Skip to main content

Land of the Headless (SF) - Adam Roberts ****

It's important that I explain why I've given this book four stars, despite the fact that I didn't enjoy reading it. I've rated it highly because it's a brilliant exercise in a certain kind of writing. Like Gulliver's Travels, for example, the idea is not to make a great story where the reader can really engage with the main character - the narrator here, Jon, is a strangely formal, wordy individual who is difficult to like. Instead, what Adam Roberts has done so impressively here is both come up with a concept that is so horrible it burns itself into your memory and also to use that concept, and the society that brought it into existence, as a vehicle for examining our own beliefs and attitudes. Just as the weird experiences of Gulliver were not intended to be a fun fantasy (forget the film versions) but a reflection of the unpleasant extremes of society, so Jon's experiences are a mirror to the nastier aspects of religion and modern social attitudes.

The main premise is simple, and doesn't get any less shocking from exposure to it. On a planet which has adopted a fundamentalist religion that appears to be a merger of the most unpleasant aspects of Islam and Christianity, three offences - murder, blasphemy and voluntary sex outside marriage - are punishable by beheading. But this is a modern, 'civilised' space-faring society - so judicial killing is frowned on. They have developed the technology to keep people alive after their heads are cut off, with their mental function transferred to an onboard computer.

Roberts does not hold back on the grisly detail of life without a head, but also sends his main character on a journey that involves shunning by 'good people', an encounter with a sadistic policeman and a life-changing period of time in the army, fighting a war on another planet. All along, that central character is driven by love for a woman he hardly knew.

It's not an easy read, as you might imagine - but it's insightful and it's hard not to admire Roberts' chutzpah in devising this concept and in getting it past a publisher. I wasn't entirely surprised that the paperback has gone out of print - but if you're up to it, it's a science fiction book that you ought to have read.

Paperback:  

Kindle:  


Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Quantum Space: Jim Baggott *****

There's no doubt that Jim Baggott is one of the best popular science writers currently active. He specialises in taking really difficult topics and giving a more in-depth look at them than most of his peers. The majority of the time he achieves with a fluid writing style that remains easily readable, though inevitably there are some aspects that are difficult for the readers to get their heads around - and this is certainly true of his latest title Quantum Space, which takes on loop quantum gravity.

As Baggott points out, you could easily think that string theory was the only game in town when it comes to the ultimate challenge in physics, finding a way to unify the currently incompatible general theory of relativity and quantum theory. Between them, these two behemoths of twentieth century physics underlie the vast bulk of physics very well - but they simply can't be put together. String theory (and its big brother M-theory, which as Baggott points out, is not actually a the…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Everything You Know About Planet Earth is Wrong - Matt Brown ****

This is the latest of a series of 'Everything You Know About... is Wrong' books from Matt Brown. Although I always feel slightly hard done by as a result of the assertion in the title, as there are certainly things here I know that aren't wrong (I mean, come on, the first corrected piece of 'knowledge' is that 'The Earth is only 6,000 years old' and I can't imagine many readers will 'know' that), it's a handy format to provide what are often surprisingly little snippets of information that are very handy for 'did you know' conversations down the pub (or showing up your parents if you're a younger reader).

Some of the incorrect statements that head each article are well-covered, if often still believed (for example, people thought that world was flat before Columbus), some are a little tricksy in the wording (such as seas have to wash up against land) and some are just pleasantly surprising (countering the idea that gold is a rar…