Gradisil by Adam Roberts
(Note: This review originally appeared in Ray Gun Revival 52)
Gradisil by Adam Roberts
Pyr, 2007, 464 pages
Adam Roberts’s Gradisil is a complicated novel about classic themes.
Love. Death. Family. Revenge. Freedom. Betrayal. The birth of a nation. It
is set in the middle of the twenty-first to the middle of the twenty-second
century, and humanity now has the means to climb into orbit using the
Earth’s electromagnetic field. Gone are the days when government agencies
and hyper-expensive rockets monopolized space travel. Now space is
in the reach of any amateur wealthy enough to retrofit a plane with elem
technology and lift a habitat into orbit. Thus the Uplands are born.
The first of the novel’s three parts is told from the point of view of Klara
Gyeroffy, daughter of Uplands pioneer Miklas Gyeroffy. Klara’s father
is killed, and the remainder of this first part deals with Klara’s choice between
coming to terms with her father’s death or seeking revenge. Her
actions are set against the backdrop of rising tensions between the US
and the EU. Tensions that lead to the first war in space in 2081.
The second and largest part of the novel traces the efforts of Klara’s
daughter, Gradisil, to weld the citizens of the Uplands into a nation
in the face of US belligerency. The events are told from two perspectives:
that of Lieutenant David Slater, the man responsible for planning
the war against the Uplands, and of Paul Caunes, Gradisil’s rich, cuckolded
husband, who chooses to betray her to the US. (This is not a spoiler,
as Paul himself tells us about his betrayal in the first chapter we meet
him.) The third and final part of the novel—also the shortest—deals with
Gradisil’s two sons, Hope and Sol, who encounter Paul decades after his
betrayal and bring him to justice. At least as Sol understands justice.
The publicity blurbs on Gradisil call the novel a space opera, and compare
it to the work of Robert Heinlein. One might see a superficial resemblance to a work like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. Both deal with a successful
revolution in space, a revolution at great cost. Both Heinlein’s work and
Gradisil have an anti-establishment feel, Heinlein in a libertarian direction
and Gradisil along the lines of classic anarchy.
But Roberts’s novel is much more complicated than a straight-forward space opera. Indeed, it is much more accurately “anti-space opera” or perhaps “post-space opera.” Gradisil is not the account of the lone individual changing the universe through her heroic struggle; it is about how that struggle affects—but does not change—those around her. How a struggle for freedom locks others into the gravity of fate.
And it is about the war in Iraq. There can be no denying this, especially given the way Roberts portrays the U.S. military of the future handling the war with the Uplanders. Roberts posits, with only the slightest of extrapolation, that wars in the future will be more about PR and perception, and fought more in the courtroom and in the forum of public opinion than in actual combat. The future of international politics that Roberts presents is all too plausible. Knowing that Roberts is the author of a number of parodies, such as The McAtrix Derided and The Sellamillion, it is not a stretch at all to see Gradisil as parodying the war in Iraq, or at the very least satirizing it. (Swift’s Gulliver is a very visible presence in Gradisil.)
Gradisil is postmodern in style: indirect and often unreliable narrators;
the fact that we never get into Gradisil’s head; even Roberts’s habit of systematically misspelling words (“wat” for what, leaving out the C in words like black or pick, dropping the final G from ING-words) has the effect of jarring the reader. We are never allowed simply to settle into the world of the story, but are constantly jarred, like driving along the rumble strips on the highway.
This is all intentional. The way Roberts writes the novel makes it impossible for the reader to disappear into the story. He forces the reader to remember that he is reading a text, with the goal of forcing the reader to interact with the text. To wrestle with the meaning of revenge and tragedy.
The title of the novel, and the name of its largest character, is derived from Yggdrasil, the great world-ash of Norse mythology. But this reference to Norse mythology is a misdirection. The three parts of the novel are all tragedies, in the classical mold. Indeed, a very interesting study could be written comparing Gradisil to the Oresteia by Aeschylus. (Roberts’s text itself begs this comparison.) Both deal with characters locked into cycles of violence and revenge. In both there are characters aware of these cycles who desperately want a way out but cannot escape their fates.
Gradisil is meant to raise questions, not answer them. Those who want
escapism or gut-level action-adventure SF will come away from Roberts’s
novel disappointed. Those interested in more philosophical SF or the use of
postmodern narrative techniques in speculative fiction may find Gradisil
(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)