Paul Di Filippo Reviews The This by Adam Roberts

The This, Adam Roberts (Gollancz 978-1473230903, hardcover, 304pp, $26.99) May 2022 in US; February 2022 in UK.

One science fiction writer’s utopia is another science fiction writer’s dystopia. In several of Rudy Rucker’s recent books, neural prosthetics allow direct brain-to-brain communications, or telepathy, and the result is to boost humanity to a new era of understanding and grooviness—albeit not without some glitches along the way. In Adam Roberts’s newest, the same kind of brain adjunct results in war and chaos and extermination—with a metaphysical sliver of bright side. Yet when reading each excellent persuasive writer, you are convinced for the duration of their book that each man’s predictions are the only correct path. SF is indeed truly an unbiased laboratory for trying out contradictory hypotheses.

(Parenthetically, I wonder if the nearly twenty-years difference in age between the two writers is a partial explanation for their varying approaches. Rucker, a Boomer, is still holding out for peace, love and understanding, while Roberts, Gen X, is more inclined to a post-Watergate, Jimmy-Carter-malaise take. It’s the difference between Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young and Nirvana.)

But in any case, you will not be disappointed by Roberts’s kaleidoscopic, stimulating take on what happens when brain-to-brain implantable assistants go on the marketplace under the innocent guise of “hands-free Twitter.” As always, he refreshes all classic tropes that fall under his pen.

Yet before we dive into the main narrative (which takes place across two separate eras, somewhat in the manner made famous by David Mitchell in Cloud Atlas, and subsequently much employed by SF novelists with a literary bent), we start with a section called “In the Bardo.” Here we see an individual soul put through a series of reincarnations by an enigmatic entity whom our distressed victim eventually dubs “Abby Normal.” Upon a culmination of that soul’s cycle, the main plot commences. But we shall return to this Bardo at the end of the tale.

Our protagonist at first is a young, likable layabout living in a near-future scenario. His name is Rich Rigby, and while he has a bit of legacy income that allows him to coast through life, he has to take on freelance writing assignments for extra cash. The latest gig has him interviewing a representative of The This. That organization offers neural implants (creepily, the tech burrows inward through the roof of your mouth) which allows for mind-to-mind communication. (Allusions to Star Trek’s Borg are naturally made.) Rich carries out the assignment, and now finds himself for some inexplicable reason on the receiving end of interminable hard-sell solicitations for him to join The This. He thinks it to be simple business-type proselytizing. But when he is contacted by a mysterious elderly woman named Helen Susanna, who was once part of The This until a bout of cancer ruined her implant and freed her from the communal mind, Rich discovers that he has an important part to play in blockading this spreading Blob-like assault on humanity.

While Rich’s story is playing out, alternate chapters jump into the future and focus on a youngish fellow named Adan. Like Rich, Adan is something of a directionless wastrel, only ten times more ineffective and slothful. (Having two Peter-Pan failure-to-launch protagonists is certainly a gamble, since they both start out as unendearing and ignoble fellows. But their very unprepossessingness, when it transforms into reluctant nobility, renders them true heroes.) Adan spends most of his day having sex with his phone. His phone happens to be a beautiful female android with mutable flesh, named Elegy—think Richard Calder’s Cartier gynoids, only with less sentience. (And eerily, when a call comes in, Elegy’s face transforms to that of the caller, and her gestures follow suit as well.) In Adan’s era, The This are millions strong and waging a subtle cold-verging-on-hot war with baseline humanity, on Earth and in space. The main thrust of The This is to terraform Venus and migrate there en masse, whereupon they can wipe out Earth and our kind. Naturally, they must be stopped.

Through a series of misfortunes, Adan becomes a soldier on the front lines, and through his connection with Elegy he is granted a special power. The military now wants to use him as a kamikaze weapon, but ultimately their plans go kerflooey, leaving Adan with an even stranger fate.

After the dual climaxes, a return to Abby Normal and the Bardo grants more spacious insights into what the whole contest has been about, and justifies the sacrifices of Rich, Adan and all the rest in a manner half-utilitarian, half-cosmic.

Roberts has always been a maestro at limning both straight-ahead future scenarios and weird-ass Black Swan events. We get a mix of both here, with perhaps an emphasis on the former. Roberts’s treatment of the debased and decadent cultures that offer so little of true value to both Rich and Adan borders on Tom Disch-style acidity, with a hint of William Burroughs Interzone oddness in Adan’s era, and maybe a tad of a Dave Hutchinson vibe in Rich’s period. His portrait of government and military callousness is top-notch as well.

The language, as usual in a Roberts book, includes lots of hearty and amusing wordplay, as is only to be expected from a writer whose novel Yellow Blue Tibia revolved around a Nabokovian pun in Russian. For instance, Helen introduces her manservant to Rich as a “faux fawn,” and Rich hears it as a surname, “Foforn,” which he deploys thereafter.

As I suggested, the narrative arcs of both protagonists prove to be immensely rewarding. Chapter 6, which portrays Rich’s experience of The This from the inside out, is an ultra-compressed lifetime biography. And of course, there is a wealth of speculative conceits.

While Roberts might not hold out for humanity any hopes of the same kind of individual, personal transcendence that Rucker offers through his tech, the British youngster does show mankind fumbling through the challenge and birthing something greater than itself in the end.

Paul Di Filippo has been writing professionally for over 30 years, and has published almost that number of books. He lives in Providence RI, with his mate of an even greater number of years, Deborah Newton.

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