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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.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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