Skip to main content

The Thing Itself (SF) - Adam Roberts *****

This latest book from the master of intellectual science fiction, Adam Roberts, is a mind-bending delight - and nothing like the combination of the title and the cover suggests (yet even this deception is not entirely straightforward). Anyone versed in the genre would instantly make the leap, with the combination of 'The Thing' and a polar setting, to the classic science fiction film The Thing - and indeed Roberts does make a passing bow to this in the opening of the book. However, the monster in the movie is about as crude as they come - here, what we experience as alien is both horrible and transfigured as a possible reality for the concept of god.

Another classic theme we meet in the book is SETI - the search for extraterrestrial intelligence - but, once again, Roberts subverts the standard genre concepts. Here what is alien is not just not-human, but involves a different perception of the universe itself.

The way that Roberts makes this near-impossible portrayal of something truly alien come to life is to invoke the work of Immanuel Kant, where the 'Thing Itself' in the title is not so much a monster in the manner of the movie, but Kant's concept of the 'Ding an sich', which seems to be rather like Plato's world outside the cave where we only perceive via the shadows we see in the cave. However, in Kant's case this is taken to an extreme, where human perception of aspects of the universe like space, time and causality are simply our veneer on the underlying 'thing itself' which could be perceived totally differently by an alien species.

If this all sounds a bit heavy, it can be in places. There certainly is an awful lot of exposition and discussion of Kant and the relevance of his ideas to physics - and the implications of finding a way of messing around with the 'modalities' we perceive like space and time. In fact, while I'm in warning mode, I ought to also say there's a lot of sex of various ilks, and the book has my least favourite structure for a novel, having a main storyline in alternate chapters with a series of apparently unconnected chapters set in other times and places. I always find with this kind of structure that I want to get back to the main thread and tend to skip-read the intervening chapters - not helped in this case by one of them being written in a Joyce-like stream of consciousness that I really couldn't be bothered with.

So, without doubt this book is sometimes hard work. But it repays the effort of reading because it is so cleverly written (those apparently unconnected chapters slot nicely in by the end), because nothing is what you expect it to be, and because the idea of taking Kant's metaphysical waffling and turning it into science fiction is absolutely genius, producing one of the few ever glimpses I've ever seen of something truly alien in science fiction. And part of it is set in Swindon. What more can you ask?

I ought to briefly say something about the 'science fiction' label. One of the reviews quoted on the back of the book says 'in the tradition of Swift, Orwell and Atwood', which smacks to me of someone in typical literary fashion considering that something is 'not really science fiction' if it is well written and clever. It's a bit like the way I was recently interviewed about science fiction by a journalist who said that something I referred to presumably wasn't science fiction because there were no ray guns and spaceships. I am absolutely sure that Adam Roberts would proudly say that this book really is science fiction, and so he should, because this is classic SF material.

I can say without any doubt that this by far the best science fiction book I've read all year. I can also say that it won't be to everyone's taste - so don't blame me if you don't like it - but to some it will be a revelation of what science fiction can be. This is the kind of science fiction that should be winning the Booker Prize. Simple as that.


Paperback 

Kindle 
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The World According to Physics - Jim Al-Khalili *****

There is a temptation on seeing this book to think it's another one of those physics titles that is thin on content, so they put it in an odd format small hardback and hope to win over those who don't usually buy science books. But that couldn't be further from the truth. In Jim Al-Khalili's The World According to Physics, we've got the best beginners' overview of what physics is all about that I've ever had the pleasure to read.

The language is straightforward and approachable. Rather than take the more common historical approach that builds up physics the way it was discovered, Al-Khalili starts with the 'three pillars' of physics: relativity, quantum theory and thermodynamics. In simple language with never an equation nor even a diagram in sight, the book lays out what physics is all about, what it has achieved and what it still needs to do.

That bit about no diagrams is an important indicator of how approachable the text is. Personally, I'm no…

Outbreaks and Epidemics - Meera Senthilingam ****

This book was written before the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, though it has been updated to include it: it's certainly not any kind of attempt to cash in, but rather a sober reflection on how outbreaks and epidemics work, what process the world has in place to deal with them and how a changing, globalised world has magnified risk.

If I'm honest, I'm not a great fan of medical books, but Meera Senthilingam gives an important introduction to disease outbreaks and epidemics, giving enough detail to make sense of them without ever being too technical for the general reader. This is careful journalism, which can sometimes come across as rather dry, but that's not necessarily a bad thing given the topic.

The book starts by plunging us into the beginnings of the 2003 SARS epidemic, then brings in COVID-19 (as of, by the look of it, around the start of March 2020) and measles before plunging back to smallpox and the origins of vaccination. There is a strong section on disea…

Jim Al-Khalili - Four Way Interview

Jim Al-Khalili hosts The Life Scientific on BBC Radio 4 and has presented numerous BBC television documentaries. He is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Chair in the Public Engagement in Science at the University of Surrey, a New York Times bestselling author, and a fellow of the Royal Society. He is the author of numerous books, including Quantum: A Guide for the Perplexed; The House of Wisdom: How Arabic Science Saved Ancient Knowledge and Gave Us the Renaissance; and Life on the Edge: The Coming of Age of Quantum Biology. The paperback of his novel Sunfall is published in March 2020 by Transworld. His latest book is The World According to Physics.


Why physics?

I fell in love with physics when I was 13 or 14, when I realised not only that I was pretty good at it at school – basically common sense and puzzle solving – but because it was the subject that answered the big questions I had started contemplating, like whether the stars in the night sky went on for ever, what they were ma…