I have always stood in awe of Adam Roberts’ ability to take a simple speculative conceit and spin it out into a vast world of meaning and significance and drama. Ponder an early novel of his from 2004, The Snow, in which an endless snowfall transforms life on Earth beyond all reckoning. What could be more conceptually “simple,” yet so rich in potential story, so ripe with fabular materials? Not all his books follow this Ballardian Crystal World mode—he has a lot of arrows in his literary quiver—but when he chooses to go into this fictional territory, he excels.
Roberts’s latest, Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea, is a return to such an eye-popping and mind-blowing extrapolative technique, and our author outdoes himself, by creating a book that is so allusive and multivalent in its clean-limbed premise that the reader hardly knows how to parse it. We are as much “at sea” as the characters, about whom we shall learn in just a few paragraphs.
But first allow me to toss out these comparisons.
Beyond the pitch-perfect Jules Verne associations, this novel evokes the following classics.
It summons up thoughts of Poul Anderson’s Tau Zero, in its description of a runaway vessel penetrating new realms of physics.
It brings up such Big Dumb Object explorations as Larry Niven’s Ringworld with its portrayal of a vast weird frontier.
It explicitly references Hollow Earth theories, and by implications all those classics of that trope.
It harks back to those few submarine-centric SF books such as James White’s The Watch Below and Frank Herbert’s The Dragon in the Sea.
With its “yesterday’s tomorrows” technology, it’s a bit of a dieselpunk romp.
It rings changes on classic tales of insurrection at sea, such as The Caine Mutiny and Billy Budd.
It’s a Lord of the Flies-type study in the breakdown of small group interdynamics.
And it’s an exercise in Camus-grade existentialism: what validates an individual’s being when all cultural and institutional supports are removed?
That’s a lot of weight for any narrative apparatus, but Roberts’ tale supports all these interpretations and more, without losing an iota of storytelling verve.
The year is 1958, and the experimental atomic-powered French naval submarine, the Plongeur, is about to undertake its maiden voyage with a smallish shakedown crew. Roberts introduces the men, including old-fashioned and autocratic Captain Cloche, with short, sharp sketches. Several of them are plainly going to be “redshirts” of sorts, but are fully inhabited nonetheless. The man of greatest mystery, who eventually fulfills the role of protagonist insofar as any of the crew do, is Alain Lebret, government liaison. It soon becomes increasingly apparent that Lebret knows more about the real purpose of the mission than anyone else.
The craft powers off from the French coast, descends to one thousand meters—and then all hell breaks loose. Three crucial mechanical systems fail simultaneously. Is it just bad luck, or sabotage? In any case, the Plongeur is heading down, down, down, to where pressure or impact will crush it. The men all make their last-minute confessions and repentances—and then all destructive forces equalize, and the submarine is sailing through some kind of weird infinite ocean—a conclusion reached after much argument and speculation.
The rest of the novel concerns the harrowing adventures of the craft, with life-support and social systems deteriorating in parallel. Each man fails in his own unique way, with Lebret maintaining discipline and mental rigorousness for the longest time. What they eventually encounter is a transcendent force of startling nature, which reveals almost as much as it obfuscates.
I think Roberts has a general reputation as a “chilly” writer, one in whom intellect and philosophy prevail over emotions and passions. I can see where this impression arises. All his books give the sense of being first templated to a master schema, often tackling a narrative challenge (Jack Glass), philosophical conundrum, or bit of topical contrarianism (New Model Army). He’s not Ray Bradbury, all heart and intuition, who famously said that his method of writing a story was to conceive of a character, then set him loose and follow his footprints. But I would argue that by his nature and achievements, Roberts represents the core and essence of the SF methodology. He’s Stapledonian or Clarkean with better stylistic chops and a not-unfeeling heart. His characters may serve didactic purposes, but never at the expense of their functionality as true literary creations. As for a parallel charge of nihilism and despair being predominant in his work, I think Roberts does tend to see the universe as a somewhat implacable and grim place, but one in which the prevailing cosmic uncaringness makes human endeavors shine all the more brightly, however doomed.
Certainly his latest book exudes a sense of humans “out of their depths” and fighting hopelessly against impossible odds. Yet when one considers how Lebret struggles on with all his hideous injuries, even “beyond death” and succeeds in solving not only the riddle of the endless sea, but of all creation, then I think the fair and generous reader will admit that Roberts counsels not defeat, but rather a more stoic and heroic attitude of “we who are about to die salute you.”
Last but not by any means least, I must insert high praise for the numerous interior illustrations by Mahendra Singh, which manage marvelously to be both retro and futuristic in the same breath.