Adam Roberts' novel Stone

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

(This was originally published as part of The Stoning of Adam Roberts.)


Dear stone,

I've been told that talking to you may help in getting me out of here. Of course, I assume that someone else is listening ("commenters", perhaps?) so it's not like I'm really communicating with an inanimate object, though sometimes it seems that way. Who am I? Call me Ab, after the first two letters of the English language. There's an AI implanted in my head, or perhaps a transmitter, that says I'll be released if I kill off 60 thousand words of Adam Roberts' novel Stone. It's really more than that number of words, but who's counting? At any rate, I can leave the general background of the book still there, as long as I bash enough of my particular targets. SF books will be my rocks to fling.



I thought I'd start by talking to you about the framing device of having me talk to you. It's a solution to the classic "As you know, Bob" problem in SF, right? The problem is that SF writers have all this background that they have to tell the reader somehow, everything about their world and its history and its pseudoscience, which isn't a problem for writers of general fiction because readers can be assumed to know all that. Many early SF books would have one character tell another all this material. But this is implausible, because people don't go around telling each other how an internal combustion engine works and about the basics of WW II. So having a character talk to an inanimate object -- a stone -- as a sort of therapy-confession, with the character having the conceit that everything must be explained to the stone, is superficially more plausible.

Plausible, perhaps, but there still is the inherent problem of dullness. These infodumps make up a large chunk of Stone. Fortunately, the situation is redeemed by what at first appears to be a flash of authorial self-mockery. There is one scene where the narrative character is describing how her implanted AI keeps talking inside her head, going on about the currents inside a star; the character says that "there was something off-putting in the lecturing tone it was now adopting" and starts amusing herself by saying "Really" and then repeating it with different intonations: "Really. Re-ally. Raly. Ruly. Rrreally." And it dawns on you (or at least on me); all this infodumping communicates that the person telling everything to the stone is an unsympathetic, sociopathic narrator, a solipsistic mass murderer who probably enjoys being off-putting to her captors. Unsympathetic and uncharismatic narrators are a risky device, unfortunately, at least when they do not also involve the kind of over-the-top comedy of Nabokov's Pale Fire. Look at Michael Moorcock's Colonel Pyat novels (the first of which is called Byzantium Endures); a brilliant concept, perhaps even brilliant execution, but has anyone ever read all three of them? But here I think it works.

The solipsism of having really only one character in the book who tells the reader everything recurs in the plot of the book, too, with the quantum-mechanical idea of the observer defining the universe. This last has an obvious analogy to the concept of the reader defining the meaning of the text, which is developed further later on in the multiple sources of meaning from the implanted AI (the authorial voice inside the reader's head is at once the reader hearing a sort of program left by the author, the reader hearing themselves, and the reader hearing a sort of communal, Jungian unconscious). The implanted AI tells the narrator twice early on that she's too solipsistic, too uninvolved with others. I will come back to this later.


Stone, I may as well commence the stoning. This is a fiction that revolves around a mass murder and a serial killer protagonist. As such, it is open to the classic critique of this kind of violence within fiction as being kitschy, overdone, suitable for overdramatic low-culture genre productions. This is not exactly a new critique, or one confined only to genre works -- Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead makes the same kind of point about all the deaths in Hamlet, for instance, and you can't get any more high-culture in English than that. Adam Roberts even invites comparison to Shakespeare with an introductory quote from Othello that is referenced late in the book. But I'll honor the genre of this book by sticking to genre comparison. In the following, please imagine that whenever I say "author" I mean "implied author", thanks.

One major question for me, in reading Stone, is why the narrative character shows so much guilt, at such inappropriate times, about her crime. On the one hand, this is a sociopath and practiced serial killer, on the other, someone incapacitated after the fact. It's clear that the book sets up a "because she's crazy!" explanation -- there is care given to demonstrating her manic-depressive cycle, psychotic episode(s), and so on. For a number of reasons, I don't think this is an adequate explanation, or at least not a very interesting reading, for why her guiltiness is so prevalent after the crime. So maybe a comparison with another author with generally guilty characters will help.

Most everything in Stone has a cognate in the works of Iain Banks: the t'T utopia is very like his Culture universe, important plot elements are like that of his book Look To Windward, and there are also generalities such as his penchant for mysteries, for successions of comic and grisly moments, and for having his narrative characters be murderers. There are even specifics, such as the way in which the people in the utopia are able to change physical sex at will, their complex names, the concept of having advanced cultures "transcend", and the way in which the mediation of a translator between the readers and the narrator is indicated through footnotes. So the book shares elements of a homage, parody, or critique of Banks. Of course there are differences too. There are times when specific points in the Stone universe almost appear to be designed to differentiate the book from Banks', as in, why don't the AIs run everything? Because they can't travel faster-than-light, though people can. Why no big spacecraft? Because again FTL travel doesn't allow them.

I guess that I'll call this a risky authorial choice. The comparison is problematic for Stone, and the element of critique of Banks does not work especially well: the t'T people are purposeless hedonists, but the Culture is populated not only by hedonists but by dangerous missionaries for whom the hedonists provide a raison d'etre and vice versa. But enough specifics about Banks. The point of my bringing him up, stone, is that it allows me to talk about Stone within a group of similar books even though I've read nothing else by Roberts. My implanted AI informs me that it has written more disjointed, unedited rambles about Banks than perhaps anyone else in existence, so I have a line of criticism ready-made.

And at this Banks-related point my inner AI voice is demanding that I talk about "the SF author as Demiurge". That seems to be something that it repeats often. The basic idea is that the SF author stands in relation to his or her characters somewhat as God does to people. This might be true for any characters in any fiction, but in SF, as I said before, the author is the creator of the world as well. But the SF author necessarily knows that he or she is a flawed builder, so instead of being God, they are the Gnostic Demiurge, an entity whose relation to the creation is inevitably troubled. This effect is even greater when the author seems to have strong ethical concerns, or when he or she sets out to build a techno-utopia. Who created the evil in this universe? Why, you did, author, because it would not be dramatic otherwise.

And this consciousness shows up in certain characters. Here is a case in point. In China Mieville's Iron Council (and I know that I need no spoiler warning for this paragraph for you, stone, as you are merely a rock), the golemist Judah Low stops the revolution just before its final confrontation, freezing the revolutionary train in time. Judah is then shot by a comrade because he had arrogated to himself a choice that was not his to make, even though the revolution appeared very likely to fail. China Mieville has indicated in an interview that he agrees that Judah was punished for his "terrible" but "necessary" actions. So who is Judah? It is tempting to think of him as an authorial stand-in. After all, it was China Mieville who really froze the revolution, ending the book in this way. According to another online essay, Mieville says that he doesn't believe that someone who lives before the revolution can really depict the postrevolutionary society, so therefore he couldn't really have written it as succeeding. He also couldn't write it as a failure because that would be typical noble-but-doomed tragic defeatism. So he had to freeze it; Judah's failure is his. Judah is of course a golemist, and what greater golemist than an author? The righteous execution of Judah seems to some extent to be an authorial recognition of (perhaps inevitable) failure. I will dub this phenomenon Demiurgic Guilt.

So back to Iain Banks. Why do Iain Banks' Culture novels, which are after all set in a utopia, tend to have such guilt-ridden protagonists? Why is there never a novel about a typical Culture genius, going about his/her life, creating art and having fun, with drama mostly confined to interpersonal relationships, and adventures that do not involve megadeath body counts? Because that would be a "soap opera", as I believe but can not cite that Banks once said. Is a space opera really better than a soap opera? A soap opera would be --- female-genred, perhaps. (Whoa, this is long enough already, I won't get into that despite the whole issue of the narrator of Stone being so insistently male even though she lost her physical stones when her nanotech was taken away.) I'll say that Demiurgic Guilt is as good a contender as any as reason for the overuse of character guiltiness. Real mass murderers do not generally appear to be overly angsty, Romantic tortured-soul types (as far as I know: I find them to be boring enough so that I've never studied accounts of them) but rather, examples of the banality of evil. Unless all this is playing to the audience, I would say that it appears possible that this guiltiness is in part the guiltiness of the author thinking "Am I really writing yet another book that depends on this kind of drama"?

Back to Stone. Who is this solipsistic narrator who will kill off 60 million people who are "like ghosts, not real at all" for the narrator's own benefit and then feel really bad about it afterwards? Well, you get the idea. But it makes for a confused book.

Unless this element is also a Banks critique. That's possible -- but in the absence of any revelatory moment that caught my notice like the infodumping one, not a reading that I favor.


I fear that this is becoming too long for a blog post, stone. But I'm not quite done with Stone. I have yet to elevate my difficulty with it into a general aesthetic preference.

Stone is a good novel in many ways. Underneath the Iain Banks overlay, there appears to be a Vancian picaresque trying to get out, and the novel's problems appear to be more a matter of too many authorial risks rather than too few. But there is one final commonality with Banks; the passing character who I suddenly find more interesting than the protagonist.

With Banks, it was the character Tsoldrin Beychae in Use of Weapons. The protagonist, a Romantic guilty action hero if there ever was one, must urge this former leader out of retirement. Beychae was a highly successful politician who succeeded in keeping a populated cluster of worlds from going to war; despite the still near-universal esteem in which he is held, he has retired to a library to pursue studies of some kind. Suddenly I found myself preoccupied with more interesting questions than those about the past of the action hero: what had this interesting intellectual figure's successes been? What politics had he favored, what expedients and compromises had he made? And what was he working on in his library? The reader never finds out. In Stone, the similar figure is Tag-matteo, a dead man who the reader sees in passing, in the debris of his life, travels, researches, and million insect-carapaces once catalogued but now scattered on the floor, perhaps as a form of art.

Dear stone, perhaps I am an unusual reader -- I found the scene in Stanislaw Lem's Solaris in which the protagonist reviews the scientific journals of his imagined science to be gripping. But it strikes me that perhaps SF would be better, on the whole, with a greater number of protagonists who do creative work rather than destructive. Isn't that an aspect of life more familiar to the world-building writer? This is not a call to "write what you know"; one of the reasons to read SF in the first place is to get away from protagonists who are elderly academics, MFA students, or middle-class knowledge workers. But wasn't one of the great things about Mieville's Perdido Street Station the way in which one protagonist was a scientist, another an artist, and both had work that was convincingly described? There have been any number of SF scientist-heroes, of course, but this "science" is generally limited to the invention of the new model black box.

Stone is trying to do something similar, I think. There is a sense in which the death of the 60 million is supposed to be a freeing from observation, a creative act through destruction. But it doesn't quite work. Anything that ends with "You are constantly contaminating the purity of our probability wave-form" has to have Norman Spinrad's The Iron Dream tossed at it.

And that's it for Stone, stone -- an interesting experiment that doesn't quite pan out. Can I go now? As the observer's gaze fades, I'll just turn out the lights.

2006 Rich Puchalsky

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

Last modified: December 27, 2014