Ian Mond Reviews This Weightless World by Adam Soto

This Weightless World, Adam Soto (Astra House 978-1-66260-063-0, $27.00, 320pp, hc) November 2021.

Recently, on The Writer and the Critic podcast, Kirstyn McDermott and I spoke glowingly about Olga Ravn’s The Employees: A Workplace Novel of the 22nd Century (longlisted for this year’s International Booker Prize). During the discussion, I pas­sionately argued (some might say ranted) that mainstream genre publishers no longer seemed interested in publishing radical science-fiction; that it was the literary presses, both small and large, who supported the sort of bold, incendiary work that typified the New Wave back in the ’60s and ’70s. I cited Ravn’s short novel as an example. Released by Lolli Editions (and translated from Danish by Martin Aiken), Ravn takes traditional science fiction tropes – the planetary romance, the question of what it means to be human – and reformats them into something that is not only experimental and bold but also unencumbered by the conventions of the genre.

Another case in point is Adam Soto’s debut novel, This Weightless World. Published by the wonderful and innovative Astra House, Soto’s book is not nearly as avant-garde as The Employees; however, like Ravn, Soto is unham­pered by the baggage of science fiction’s past, offering the reader a new and provocative take on a staple of the genre: humanity’s first contact with extraterrestrial life. The novel begins on New Year’s Day 2012 with the world waking up to the news that “the search for interstellar company is over.” SETI has detected a signal of intelligent design from Omni 7xc, a fuchsia-coloured planet 75 light-years away. The broadcast is a “synco­pated and dissonant pattern, a kind of complex pulse… [with] a single note ringing through, wavering slightly in pitch.” For 30-year-old Sevi del Toro, a high-school music teacher living in Chicago who studied to be a cellist at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the Omni transmission is an opportunity to reevaluate his life and recon­nect with his ex-girlfriend Ramona. For Ramona, a student hacker recruited by Google to further develop her “safe-search” AI, Tiresias, the hope instilled by Omni sees her falling back in love with Sevi. For Eason, sixteen years old, a whiz with the cello and Sevi’s only student (now that the older man has left his teaching job), the eve of Omni’s “cosmic debut” marks the day that his friend, Rydell George, is “gunned down in front of his mother’s apartment.” For all three of them, the Omni broadcast, both its emergence and the months that follow, when the signal abruptly goes dark, will change their lives in ways both subtle and profound.

As I suggest above, This Weightless World disregards the well-worn trajectory of the first-contact narrative. There’s nary a linguist or scientist seeking to parse the transmission (Omni is never decoded), and neither is there much discussion about the fickle and complex nature of communication between species. Soto also quashes the sentiment that Omni will save (or “uplift”) humanity from the many and varied issues we’ve brought upon ourselves. Even the novel’s more overtly science-fictional chapters set a century from now, involving He Zhen, her AI companion Taka, and their interstellar voyage toward Omni 7xc, are less about the thrill of encountering alien life and more a last-ditch attempt to save humanity from extinction. Instead, Soto brilliantly inverts the inherently outward aspect of the first-contact trope – the idea of seeking salvation in the stars – by forcing his characters to look inward, to question their acquiescence on issues like climate change, police brutality, and the smothering influence of Big-Tech. Sevi, for example, confronts his lack of principles toward any one cause, especially after his brother, Samson, heads off to Syria to help in the fight against Assad, while Ramona faces the consequences of her actions when it’s leaked online that the AI project she’s working on for Google has the smarts to make difficult decisions on behalf of humanity. And then there’s Eason, surrounded by so much violence directed at young men of colour, who sees his dream of being a world-class cellist fade as he starts run­ning drugs for his cousin.

While the book does contain a great deal of speechifying, the discussions held between the characters – particularly between Ramona and Sevi, but also Sevi and his brother – are under­lined with such anger, intensity, and empathy that they’re hard to dismiss. This understanding of the human condition, of our shortcomings and our resilience, extends to several touching moments throughout the book, in particular a tear-jerking scene late in the novel where Eason and a friend play The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, in a bid to beat the one area of the game – the infamous “Water Temple” – which Rydell was stuck on before he died.

Some may criticise the novel for rejecting its first-contact premise, but it’s precisely Soto’s re­fusal to be “weighted” down by decades of genre tradition, to instead turn the trope on its head and in doing so remind us that no-one but ourselves is coming to save us, that makes This Weightless World such an exciting and radical novel.

Ian Mond loves to talk about books. For eight years he co-hosted a book podcast, The Writer and the Critic, with Kirstyn McDermott. Recently he has revived his blog, The Hysterical Hamster, and is again posting mostly vulgar reviews on an eclectic range of literary and genre novels. You can also follow Ian on Twitter (@Mondyboy) or contact him at mondyboy74@gmail.com.

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

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