Purgatory Mount, Adam Roberts (Gollancz 978-1473230941, 336pp, L16.99, hardcover) February 2021
Last year marked the generally under-recognized 20th anniversary of Adam Roberts’s first novel, Salt, and the launching of his career. His prodigious and impressive output in the past two decades has earned him a reputation as one of the field’s most delightfully surprising, adept, and formalistically variant authors. His novums are always startling and innovative and cutting-edge, and his instantiation of them always heartfelt and deep with a tragic sense of life not unalloyed with a mordant sense of humor. All these trademark traits of his fiction come to the fore in his newest, which marks a kind of hybrid fusion of two of his modes. He often works with very realpolitik human near-futures (The Real-Time Murders; Bête), or with very alien, paradigm-bending far futures/exotic venues (Jack Glass; Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea). In this book we get both.
The connection between the widely and wildly disjunct parts are not immediately obvious, but by the end of the book, all is crystal clear, with consequential powerful impacts by resonance. An “Afterword” by Roberts offers some genuinely useful and affecting further explications.
We open at some point far in the future. A generation-style starship, the Forward, is just about to reach its destination, the system known as V538 Aurigae. The starship is crewed by five posthumans of exceptional, almost godlike powers, bearing the names of ancient Greek deities. Its “cargo” consists of various “seedstock” Earth organisms, including baseline or slightly modified humans dubbed “pygs.” The pygs have no real idea of what is going on with the ship and its travels, living in their artificial environment in superstitious awe of the five “gods.”
Arriving at the planet dubbed Aurigae g, the gods discern an incredible structure: a kind of massive artificial ziggurat so immense that its upper portions are outside the planet’s atmosphere. They start to investigate it, and then we cut away.
That introduction occupied a mere 30 or so pages. The bulk of the book is Part Two, over 200 pages. We return ultimately to the era of the Forward and its mission in another 40-page section, rife with revolution and symbolical affinities with the main action that is set much closer to our time.
Part Two is a near-future saga of war and cyberpunk hacking. But leave it to Roberts to finesse these two familiar themes with radical innovations and treatments.
Our viewpoint character (save for a brief necessary interlude when we sojourn with one of her pals) is the charming and deeply invoked teenager Ottoline “Otty” Barragão. She lives a pretty placid working-class existence in Philadelphia with her parents and sister. That’s a miracle, given the state of the USA. The nation is on the point of fragmentation, with scores of militias active and state secession and civil war in the wings. But Otty has a posse of pals to aid and protect her: Allie, Gomery, Cess and Kathry, the Famous Five. All talented hackers, they have budded off a “private internet” for their own online diversions. Inside this encysted bubble virtual universe, they host an enigmatic treasure, whose nature we learn only much later. But it’s this very prize that will bring them grief.
One day the Feds, keen to secure the treasure for themselves, kick in the doors, literally, and arrest the Famous Five. Splitting them up, they ship them off to separate prisons. We follow Otty—anxious, frightened, stressed, but coping like a warrior—who has no idea of what’s up with friends or family, through a series of clumsy incarcerations and cackhanded interrogations which would be comedic if they weren’t horrific. When she is eventually released, weeks later, it’s into an environment that has gone completely to pieces, as widespread multipolar fighting now rules the land. All Otty wants is to return home. But she faces an odyssey of terror and resilience.
If the first part of Otty’s story resembles Doctorow’s Little Brother scenario, the subsequent part brings to mind Jerzy Kosinski’s classic of childhood wartime chaos, The Painted Bird, or perhaps Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum or even Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Roberts conveys the surrealism and disorientation of combat among civilians brilliantly. For example, there’s a gorgeous setpiece where a bus is hit by a missile, an incident which is told as if through naïve eyes unable to see the reality of the situation and making up alternate interpretations of events. When Otty is plainly concussed by an act of violence, Roberts never makes her condition explicit, but shows us through her unreal actions that she is damaged.
Otty’s brain injury parallels another theme of the book: “weaponized Alzheimer’s,” a plague of forgetting whose victims survive only by using an app on their smartphones. (I told you things were blackly comedic!) An homage to Aldiss’s famous Barefoot in the Head and its “Acid Head Wars” perhaps?
Echoing also some of the flavors of Christopher Brown’s Tropic of Kansas series, this main narrative also brings into play some of the martial theories and technologies of Roberts’s own New Model Army. But in the decade since the publication of that book, Roberts has plainly rethought much of the nature of postmodern guerrilla warfare—drones, media coverage, etc.—and updated his vision to include current events so that his narrative bears a sad and striking prescience:
They were all wearing Old Glory jackets and red MAGA caps. This led to a lot of yelling, and a surge that rippled forward like wind over the surface of a wheatfield , the combined momentum of which knocked over the family and Otty too.
Not to give too much away, after much travail Otty eventually returns to a devastated Philly, and there the private bubble internet disgorges its secrets amidst shocking turns of event. We leave her in a relatively hopeful moment of inflection, and then journey back to the far future for our coda.
By giving us such a concrete and recognizable near-term scenario and bracketing it with more Olympian moments, Roberts achieves a kind of Stapledonian perspective which places humanity’s sufferings and dreams in a larger context that finally gives them some sense and heft. And that’s what SF’s all about, after all, is it not?
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