Gary K. Wolfe Reviews Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts

Purgatory Mount, Adam Roberts (Gollancz 978-1473230941, £16.99, 336pp, hc) February 2021.

It’s not too uncommon for an SF story to split itself between different time frames separated by centuries, with the causal links between frames only gradually made apparent – M. John Harrison’s Light is a well-known example – but the odd structure of Adam Rob­erts’s Purgatory Mount still seems pretty bold, as does the novel’s shifting tone from Clarkean far-future SF to gritty dystopian naturalism to earnest moral debates about responsibility and atonement. We begin in that far-future on the kilometer-long starship The Forward, whose five crew members, all named after Greek gods, are described as “gifted with magic (in the Clarkean sense of the word)” and whose shipboard computer is called a “hal.” They’ve just discovered an enormous alien artifact on a remote planet – a 142-kilometer-high pyramidal structure which so resembles Dante’s mountain in The Purgatorio that they label it Purgatory Mount, name the planet Dante, and decide to hang around for a few years to explore its mysteries. (Time doesn’t mean a lot to them, since they can dial their temporal senses up or down in good posthuman form.) The point of view then shifts to B, a 20-year-old, distinctly non-godlike figure eking out a subsistence liv­ing in an agricultural community of “pygmies” (a term foisted on them by their “gods”) who also occupy part of the ship, worshipping the humans as gods and sometimes even serving as food sources. Like any number of generation-ship troublemakers before him, B grows curious about why his people seldom live beyond 40, why the gods have started appearing among them, and the real nature of the ship and its voyage.

That switch to B’s perspective is far from the novel’s most radical shift. Suddenly, we’re in a grim, war-torn, plague-riddled near future “United States of Amnesia,” so called because of a memory-erasing neurotoxin called neonic­otinoid, originally a pesticide, which has gotten loose in the population, leaving its victims to wander around aimlessly – unless they can afford a smartphone which plugs into their nervous system and serves as a memory pros­thesis. (Considering the number of people that I know, including myself, who already use their phones as memory supplements, this strikes pretty close to home.) Again, there are five main characters, a group of rebellious young people who call themselves the Famous Five and meet mostly online in their own private version of the internet. The main point of view is that of Otty, a part-time beekeeper whom we meet nearly getting shot while scavenging copper wire; a brief secondary viewpoint is that of her friend Gomery, a brilliant coder and the “most driven of the five.” All of them – Otty, Gomery, Cess, Kathry, and the mysteriously knowledgeable Allie – are being rounded up by the government, which is desperately seeking the secret of their private internet, which not only might provide a financial haven during a likely economic col­lapse, but which could possibly be weaponized in unprecedented ways. It’s not long before Otty is arrested and imprisoned, facing a succession of increasingly ominous interrogators. Gomery, for his part, manages to escape his captors, but only Allie – who is More Than She At First Seems – holds out any real promise of freedom, and perhaps of revenge.

The story of Otty and her companions in a rapidly disintegrating USA turns out to be the central narrative of Purgatory Mount, oc­cupying more than three-quarters of the novel; the space opera chapters, it turns out, are es­sentially Clarkean bookends to what for most of its length feels more like a Cory Doctorow hacker dystopia, driven by black-site govern­ment operatives abusing and torturing young people who are clearly smarter than they are. What happens to the kids certainly feels more like a purgatory (as well as an inferno) than any­thing experienced by the far-future posthuman “gods,” but despite the thematic reflection (and a three-part structure which may be intended to echo that of The Divine Comedy), the main question we face is how these disparate frames are connected. Roberts does provide a straight­forward answer, and one fully in keeping with classic SF notions of cascading changes and unexpected consequences, although the alien artefact, the Purgatory Mount itself, remains a puzzle striving to become a metaphor. When we return to the far-future setting, the morality of the “gods” is called quite reasonably into ques­tion and their own fates revealed. Purgatory Mount is a strange, bumpy, compelling hybrid novel that finally turns on questions of ethics, responsibility, and even revenge, and which leaves you pondering these questions in exactly the ways Roberts wants you to do.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the March 2021 issue of Locus.

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