, sporting many of his tropes: Bates is flawed; a naive, depressive idealist who betrays his country; there’s an antagonistic supporting character in the shape of the cocaine-addled Dean of York; a number of obstructive, ambivalent authority figures; a difficult journey on foot, and a war which our hero has little stomach for. It’s not a retreading of old ground, however. These are merely some of the authors’ favourite stage-settings, and he knows how to employ them well.
Swiftly is probably the most accessible of Roberts’ books to date too. Besides the readership’s obvious familiarity of the source material, his prose has found an agreeable balance in its literary flourish, and his three main characters, though still Robertsian in their flaws and peculiarities, are easy to befriend. The narrative loses some of its steam towards the end, but, like the Brobdignagians, the book has a big heart.
He writes an intimate book, Roberts, and you get the feeling his characters must suffer so much because he believes himself, not them, unworthy. I suspect that when Roberts’ confidence grows a little, we will see a truly great, rather than merely excellent, work from this fascinating author.