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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.



Review by Brian Clegg


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