Swiftly: A Novel (Gollancz S.F.)
by Adam Roberts
Review by John Berlyne
Gollancz Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780575082342
Date: 15 January 2009 List Price £7.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK /
The is a mass market edition of Adam Roberts' recent novel, Swiftly. Roberts, whom I always think must be the hardest-working writer in the world, is a real shining gem of British genre fiction and one with many, many facets. No two books of his are alike, and his particular skill is extrapolating an entire novel from the kernel of a singular idea.
Swiftly, not to be confused with Roberts' short story collection of the same name published by Nightshade Books, is essentially a sequel to Gulliver's Travels, "a tale of illicit love, betrayal, war and plague set in a world where Gulliver's account of his fantastical voyage was all too true. It is a novel of immense ambition; at once an awe-inspiring account of a universe of infinite variety and a celebration of intimacy." We covered this one when first published last March, and we're rerunning my review in this issue.
An endlessly inventive writer, Adam Roberts can, it seems, turn his hand to any kind of science fiction story. He has been prolific since the appearance of his first novel Salt back in 2000, and eight major novels have followed as well as a stack of novellas, short stories, works of parody and literary criticism. This is a heck of an output by any standards, but what is particularly striking here is that Roberts is not simply churning out the same thing time and again. If anything, Roberts seems to be almost "anti-formulaic", and part of the fun and fascination of following his work is in seeing quite how different any new story is from its predecessor.
Swiftly is set in a world some 120 years after the famous travels of Lemuel Gulliver. I've always been drawn to fiction that extrapolates work that has gone before it -- Kim Newman comes to mind as one of the greatest practitioners of this art -- and Roberts offers up a British Empire that is flourishing far less abundantly than the one in recorded history. In Swiftly, the industrial revolution may well be in full swing, but it is powered largely by the tiny hands of Lilliputians who live as slaves under the yoke of British imperialism. It is France that is in the ascendant, her vast armies bulked out by the presence of the giant Brobdingnagians who have sworn their allegiance.
Social manners and the politics of this age are substantially evoked in Roberts's narrative. His lead character, Abraham Bates, is a moody if passionate man who believes himself a staunch advocate of ending Lilliputian slavery. He is, however, fairly weak-willed and a poor and hapless agitator. The novel opens with Bates confronting a leading industrialist whose business is built upon Lilliputian labour, but Bates is laughably ineffective.
Soon after the confrontation, we learn that Britain is under attack by the French, and London and its people find themselves under siege. Bates, whose political allegiances are murky at best, seems happy to find himself a collaborator, although the benefits this brings him become thin on the ground as his life quickly descends into a kind of post-apocalyptic nightmare with the country overrun.
Early on another plot strand develops -- a widow and her daughter, once of some social standing, are now reduced to living in just two rooms and keeping a single servant. The daughter, Eleanor, is of marriageable age and a match has been made with a leading industrialist (the same one who met with Bates, as it happens). Eleanor's betrothed is far senior to her, awkward, gruff, unattractive and the son of a servant to boot, but he owns considerable wealth and in truth she has no say in the arrangement. Her attitude is to meet her duty with admirable stoicism, but she is largely ignorant of her wifely duties once married and her speculations on what they may involve -- based on her knowledge of natural philosophy and deductive reasoning -- are among some of the most entertaining and engaging parts of this novel.
From a strong, plot-driven opening of a hundred or so pages, Swiftly goes on to become progressively looser in terms of story, progressively bleaker in terms of setting and action, progressively more introspective in terms of theme and progressively more scatological in terms of what the characters appear to be fascinated with. This last was something of an education for me -- I knew little of Swift beyond Gulliver's Travels, and subsequent research following my reading of Swiftly reveals the quite unhealthy interest the old man apparently had with all things shit-related. Roberts revels in this Swiftian preoccupation and spares no opportunity to colour his own novel brown whenever he can. The result -- understandably -- might not be to everyone's taste.
This aside, I found Swiftly, though doubtless inventive and true to its inspirational source, a desperately desolate piece. Its war-torn landscape is hard to enjoy, strewn as it is for page upon page with fly-blown, plague-riddled corpses. It is a relentlessly grim story, broken only occasionally by a humour that is invariably faecal, and as the philosophical musings mount, the actual story -- which began with some considerable promise -- ends up being swamped and finally drowned in the exploration of ideas. This again is down to taste I suppose, for fiction is indeed a perfect forum in which to explore such concepts and philosophies (here, the main theme being humanity's place in such a vast universe), but by the end of Swiftly an inversion has occurred where the text and the sub-text appear to have swapped places. The result is more admirable than it is enjoyable, but once again it confirms Roberts as one of our most intelligent and versatile authors and I look forward to seeing what he offers up next.