The Godman:
A reading of Adam Roberts' novel On

(Part of a site on literary criticism of Adam Roberts' works by Rich Puchalsky)

Note: this looks like a poem because On is set on a world-wall, a sort of endless cliff on which people live, and I wanted to see how large a Fallacy of Imitative Form I could make with verse-ledges. But it's primarily literary criticism, and I've tried to be prosaic rather than poetic whenever these conflict. Text within double quotes is a quotation from the book.

I. Half known questions

What is On? And why is it called On?
It's a masquerade
Displaying the stigmata of hard SF
Dripping (dubious) equations
An appendix about gravity
And (dubious) explanations
How its expanded insects
Could evolve in 5 centuries --
The mask is less interesting than the face

Is it psychological then, about the author?
It wants us to think so

"This is a book about precariousness, and it necessarily reflects the precariousness of my life during the last years of the last millennium" -- (acknowledgements)

What can we know
About the Adam Roberts who sends
Posts and comments and Email?
But the writer as abstract writer, as Demiurge, is important
Like a piratical YHVH
"I arr what I arr"
Call him ARR

Because this is a novel about him

"He was the godman! He was the godman! This is where people find themselves, beneath the godman!" (pg 362)

And the Godman is the Demiurge
The Godman is the author
The Godman is the one with advanced technology
(indistinguishable from the magical political power
that says we own your water now, your DNA)
The Godman is the allegory
Because to the Christian God
Everyone is a child
No one ever grows up
They are stuck, arrested, adolescent,
The Godman

II. Repeatability

What is On? And why is it called On?

It's supposed to be literal precariousness
People on a world-wall,
Traveling from one ledge to another
And then falling off
(gravity, see it's about gravity)
And about the metaphorical precariousness of life
I don't think so
There are two places
Where the word recurs

"This boy will drive us all over the ledge, will he never stop with his questions? Will he smash my head apart with all his questions? On and on and on . . ." (pg. 4)

emotional child abuse, from a parent
With (later and earlier) the physical smashing of heads

"On, on, stop. Then he was adjusting himself and climbing off her." (pg.280)

the sexual assault of a child

You see
People find themselves beneath the Godman
And there's nothing precarious about that, it recurs
On and on and on

There's always someone on top

III. The magic of threes

The protagonist never gets to grow up
Three times he's just about to

The first, in his village, he's about to become of age
But his priest-grandfather cheats him
And trying to escape, he falls

The second, as cannon fodder for an empire
He's about to become a man soldier style
But they lose his first battle

The third, as a wanderer
He is just starting out for himself
But he meets an incarnation of the Godman

"The manliness, the swagger and the self-belief -- all of it fell away, like sheets and great flakes of ice falling off the end of the world. He was a boy again." (pg. 382)

And that's the end

Why does he never get to grow up?
Is this about ARR?
No, I don't think so
It's an allegorical never-growing-up
It's fate

This is supposed to be hard SF
The protagonist
Manages to fall off a ledge, for miles down
And land on a completely unseen

That's unlikely

And he is also the boy
Who is one of the rare experimented-on
By a technologically advanced rogue
And also survives his mom's home remedy
Brain wiring removal, by hand

That's unlikely

And a battle and giant bugs
He survives

They aren't supposed to be connected
He didn't fall onto the balloon or not get shot
Because he was experimented on
The chances are astronomical

Why do we see
This narrative,
This astronomically unlikely boy?
A simple explanation
The Argument From Design
There's an author
And authors like drama

ARR is to the protagonist
YHVH is to us

IV. The author of our troubles

So much of the book is about God
And the location of God
At the top of the world-wall? The bottom?
The hard SF mask
Shaken, near the end, with a flourish
Says see, God is the Godman
Technological accident-prone humanity
Screwing up even gravity
Power is human power-over

"Who survives the difference? Who survives the change? Who creates change? The godman! Who controls change? The godman!" (pg. 362)

If ARR means for us to read the story as Everyone's
What kind of story is it?

It is in three parts

First part, the boy-prince in his village
This could be anywhere
Anywhere where people are disappeared

Second, his wandering
The bulk of the book
Through separation, war, inability to save friends,
Slavery, horrors of nature and man
A destination-less journey
Most like the boy's in The Painted Bird

And even when he learns to glide
He's not free
Nowhere to fly to

Last, the Godman appears
Enforces meaning
Precludes the final possibility of adulthood

This is a complaint
An allegory of protest

Facing the Abusing God: A Theology of Protest, David R. Blumenthal]

ARR isn't lording over his characters
But holding them up, as a signal-mirror
To the heavens

"The worldwall was a tiny model, a vicious god's small-scale experiment, populated with real-sized insects and rats and miniature people." (page lost)

When we, as authors
Create imaginary worlds
We are Demiurges
We create in God's image

ARR, the feeling that there must be an ARR
That's an old story

V. But does it work?

I think it does
Who knows what anyone else thinks
I would guess that fans read an adventure story
And that Adam reads a book that takes too much
From his life
And that only I really read it this way

I think it does

VI. Postscript

In a hypnagogic state, as a child
Halfway between sleeping and waking
I once dreamt that I was talking on the phone
To a friend, who said that this was a dream
And as I woke
I felt gravity shift by 90 degrees
Between standing, in my dream
And lying down, awake in my bed

Like the sense of a ceiling to the sky
A childhood universal, perhaps

Like the sense of a ceiling in the sky

2006 Rich Puchalsky

(Part of a site on literary criticism of Adam Roberts' works by Rich Puchalsky) E-mail:

Last modified: December 27, 2014