Adam Roberts' novel Polystom

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

Splash screen

Reviews of Polystom tend to start with an image from the first few pages: a young man, a sort of Victorian or Edwardian aristocrat, gets in his biplane and decides to fly to the moon and visit his uncle the famous scientist. Within a few pages we find out that this viewpoint character, Polystom, had a father and co-father. This would be quite enough for a three-volume fan-pleasing trilogy from a more commercial writer, I would think: something on the order of the (really quite good) Chris Wooding "Tales of the Ketty Jay" books -- steampunk with the novum of breathable air extending between the planets, together with an appealing gay-friendliness that takes some of the Victorian social edge off. Polystom is feckless, as we quickly find out, but this too could have been treated as a comical or humanizing quality or even as a somewhat sinister one a la Flashman: one imagines Polystom returning from not-too-successful interplanetary adventures to be given advice by his calm, imperturbable dad and his blustering, comically butch dad.

The reviews then plaintively wonder where the rest of this projected fan-pleasing series went. Because Adam Roberts is not that author, and the rest of the book might as well have been written with a deliberate intent to deny not only the standard Pulpish SF fan pleasures but also the more traditional novelistic ones of plot and characterization. Why this is so will become apparent (at least, I think that I have a good theory for why this is so.) But as it stands Polystom the character is (as John Clute apparently wrote in a review somewhere) a sort of Bertie Wooster without the comedy, and Polystom the book is not likely to make anyone's list of Adam Roberts' best work. I think that I learned a good deal from the book, though, and that it's well worth reading.

For reasons that will also become apparent, I'm going to write little bits about Polystom as if it's one of the misleadingly named "RPG" computer games -- 8-bit, probably.

Character generation

Roleplay in the universe of Early Adam Roberts! Starting characters are young, male, clueless, have poor skills and self-confidence, and are often sexually abusive in a sort of unthinking way that is painfully visible to onlookers but available to them only as a source of undirected guilt. Unlike more standard games, "leveling up" or "grinding" is not a concern. Characters do not perceptibly gain abilities until forced to by outside events.

Polystom is an archetypal Early Roberts character, sharing characteristics with the protagonists of Salt, On, Stone, and Splinter. This feckless young man is still visible in Land of the Headless, Yellow Blue Tibia, and New Model Army, but in these Middle Roberts works he's variously allowed to grow up. Polystom lacks the protagonist of Salt's military ability, On's victimhood, Stone's knowing criminality, or Splinter's limited self-reflection, so he stands in as the minimum case for all of them. He's an administrator of lands who (unlike his father, apparently) doesn't know anything about administration, a poet without talent, and so on. He can fly a biplane, but when he tries to shoot a pistol he bruises his hand. He's an ancien regime aristocrat and a wealthy, major landowner with 50 generations behind him, but he doesn't have the unthinking confidence of an aristocrat: he's awkward, socially anxious, and unable to navigate the power relations of his own society, and as a result painfully eager to please his peers. This doesn't give him any additional insight into how disfavored members of his society must feel: he thoughtlessly takes advantage of them just like everyone else in his set. He finally becomes effective at the end of the book, but it's because of Stockholm Syndrome: he himself never really gains insight or self-knowledge.

Why should anyone want to read a book featuring this character? (Polystom's uncle is the viewpoint character for the middle part of the book, but he's hardly better; female viewpoint characters are generally more interesting in Early Roberts books but this book doesn't have one.) Generally, people don't. A web site,, was released with the book but quickly vanished; some of the content from it was supposedly copied to the later site but the link to it is broken there as well. When I wrote this, a decade after the book's release, I think it's safe to say that the world was not clamoring for more. So perhaps a better question is: why is Polystom there? Part of it must have to do with Early Adam Roberts' mysterious habit of writing this kind of character, but part of it is because of the overall goals of this book.

Nonlinear level design

In the world of Polystom, you can go anywhere! Adventure awaits on numerous habitable planets and moons, even in interactions with other levels of reality or possible universes. Of course, wherever you go, you bring yourself with you.

My usual view of Roberts' books is that they have strong but underdetermined formal structure. In other words, there are building blocks from partially executed authorial plans lying around: make of them what you will. In the case of Polystom, the book approaches overdetermination because there are far too many building blocks, some of them from competing plans that don't seem very well realized. The book is written on "leaves" that may be strips of computer printout and have small, noted textual gaps, as if the text has been recovered from an archeological source, but this never has a payoff equal to its distracting quality. It's in three stories, all of them having to do with breath, and as a result is in the form of three joined novellas. It has a Matrix-y conclusion having to do with "Two Universes, One Reality", which is sometimes listed as the subtitle of the book. It has both a mock-scholarly appendix and unnecessary play-like lists of characters at the beginning of each section. It has the aforementioned Victorian steampunk quality modified by acceptance of homosexuality. It has a WW I section at the end, with the mud of the trenches having transformed into an entire Mudworld.

Three stories, two universes, one reality: I have the habit of numbering sections of essays that I write, but for a source text this amount of competing labeling is too much. I'm going to dump most of this overboard and get to what I think is the core of the book. From Adam Roberts' description on the Polystom page:

The starting-point was transparency. I was thinking about air, about how much we take it for granted (as an asthmatic I've always been very conscious of air); of how it supports us, in a number of ways. I was also thinking of Class, of the blithe confidence of the wealthy, those who may be intellectually aware of the Poor but cannot comprehend the fact of their existence in any deeper manner.

All right, so this is a novel in which Class is like air: invisible to the people who it supports, permeating everything. Immediately we see why this can't be a fan pleaser in the usual sense. The usual SF way of handling class issues is overt or covert identification with the enjoyment of privilege.

For instance, the Vorkosigan novels of Lois McMaster Bujold (again, very good books) are built around a high-social-status character who is humanized by being physically damaged, both from birth and additionally by taking some kind of wound in each novel, and having to overcome this physical handicapping through determination. This makes his exercise of power enjoyable by the reader as the just deserts of his effort, rather than as uncomfortably autocratic. For instance, in the later books Miles Vorkosigan becomes an Imperial Auditor responsible only to the Emperor himself, and on his troubleshooting missions his word is law. There's one scene in which he declares that a widow who isn't due a pension should get one, and a mid-level bureaucrat replies helplessly that there isn't a place on the form for Auditorial decrees. So Miles tells him to make a new form that has one. This casual exercise of power is indirectly central to Miles bringing his case to a successful conclusion and, in part, in courting his wife-to-be. But the reader inhabits a viewpoint of one the ten or so individuals in three planets in the Vorkosigan universe who can exercise this kind of benign power. The rest of the widows who we don't see don't get pensions, but they're outside the narrative: we see a universe that is locally just because the main character brings that quality with him through his autocratic work. The effect is to make Miles Vorkosigan one of the few characters who can muse about other societies' democracies clearly don't work (with authorial irony) and not seem monstrous.

At any rate, back to Polystom. Adam Roberts has different goals than being a wildly popular author like Bujold, and we're not going to get to enjoy Polystom giving someone a pension before sweeping an unappreciated woman off her feet. We're going to get something a whole lot less familiar. But Adam Roberts is wrong, I think, that class-as-air equals transparency. If the rich can't comprehend the existence of the poor, then it equals opacity. Polystom is going to have to go through the whole novel being unable to comprehend what's going on with any of the people who he has privilege over. The serfs, his wife, even the resistance fighters who he is captured by and who he feverishly admires at the end: he never really understands what's going on with any of them, and neither do we as readers. If Polystom got it, or even if he didn't but we as readers did, there would be a kind of catharsis that Roberts pretty much has to deny. "It's all worth it, because now I understand," implicitly. For the blithe confidence of privilege to really be felt as incomprehension by the reader, we can never get to understand.

And that makes for a difficult book. Polystom the character has to be clueless: his uncle the secondary viewpoint character has to be intelligent and accomplished but clueless. The subaltern can not speak: their stories are more interesting than Polystom's, but we can't hear them because that would paradoxically justify the narrative as a classic "rich person finally becomes able to perceive others, and is enlightened", so that we get to feel good and enlightened by proxy. We aren't going to be allowed to break out of Polystom's viewpoint, and he isn't going to be allowed to exercise the discernment that as an aspiring poet you'd think that he must have in some degree. The final effect is like (misleadingly named) nonlinear game design -- you are given the feeling that you can wander around, but constraints inherent to the design of the work mean that you only can wander so far.

Ethics in games journalism

Polystom has a difficult relationship with his wife, Beeswing, who was named after a Richard Thompson song and who therefore had to be wild and free. Or something like that. Is this a straightforwardly feminist episode?

At first glance, it looks a lot like one. Polystom falls in love with Beeswing and offers marriage despite knowing almost nothing about her, she marries him, quickly becomes unhappy, and tries to run away. He tries to lock her in a room and she bashes her head on the door trying to get out. She plainly enough addresses him, pointedly not even using his name:

'Man,' she said. Her word hung, peculiarly, in the air. Stom didn't take the sense of why she used the word. Was she addressing him? 'You own a world, and the people who live in it,' she said softly. 'But you'll not own me.' (pg. 72)

Polystom denies her a divorce, so as she's recuperating from the head-bashing, she runs away again, servants find her, she tries to run again at the last minute so Polystom tackles her and she dies of an aneurism. So far, straightforward.

The problem is that the book is already committed to an approach that denies the reader an easy recognition / catharsis, so this can't be an uncomplicated story about what happens to women under patriarchy. Beeswing is from the same aristocratic class that Polystom is, and you'd think that she would have some idea of social expectations just as he would. Why did she marry him? It's made clear in the text that she can say no, and I didn't catch any hint that unusual pressure is being applied to get her to consent to the marriage. Why, having married him, can she only pursue her goals so self-destructively? When she runs away the first time, she finds a fishing village and announces that she's going to live as a fisherwoman, because that way she can be free: I would expect anyone in her society to know that as an aristocrat that is the one kind of thing that she can't be allowed to do. After she bashes her head against the door, Polystom angrily says that she's crazy, and it's easy to read this as standard patriarchy (any woman who is angry for good reason must be "hysterical"), but really, she found out that she was locked in a room and then not only yelled and kicked the door but finally bashed her head so hard against the door that she knocked herself out. That really is kind of crazy.

Polystom gets plenty of hints beforehand that she may have problems. Her parents hired a guardian to take of her after she ran away from home several times, and she tells Polystom while they are courting that her parent's home was a prison -- "Not like a prison, you know, but actually one." Polystom characteristically doesn't ask her what she means, or get scared off: he assumes that his mental image of her is who she must be.

None of this is to say that upper-class women with mental problems don't do badly under patriarchy as well as all other women, but the story is being made complex here in such a way as to make the reader see that there's more going on although we don't know what it is. Beeswing has two mothers in the same way that Polystom has two fathers; there is casual mention that upper-class women have the same kinds of sexual freedoms that upper-class men do (at least, it's mentioned that they can pick out serf men who they want to sleep with, and sometimes have children as a result without social sanction); it's mentioned that Polystom and Beeswing agreed to a full marriage instead of the kind of marriage that many people have that is just to conceive heirs; Beeswing is not expected to be a virgin when they get married.

In contemporary genre works that aren't specifically for a gay and lesbian market, homosexuality is often used to signify a kind of freedom from social restriction through proximity, even for characters who are themselves heterosexual. Adam Roberts isn't providing any of that for the fans either. Full acceptance of homosexuality within the society in this novel means not just that aristocrats can have same-sex marriages, it also means that aristocrats of any gender can pick out serfs of any gender and coerce them into having sex with them, with full social approval. Most of the second story in the novel concerns Polystom's old uncle and his past relationship with a young, strong male serf who the uncle casually picks out for sex. Polystom's uncle eventually finds that he most prefers a receptive role, commanding the serf to be the top. When the uncle tires of it, he feels vaguely ashamed of this preference (not for men, for loss of control) and sends the serf off with a platoon of other serfs to die in the wars.

So it's believable that Beeswing having some degree of sexual freedom doesn't equate to her having power, at least not in contention with Polystom, who is richer and higher up in the aristocratic hierarchy than she is. But the puzzle remains: why did she get herself into this? It's a puzzle for Polystom too. After her death he wonders why she ever married him, and this question becomes a recurring question in the last story in the book.

Interacting with NPCs

Meaningful interactions with non-player-characters make an RPG more engrossing than a simple shooter or platformer. As with the most advanced role-playing games, player characters are allowed the choice of a number of different pre-set verbal responses in each NPC interaction, and some of these choices actually affect gameplay!

Finally we get to the last story in the book, the "ghost story" that appears mostly to be a WW I war story. This is where we find out that in all likelihood, the majority of the characters in the world of Polystom are literally NPCs. Non-player-characters, that is. The world of Polystom is in all likelihood a sort of computer simulation, and the vast majority of people in it are run by simplified programs with a limited range of responses. A much smaller number of people are more advanced in the sense that they are run off of more complicated programs and based on data from real people.

This is undoubtedly a new answer to the long-standing novelistic question of why people can't seem to really know what's going on in each other's heads. "Because some people are just a bundle of pre-programmed routines with a limited variety of possible stock responses" is not quite solipsism, because this answer assumes that other PCs / more advanced simulated people exist. There are certain similarities to Gnosticism -- the world as "an inferior simulacrum of a higher-level reality of consciousness" to quote wiki -- as well as in Gnosticism's tendency to think that a divine element has lodged in certain human beings (and presumably not others.) But I've written enough about Gnosticism elsewhere, and I prefer for this essay to think of role-playing games as a characteristic kind of setting in which some people in the game world are more real than others and in which this difference is not divinely ordained in some way. It's therefore a historically unusual kind of imagined setting.

Before I go on, what is the evidence that the world of Polystom is a simulation? There are hints throughout the work, in that the serfs really do seem less rebellious and more passive than actual historical serfs were, and the people who invented powered flight in the Polystom world were the brothers Asimov (an unusual name compared to the prevailing mostly-Greek ones in the book, and the kind of thing you might expect if the world of Polystom was created as a simulation programmed by an SF fan from our world). As part of the first story, there's a leaf in which Polystom meets a bear in the woods, and it's mentioned that while a neighboring landowner has had all the bears on his lands killed and replaced with preserved, animatronic, bears, Polystom merely had 90% of his bears killed because he wanted a kind of poetic authenticity: real bears (that Polystom can have as little understanding of or real connection to as everyone else he meets).

But mostly we're told this through the events of the last story. Polystom has witnessed the gruesome execution of some randomly chosen serfs because someone needed to be executed to make it seem like the people who'd murdered his uncle had been caught. Upset by the execution, he joins the military to prove himself and goes to the Mudworld, where an ongoing serf rebellion is being combated. Here, during and after vicious WW I style combat in which the unit of 50 serfs and two officers who he'd brought with him are wiped out, he meets the ghost of his dead wife, the ghost of his dead uncle, and other ghosts, and a fearsome amount of infodumping occurs.

OpenOffice informs me that I am on page 5 of this essay, and summarizing this infodump will be, I think, beyond my powers, especially since a lot of it provoked greater and greater skepticism on my part and it also contended with the related problems of unreliable narration and elements that the narrators may have tried to present honestly but just didn't know. But in short: the Mudworld contains a massive crystal used as a computer and programmed largely by Polystom's uncle: the computer was used in part for a simulation of what we as readers quickly realize is supposed to be our world: somehow the simulation became more complicated than the original and some sort of feedback or interaction occurred in which dead people from Polystom's world appeared as ghosts near the crystal core: these ghosts were often based on information taken from funeral "dossiers" (descriptions of someone's life, a handy source of data since they are, in Polystom's culture, supposed to be well-researched) after these dossiers were fed into the crystal-computer: possibly both worlds are simulations, each existing as a simulation within a computer in other world (thus "two universes, one reality").

I don't think that two universes each existing as a simulation within the other one is a concept deserving of much gosh-wow SF consideration (I rather think that Adam Roberts was, at this point, metaphorically shooting his biplane for the Moon) but I'd say that the appearance of ghosts as a sort of system error within the world of Polystom indicates that it's a simulation. Adam Roberts does a lot of clever "When you look at it, the science behind our world seems kind of jury-rigged and unreal -- maybe this shows that our universe is a simulation", but perhaps because I was once a scientist, I do not find this convincing.

Why have I chosen to write about Polystom as a metaphorical RPG rather than as a computer simulation? Because early-generation computer games are a particular sort of primitive computer simulation that is strongly suggested by the last story in Polystom. There's a definite eeriness to the combat scenes that suggests typical failure modes of an early RPG. It's as if the concept of "morale" was too confusing to program in, and perhaps not very fun. Polystom sets out with 50 men, and they get killed and killed defending a ridge and never break. They have merged with another unit of equal size, and they have a dozen men left when Polystom suggests that they withdraw. "We fight where we are placed, sir," says a sergeant, "that's all we do." (pg. 226). This is a very typical mechanic of combat games: you place the NPCs and there they stay until the last one is shot. The two officers that Polystom has been assigned are extraverted, hail-fellows-well-met who Polystom is envious of as they lack all of his insecurities, and horrifyingly they can't seem to stop being hail-fellows-well-met even as everyone is dying. One of them can't even die. He's wounded horribly and one would think fatally, and shoots himself in the head to put himself out of his misery, and he's still alive, like a leftover game-sprite that wasn't cleared when it went to zero HP. Polystom is militarily hapless and a natural target for enemy fire as the group's captain, yet somehow he can't be shot, just as the player character in a game can't be shot (or if they are the game is restarted, presumably) and he's the last survivor. "But who could find entertainment in all this?" Polystom says bitterly, and the ghost of his wife agrees that "it's hard to understand the attraction of it, it's all pain and death here." (pg. 279) But that's historically been what most games with simulated people in them have been about.


After all the adventures -- after you've been captured by a resistance group and motivated to infiltrate and turn on your own side -- it's time for the final reveal! You won't want to miss the shock ending that explains it all.

Needless to say, there is no ending in the book that explains it all. This is another part of the standard SF toolbox that Adam Roberts isn't going to use. Polystom destroys the fortified gun that is apparently all that's keeping the rebels from destroying the crystal-computer, and the rebels are presumably going to destroy it under the impression that it's a computer coordinating the aristocrat's war effort, which in part it is. After that, something will happen that we don't get to see, because the book has ended.

This isn't what the ghost of Polystom's uncle wanted -- he wanted Polystom to reprogram the crsytal-computer to cause mass catastrophes in our world, which would let the uncle be reborn normally as a person rather than a ghost in Polystom's world, and if the mass catastrophes were hard on us that didn't matter because we aren't real. This ending is what the ghost of Beeswing wanted. She convinced Polystom, through some convoluted logic, that this would tell him whether she really loved him or not when she was alive. Having read the previous story, which tells about their relationship from Polystom's viewpoint -- a viewpoint that you'd think would be naturally predisposed to pick up on any sign no matter how faint that she really loved him -- I'd say that the chance that she really loved him is approximately zero. But destroying the crystal-computer would presumably free Beeswing from her ghostly existence, and would therefore free her from a kind of prison even worse than those she's been trapped in before.

In a final feminist irony, the ghost of Beeswing has apparently been created from a funeral dossier that Polystom wrote, so his view of her has in some sense become the reality. The ghost of Beeswing appears to me to not really be the same person as Beeswing -- she acts differently and is far more communicative, more "normal" in her interpersonal relations even with her ghosthood, which means that she's more successful at manipulating the rebels and Polystom to get what she wants -- and it's quite believable that she's a program rather than being any kind of mental copy of the real Beeswing. It seems appropriate that she uses this difference from her original self to free the copy of herself.

If she does exist only from these data, then she of course has no idea what her original really thought, because Polystom didn't when he wrote the funeral dosssier that she was based on. So the truth is preserved from ever being revealed to Polystom, and to us.

What kind of game is Polystom-as-RPG? I don't know the technical name for it, but there was a particular kind of game that started to become more well-known once Flash made computer games produced by a single person more possible. The game that existed as an argument against its own genre. I'm thinking, in particular, of a bomber game (I've forgotten the title) in which you gained points for bombing enemy military installations from a plane and lost points for bombing enemy villages. But as you played the terrain went by faster and faster, and you ended up bombing enemy villages no matter what you did and lost. The game existed as an argument against "precision bombing", in order to point out that miraculously well-directed weapons did not exist and that civilians always got killed whenever precision bombing was proposed. In the same way, Polystom is a novel that is set up to argue against its kind of novel -- that makes a claim for a fundamental opacity, not for visible character growth, adventure, a graspable plot, catharsis, the Freytag triangle, and understandable closure.

Gaming theory: a postscript

Should we care about the characters in games? This is inevitably related to literary theory, especially since Adam Roberts makes it clear that these characters-as-simulations are "written". Should we care about characters in books? Clearly people do.

Perhaps a better question is, should we care about how our actions affect characters that we're pretty sure aren't real? The annoying book Ender's Game is based on a kind of category error related to this. Ender is taught to be a killer warlord within a video game, and of course he thinks it's a video game, but shockingly it turns out that he's been guiding the Earth defense fleet and has just committed genocide. And he is overcome with guilt. But almost everyone who's played a lot of games has had something that could become the same experience. For instance, I used to play Civilization quite a bit, a game in which you guide a civilization from neolithic levels to technology slightly better than ours. And I generally preferred peaceful games, but sometimes, to try the mechanic out and explore the game space, I'd provoke nuclear exchanges that would destroy the game world. If someone had come up to me afterwards and said "Your game was attached to an alternate reality somewhere -- you just caused a nuclear exchange that destroyed their world!" would I really have significant responsibility there? Of course, it would be upsetting, but the entity bearing the responsibility would be whatever connected the game to an actual world.

This is not how everyone thinks. Some religions and philosophies view bad thoughts as much more equivalent to bad actions. It's conceivable that some of these would counsel you not to play games that have you act unrighteously. I can even see the point of this without particularly subscribing to any of these viewpoints: "don't do things that create bad mental habits". But this is really a concern for oneself rather than for characters in a game.

It may be notable that something like Rawls' "veil of ignorance" isn't really possible for these games. Let's say that you had an equal chance of entering Polystom's world as any of the people in it, not just as an aristocrat. Would this lead you to say that the serfs should have a better existence because you might turn out to be one? Not necessarily, because player characters are always leaders or people with unusual skills: they have initiative and potential that NPCs can't have. Player characters as serfs would probably become the leaders of serf rebellions. They might even view this as the point of the game, and demand that the game give them this challenge and the opportunity to vicariously strike a blow against an upper class that is (by the standards of upper classes) not really very well defended against active opposition.

Our technology is primitive enough so that no one yet really confuses game characters for real people. (The opposite, confusing real people for game characters, has unfortunately always been with us. In the book, Polystom's uncle characterizes our world as having a long period in which vast masses of people acted as they should and there were few rebellions, but someone who reads e.g. The Art of Not Being Governed by James C. Scott would know that this is a familiar perceptual trick of how historical information gets passed down.) To work against this, the original role-playing games -- Dungeons & Dragons and the like, not live action RPGs -- had a human being creating the game who would take on the role of all the non-player-characters. This meant that although they weren't real, they could at least respond somewhat as a real person could. This element was lost for those "RPGs" that went electronic and single-player: "RPG" became a name for a kind of game that encouraged you to identify with a persona character. But this wasn't very satisfying because all the "people" you interacted with were highly limited in their range of responses. MMORPGs became more popular for this among other reasons. If you play an electronic RPG now, you're far more likely to be in a world where the real people are 99% of the simulated population, and the only NPCs are stock characters that exist to perform routine tasks and from whom no effort at simulation is expected because real people are guiding characters all around you.

Lastly, a word on some literary history. The first time I noticed a literary work not based on a game that nevertheless had characters who appeared more or less to be PCs -- i.e. strangely marked out though not by a divine entity, having more initiative than ordinary people, somehow the natural focus of events, somehow more real -- was in William Morris' The Well At The World's End, published in 1896. As I remember it, some people in this fictional world are mysteriously born with or somehow are given a medallion that marks them out for the quest for the well at the world's end. In other words, they have a visible within-world sign that they are PCs rather than NPCs. They naturally meet each other in quest for this well, and if they succeed, get a sort of unnatural charisma that marks them out even more as leaders. It's notable to me that this book is also thought to be the first fantasy that is set in a designedly fictional, worldbuilt world, rather than a mysterious and unknown part of our own world. So the two of them have in a sense gone together from the first: worldbuilding and the special avatars of ourselves that are supposed to inhabit the created world.

2014 Rich Puchalsky

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

Last modified: December 30, 2014