Adam Roberts, The Disassociated Hero


Adam Roberts: Critical Essays (Contemporary Writers: Critical Essays)

by Christos Callow Jr., Anna McFarlane, et al. | 4 Oct 2016

For some time now, I have been fascinated by the ways in which a text “positions” a reader, and what that does to the reading of the text. In Rhetorics of Fantasy I was concerned with the ways it shaped the nature of the fantastic world constructed, and how it politicised that text, positioning the reader as insider or outsider, as critic or consensualist. When I moved on to work on children’s science fiction, and more recently children’s fantasy, the sense that the reader position was essentially a political or ideological position, was intensified. Whereas in fantasy, different reader positions appeared to exist more or less in parallel across the genre, in fiction for children there was and is a very clear sense that reader positions have changed dramatically across the past two hundred years, and that this change is firmly linked to understandings of “the child” (a construction used far too frequently in the field) and to a belief in what the young reader should take from a text.

The history of the child reader’s position with the text is necessarily too complex to discuss in full here, but a short version of this can be drawn as follows: eighteenth and early nineteenth century fiction positions children outside the text as spectators. The relationship constructed between child and protagonist is often distant but intense, for the major purpose of such fiction is to operate as a warning to the child. It is the consequence of the activities of the protagonist, rather than the protagonist him/herself which are the focus of the tale, as the bad child is punished, the good rewarded. As this period believes in intrinsic personality, character sketches are drawn in such a way that the character is intrinsic to itself, an actor upon the world, rather than a function of societal pressures, and this intensifies the distance and the emphasis on the outcome and consequences of actions taken.

By the end of the nineteenth century, in such texts as Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women (1868), or Rudyard Kipling’s Stalky and Co. (1899( and well into the 1940s and 1950s, a new reader position was being constructed, one which still positioned the child as the outsider (the third person will do that) but which focalised the reader on the character’s experience of events and the consequences on their character, rather than disassociating the two. Within this construction of reader position is an issue of admiration and respect. The children here are models to emulate, even when, or especially when, as with Jo March, their struggle to Be Good is long and difficult. This particular model was endemic in the boys’ book of the nineteenth century, constructed in Frederic William Farrar’s Eric, Or Little By Little (1858) a transitional text which deploys both fear for dreadful consequences, and admiration for those who can resist temptation. This approach bedded down in Thomas Hughes’ Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857) and was mocked mercilessly in Stalky & Co.

As children’s fiction moved into the twentieth century a shift emerged that we could already see in Little Women, from admiration to a requirement to identify, to see the child protagonist as oneself and explore or apply their choices to what you would have done. This is most explicitly stated at the very end of Noel Streatfield’s Ballet Shoes (1936). Which of the three Fossil sisters–Posy the dancer, Pauline the actress, or Petrova the engineer and Auxiliary pilot—would you want to be?[1]

What we see, is a growing trajectory of intimacy with the characters in the text, and an increasing sense that it is the character and the development of character that is at stake, rather than the adventure per se, so that in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (1950), the major driver of the story is the character of Edward and how he is formed and reshaped—a trope that reoccurs even more vividly in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952). The reader’s gaze is drawn into an intimacy with the protagonist. For all that the story is meant to be an adventure and allegory of Christ’s passion, it is Judas who walks away with our sympathy, although not yet, I suspect, our identification. In much teen fiction of the 1950s, particularly the career books, a muted form of this mode was carried over: the protagonist’s failures, as well as his or her successes, were part of a learning curve which the reader was expected to share. Increasingly the trajectory of experience rather than the outcome was the focus of the story (see for example Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret? (1970) Where the story is unmemorable, but the stations of her Calgary are distinct.[2] You can see this in modern fantasy sequences, where the growing into grace of godhood or prophecy is the bulk of the story or in science fiction for teens where there is either an adult mentor or a school.

The real move towards identification with the character as the primary ideal position of the reader, comes with the rise and rise of the first person in fiction for children. We see the first person as early as Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island(1883) and Kidnapped (1886), and it has, for better or worse, come to dominate what is labelled YA fiction.[3] It is a position which when delivered “honestly” is constructed as impermeable and sealed. By this I do not mean that the narrator cannot be unreliable or the text deconstructed, but that the assumption which it wants the reader to adopt is an intimacy and identification with that character. Even where first person is not the choice of the author, this concept of identification with the character now runs through the review columns and children’s book reports, and is a given within the many bibliographies available to advise you on buying for your children. Inevitably, this now influences the reporting and contextualisation of fiction for adults, and is, I suspect, what people increasingly mean when they discuss the quality of characterisation in a text.

The ideological nature of the reader-protagonist relationship.

All of the above introduction is relevant because it is at the heart of what is characterised as “the character problem” in science fiction. I have written elsewhere, in The Cambridge Companion to Science Fiction, that one reason science fiction “falls down” on characterisation for non-sf critics can be because the reader is looking in the wrong direction, at human beings, rather than the planet; for one to one relationships; rather than the relationship of person to polis. There is certainly a case to be made that the rather stiff and self declaredly rational characters (something I will be exploring in a moment) with which Roberts people his novels are far less interesting than the worlds he creates: Salt, On, Stone and even, to a degree, Polyston, are all picaresques, or planetary romances, in which the intensity of the emotional connection between individuals never matches the intensity of relationships between individual and world. This is perhaps most vivid in On where Tighe’s survival is precisely dependent on that intensity. Clinging to people in the world of On is a lot less important than clinging to a ledge or to the social structures of your community (and there may be a truth in that which should be more widely acknowledged)

However, what I want to propose here, is that “the character problem” is also linked to the choice made by many within the genre to eschew the “identification with” position that has become the default in much mainstream literature (although I do recognise not all). Science fiction, like the thriller, has remained firmly with the more distant position in which the protagonist explores on our behalf the physical and moral landscape of the situation. We are not expected to identify with this exploration, but to ride with as a companion. The degree to which this companionate role is collaborative or antagonistic varies enormously, but I would contend that for much of science fiction (if not fantasy, where the discourse has shifted dramatically in the past twenty years), the position “this protagonist is like me, and therefore someone with whom I am comfortable to explore the world” is far less important. This opens up some very real possibilities that I think Adam Roberts has very deliberately positioned himself to exploit (and yes, I expect him to argue with me later).

The ideological nature of the reader position is crucial to understanding the work of Adam Roberts, because the more of it one reads with this in mind, the clearer it becomes that it is not simply that his protagonists are unlikeable, or that they seem for the most part, very flat, but that these protagonists are radically disassociated both from the models of reader-protagonist relationship that I have described, and, for the most part, from the character-context context that literature has has come to take for granted ever since the mainstream moved from an idea of intrinsic character to consequent character.

Intrinsic character is common to nineteenth century literature; it assumes that people begin good or bad, and that this position shapes the effect of the world upon them. Most nineteenth century novels are stories of intrinsic character overcoming the pressures of the world—thus in a mid twentieth century holdover, Edmund is saved both because of Aslan’s sacrifice, but also because he had “gone wrong” without it fundamentally changing who he was underneath, this is made even more vivid in the peeling away of Eustace’s dragon nature in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. There is never any hint that the White Witch could be redeemed. Modern fiction tends to consequential character. Here, what happens in the world profoundly affects the individual, who may grow into or away from grace. In Roberts, we read over and over again of the Fall of Man (and occasionally woman)[4], but I intend to argue that the men and women Roberts creates are, with only a few exceptions, understood as having intrinsic character which is revealed by the decline of their worlds, rather than extrinsic characters which are shaped by them.

One issue to consider in understanding the protagonists of a Roberts novel is the degree to which the worlds Roberts creates are marginal: not one of the societies he builds offers space for the careless. The world of Salt only just qualifies to be in the “Goldilocks zone”; to live on earth in On is to cling like a Puffin to a ledge, one false move is a death sentence; in Gradisil the uplands are utterly marginal, and rendered more marginal by the libertarian philosophy (one political issue I have with most sf and Roberts’ in particular, is that historically, communalist societies are better at surviving. In most of Roberts fiction, the world is dispassionately out to kill the protagonist—frequently helped by the other characters of course.

I have now made three points that I want to bring together:

i. That Roberts maintains the reader in an external relationship with the protagonist, one in which admiration or identification is not required.

ii. That the characters Robert creates have fundamentally stronger relationships with the worlds they are in, than with the people with whom they interact.

iii. And that the characters are essentially intrinsic, they come with character intact and the trajectory of the text is to “reveal” rather than shape.

Combine all of these together, and as a result of reading all thirteen novels currently in print in consecutive order, I came to the conclusion the protagonist in an Adam Roberts text is, with one exception,[5] diagnosable with one of the non treatable personality disorders, to whit, sociopathy, disassociation, or narcicism, and that this is a rather more revealing lense through which to see these texts than to simply remark on the general unlikeability of a Roberts protagonist.

The World Health Organisation no longer uses the term Sociopath, but “dissocial personality disorder”. Dissocial personality disorder is characterized by at least three of the following;

  1. Callous unconcern for the feelings of others
  2. Gross and persistent attitude of irresponsiblity and disregard for social norms, rules, and obligations
  3. Incapacity to maintain enduring relationships though having no difficulty in establishing them
  4. Very low tolerance to frustration and a low threshold for discharge of violence
  5. Incapacity to experience guilt or to profit from experience, particularly punishment;
  6. Markedly prone to blame others, or to offer plausible rationalizations for the behaviour that has brought the person into conflict with society.

Roberts deploys characters who fit comfortably into this category in almost all of his work: In Salt, Polystom, On, Stone, and Jack Glass. I am less comfortable placing Land of the Headless and New Model Army, in to this category because both protagonists seem to fit as easily (perhaps more easily) into the clinical definitions of narcissistic personality disorder, in which “the individual is described as being excessively pre-occupied with issues of personal adequacy, power, prestige and vanity”.

Despite what I said earlier, not every character seems to be constructed as an intrinsic sociopath: at least two of the sociopathic protagonists have extrinsic, consequential characters. Tighe in On has clearly defined relationships with his parents and his family, and it is only as the traumatic processional of his picaresque proceeds that he appears to be increasingly unable to maintain relationships, although he retains the skill of establishing them; the further Tighe travels, the less the people around him seem like people, and the more they resemble landscape distinguished from the architecture only from being a little less interesting. Polystom is a member of a sociopathic society: as in the ante-bellum American South sociopathy has been embedded in the culture by legitimating all the above characteristics when applied to a class of persons understood to be non-people. Polystom’s uncle rapes slaves but sees them as toys; revolt cannot have motives, it just is, and is rationalized through scientific discourse; there can be no profiting from experience because there can be no acknowledgement of others of this class as actors; the failure of a relationship must therefore be the fault of the other, and not the fault of the institution or one’s collaboration with this institution. In Polystom, the protagonist’s love of poetry becomes (rather cleverly) not the chink through which empathy enters, disrupting the pathological society, but the wall he builds around himself, its artificiality a distancing device, a display of culture and a metaphor here for the falsity of the world.

Intrinsic sociopathy, which I think I find more interesting as a device, is vivid in Salt, Stone, Jack Glass, and New Model Army. What I noticed in the consecutive reading I undertook is that many of Roberts’ novels can be paired, as he returns to issues he wants to explore. Stone and Jack Glass is one such pairing, Salt and New Model Army is another.

In Stone and the first novella of Jack Glass, “In the Box” we are presented with the classic sociopath: both protagonists appear relentlessly normal and pleasant. Both are people we are inclined to like, although in Stone we know from the beginning that the character is a murderer; in “Jack Glass”, we are situated rather differently, because the implication from the beginning is that the character may be innocent, or from his presentation as a disabled, legless man, guilty of a non-violent crime.[6] Both characters turn out to have no sense of allegiance to those around them, and to be able to contemplate levels of violence alien to even the violent characters with whom Jack Glass is incarcerated. However the structure of their sociopathy is rather different with Ae (Stone) a passive, blaming sociopath, and Jack Glass an active, but even less associated character. This difference shapes their function and the stories told.

The main character in Stone, Ae, is as an experimental sociopath. Although lacking empathy there is an intensity of engagement with her subjects that renders her fascinating and attractive, Ae wants to know what happens if…. She is the toddler who pulls the lead on the lamp while watching her parents. She is the person who wonders idly how long a spider plant can last without water, or how much she has to bate a dog before it will bite. Ae an learn, but her learning is not correctly categorized, a lesson from one experience is not extrapolated to her position in the world—murdering X is wrong, but perhaps murdering Y won’t be? The isolating punishment of her prison therefore, is in part the absence of objects/personalities she can tease, and in addition the absence of the parental disapproval which is part of the structure of her sociopathy. The trajectory of the story entirely depends on this position of the character, and the sympathy it engenders in us—because it is hard to hate the childlike—because otherwise the story is riddled with what we in the genre call The Stupid. Over and over again Ae trusts the orders she is given, the clues she is offered, to follow a paper chase of a story in which she will eventually betrayed. That the novel as a whole does not trigger “The stupid” response is precisely because the sociopathy of this character renders her actions plausible. The structure of the rescue and the mission relieves her from responsibility for her own actions—a responsibility she has already disowned in her understandings of the murders she committed which were neither crimes of passion nor motive, but always of impulse or curiosity. The mission bates her curiousity—what happens if I follow this clue—and panders to the invisible “how will the parents/authority react if I do this?” Similarly, Ae’s innate likeableness—there is nothing vicious, she is actually rather gentle between murders—facilitates her moving through the worlds that Roberts has set up. This explains why the picaresque mode: in the picaresque, first, one is always leaving people behind just as they get to know you, second, you leave behind your mess for someone else to clear up—although the park keepers may chase after you—and third, you yourself make no more attachment to people than tourists do to the people who clear their bed chambers. The picaresque, in its structures, always going forward, never looking back, is itself a sociopathic form.

The protagonist of the novella “In the Box” is a rather different mode of sociopath, and indeed, can only be kept in this category as long as we do not read into the next two novellas: the back story of Jack Glass will turn out to be that of a determined ideologue (which itself tends to require at least a hint of sociopathy) but this is invisible here. When we meet Jack Glass is he the second most vulnerable member of a team of convicts dropped on an asteroid: they have enough tools and food to survive if they co-operate and if they hollow out the asteroid and render it habitable for a future settler. Refusing either of these activities will result in death. Although at first necessity seems to drive the team to collaborate, a true co-operation never emerges, with several members of the team playing a continually changing power game in which each considers themselves the leader, while creating a predator prey relationship between themselves and the two weakest members of the group: Jack Glass, or “Jac” who has no legs, and Gordius, a timid and obese man. Both are picked out for abuse and rape. Gordius quickly crumbles. Jac disassociates: from the beginning he steps back mentally and acts as the observer. We know he is terrified, not of the people with whom he is incarcerated, but that the police force who have incarcerated him will discover who he truly is. The result is several manifestations of disassociation which appear at first to be extrinsic, linked to his situation.

Although the story is told in third person, the focalisation of the story is solidly with Jac, it is his perception we receive, and the third person acts to compound the disassociation which is such a feature of the novella.

Jac’s descriptions of his companions is essentially anthropological:

Day followed day. Jac kept his eye on them all. Marit had a cruel streak, no question; but Jac figured Davide was more immediately dangerous for his frustration was working alchemically upon his rage… Lwon and E-d-C were to focused on maneuvering for position in the group as a whole to devote energy to persecuting Gordious or Jac. No: Mo and Marit were the most immediate threat. (43)

The tone is cold and even though we understand as readers that these are Jac’s observations, they are indirect, disassociated from him.The thread of Jac’s narrative is, throughout, disengagement: disengagement with the dominance games, with the abuse, and even with his own physical activity. When challenged he presents his endless polishing of the glass as something to pass the time.

Jac’s position as observer rather than actor in the political interaction within the group seems to be utterly justified by his need to escape, rather than to survive. It’s noticeable that the only other character who even thinks of escape is Gordius, and that this is based on his experience with his cell mates. But Jac’s disassociation is reinforced in the way the repeated rapes are described. First, they are understood as symptomatic of the group’s politics, a reflection of power, not lust or pleasure.

The hierarchy was made most manifest in the group’s sexual arrangements. Gordius got the worst of this, unluckily for him, with everyone but Jac taking humiliating advantage of his body in various ways. To begin with he wept openly at his cruel usage, complained, begged them to leave him be. But after a while he seemed to become habituated to it, in a glum sort of way. The other men would often discuss him as a sexual object, combining many taunts at his obesity with more admiring observations that his extra weight at least gave him a more feminine quality, at least from certain angles. With respect to Jac their comments were more dismissive: his deformity was, all agreed, a repulsive thing. It meant that they left his rear-end alone although all five of them did insist upon other ways in which he could gratify them. Jac seemed to take these indignities with a quiet stoicism; but then it was hard to tell what he was really thinking. He kept his thoughts to himself. (35)

Gordius is the emoter, positioned as the feminine both in usage and response. Jac is impassive, “taking it like a man” to deploy a cliche, but also exempt from the most feminising form of abuse, more exempt than the two members of the group, Mo and Marit, who occupy a middling position. “Sometimes they were treated as de facto alphas.. But sometimes, without warning, the top three would treat Marit and Mo as betas… This was mostly a question of penetrative sex…” (35) Read closely it suggests that under some circumstances Jac occupies a higher or at least less touchable position in the hierarchy, a point reinforced when Roberts adds that it is more likely to be Gordius who Mo hurts in turn. This structure, ephemeral though it may be, is underscored because Jac takes no part in the usage of Gordius.

The choice not to exploit Gordius, or to kick the cat further down the line positions us to regard Jac as nicer, more civilised, someone who does not prey on his fellow, nor kick the next person down the line. Jac is positioned in this moment as Gentle Jesus Meek and Mild. The actual key set of words is “it was hard to tell what he was really thinking”. In reality these descriptive scenes will not be evidence of Jac’s empathy with Gordius—as Gordius hopes—but evidence of Jac’s disassociation from the group, his continual apartness from their concerns. Similarly it is not evidence of his acceptance that he is at the bottom of the hierarchy, but instead it is retrospective evidence that he is simply not in the game. AT moments of conflict, or dominance games, Jac disappears into the background, he disassociates. Where Gordius makes his presence felt even in whimpers, Jac quietly slides into grey. All of this is reinforced by the cool, descriptive voice of third person, the voice of the “disinterested” narrator.

 Towards the end of the story, Gordius attacks Jac, and we hear Jac’s reasoning as to what he will and won’t do:

The options slotted into place beside him. To strike repeatedly at the body, or the neck, or perhaps the face. That would surely encourage Gordius to cease his attack, but it would surely open wounds in the skin. (65)

When the fight, such as it is, is over, Jac offers a little tender loving care, worried that “a cut might very easily be infected. And once infection took hold, who knows where it might go—it could suppurate, whole patches of skin could become open sores. Gordius could die in agony. Jac didn’t want that.” (67) Over and over again, Jac’s sociopathy is disguised in apparent sympathy, even empathy with Gordius. Which is why the final section, in which Jac turns Gordius into a space suit, is both shocking and moving. The section begins with the most intimate of maneouvres, a kiss. As Jac forces a kiss on Mo, he uses it to silence him, cutting him open with his sharpened shard of glass. There is an intimacy to Jac’s actions, and for the first time an openness to his motivations which we have not seen before. As he skins Gordius and prepares his body, every action is described. His only utterance;

‘What can I tell you?…This is the truth on which space settlement is founded. Energy is valuable, and raw materials are precious, but human beings are mere resources to be exploited.” (92)

And with that the text returns to the careful, disassociated description of engineering the body suit, of a type absolutely congruent with the expectations of the genre. And that is crucial. This is not the horror of the gothic, the ending of Jac Glass is horrific because it reveals something about the nature of a genre in which fine descriptions of engineering have generally been prized above fine descriptions of people; where the environent and how an individual relates to the environment is considered more important than how individuals relate to each other. “In the Box” hones in on this: it is not a perversion to say that the others die because they are more concerned with their relationships with each other, than they are with their relationship with the asterioid. Jac succeeds because he follows the rules of genre, not because he is subversive, and in doing so reveals that the genre as a whole is sociopathic to the core. That is where the real shock lies in this story.

The idea that the genre might be sociopathic to the core, is clearest in three stories, Gradisil, and two novels I intend to pair, Salt and New Model Army.

In Gradisil, Roberts offers a neat reversal, telling the story of Jesus from the point of view of Judas. It is a tale of narcissim, but there is always a question over whose narcissim, and whose sociopathy is at stake. The first part of Gradisil is a not untypical tale of libertarian colonialism in which rather a lot of incorrect assumptions about “how the west was won” are transported to space. A bunch of dreamers, drifters and very wealthy no hopers establish a foothold in the Lagrange territories, and then seek to fight off the government (the USA) and seek independence. As I have a platform here I would just like to note that this is a very twentieth century interpretation of how western expansion, or even the founding of America, worked and that a most reputable historians now think a more accurate picture runs, government provides means and licenses for settlement and piracy; people collaborate to survive or die; and they get pissed off with government and shoot for independence when the services they want from the government are refused… everything from help clearing the natives, to roads or power. The belief that colonial (and other expansionist) enterprises are the actions of individuals resisting the state, is a form of institutionalized sociopathy which has infected the American body politic and the genre of science fiction. In order to bring together these people Gradisil  (the person) plays on their isolation, creating a network of those who eschew such things.

The last part of Gradisil openly acknowledges this: telling the story of the titular character through the eyes of a man who knows his role is to “play wife” to the dignatory—by which I mean both offering the stability and support great roles seem to demand, and providing camoflage for his wife’s other activities. This deliberately draws attention to the sociopathy at the heart of both Gradisil and the colonisation project. Gradisil and the other colonisers all have far stronger relationships to their surroundings than they ever do to people; the focus is always on what is built, and what is created. Most live isolated, even those who live in groups remain isolated within those groups. Gradisil herself rejects the companionship of marriage and family in any sense that we would recognise: her children are appeasement to her husband, to keep him happy and occupied: her decision to sacrifice the only pregnancy to which he is genetically connected is not a “sacrifice” in the usual sense of the word, it is, as Paul realises, a strategic ploy in which a pregnancy was generated in order to mislead the strategists of the USA. That Gradisil does not calculate the impression on Paul is a symptom of her assumption, shaped in part by the kind of people she is trying to organise, that everyone makes the same calculations that she does, and that her husband is as invested in the project as she, or if not her project, the project of family. She misreads his investment in her because for all of her calculation of the emotional response around her to the cause, this kind of person to person calculation is unrecognisable to her.

Gradisil’s story is told from the outside, Salt, and New Model Army from the inside, and in both cases we are dealing with the intrinsic sociopath, people who are utterly divorced from the common connections of the world but, in both cases, do not necessarily understand themselves this way. Once again, this position if accepted turns both novels into critiques of a kind of sociopathy endemic to science fiction.

In Salt, we are presented with two protagonists, one authoritarian, one anarchist: I am assuming that a modern audience will be inclined to sympathise with the anarchic character, although I am not convinced that this would have been the case in the 1950s—Harry Harrison’s The Stainless Steel Rat is a genuinely subversive figure when he first appears. Both begin the novel ensconced within the moral culture of their world, and both—and this is important—think of themselves as good people. Petja, the Alsist, sees himself as a cell within a larger organism in which whatever he does is for the good of himself and by extension of his philosophy, of his community. Barlei, leader of the Senaar, sees himself as a cell which a larger organism which must be led. Both talk in terms of nature, and of what is natural or inevitable. Both deteriorate morally not by deviating from their core beliefs—although Petia is eventually excluded from a relationship and from relationships with some of his colleagues because he is seen as a “rigidist”, an obsessive in matters of love, work and ideology—but because they become ever more entrenched in the exquisite purity of their belief as something separate from the people: this rapidly leads to what Ken MacLeod once summed up for me as “the wrong kind of people” problem. Once ideology becomes the ruler of the people rather than its servant you are half way down the road to a society which by its nature produces sociopaths, more in love with the beauties of the world they describe than either its reality or its people. Crucially, by the end of the book both characters, who feel themselves so distinct, have fallen prey to the same delusion; that they know what is right for everyone and that they themselves are part of a wider movement. It is these two points that pair this book with New Model Army.

The third person narrative of Salt allows us to distance, judge and contexualise, The omniscient narrator renders it fairly transparent that Barlei’s paternalism has gone toxic, that “for” the people has become meaningless, while Petia’s anarchism has become unhinged isolation. The more Petia moves away from the collective the less contextalised his anarchism, and the less he seems to be fighting a war, and the more to be locked into nihilism. This interpretation however is a consequence of the third person, and, I think, rather unsatisfactory. What is intended to be narratively ambiguous ends up too conclusive with an enormous sense of loss as Petia (more than Barlei) loses the thing he thinks he is fighting for.

This is where the first person narrative of New Model Army has a very real strength: as readers, locked into the head of a narrator we cannot easily judge reliable or unreliable (although I personally found both the politics and the reliance on a distributed web network rather implausible[7]), we must be conscious that the story we are invited to believe in is utterly dependent on the reliability or otherwise of the narrator protagonist. Either he is a part of a distributed army, set on re-creating the thirty years war in England’s Green and Pleasant Land , or he is a delusional sociopath/psychopath who is creating mayhem within a recognised structure of terror. There is also however a middle road in which the sociopath becomes the perfect soldier in a distributed army, precisely because it is his disassociation that allows the character to fight with people he has never met and to whom he feels no collective loyalty (something that armies are usually keen to inculcate); it allows him to move in and out of the civilian population; to regard his ex-lover’s house as an ideal billet.

All of the novels I have considered here, and several that I have not, have a trajectory which begins with a conventional reader position of identification:  Petia and Gradisil are engaged in colonizing projects familiar to and welcomed by the sf reader. Jac is incarcerated with a gang of bloodthirsty criminals. Polystom is a poet, Ae is terribly sweet and our Soldier is a good old boy. As the novels proceed however we are increasingly estranged from them, not because they are changed by their adventures, but because they become progressively more themselves. Their adventures strip away the artifice of culture and justification constructed by the character but perhaps more significant strip away the justifications accreted by genre expectation. In focusing precisely on what happens when a character’s relationship with the environment or world is stronger than his or her relationships with people, Roberts reveals a delusion at the heart of the genre.

Adam Roberts, Salt (London: Gollancz, 2000)

 Adam Roberts, On (London: Gollancz, 2001)

 Adam Roberts, Stone (London: Gollancz, 2002)

 Adam Roberts, Polystom (London: Gollancz, 2010)

 Adam Roberts, Gradisil (London: Gollancz, 2006)

 Adam Roberts, New Model Army (London: Gollancz, 2010)

Adam Roberts, Jack Glass (London: Gollancz, 2012)

[1] I wanted to be Petrova, was far more like Pauline, and have turned out to be Dr. Jakes.

[2] As Blume is Jewish, this may be an inappropriate metaphor.

[3] YA fiction is “Young Adult” fiction. Directed at teens it is as much an ideological construction of what teenagers want as it is a marketing label. The values of YA fiction are rather different to those of “Juvenile” fiction of the 1950s/

[4] As is common in writing by men in science fiction, there aren’t enough women in most of Roberts’ books for population to be sustained. However, in most of his texts there are reasons for a sexual imbalance, and many of the populations are sustained only by migration, or are shrinking, so he gets a pass.

[5] The exception is the protagonist of Yellow Blue Tibia, who is quite clearly suffering from PTSD, but otherwise seems quite normal and connected to people for a Roberts protagonist.

[6] In the two succeeding novellas Jack Glass is re-imagined as a revolutionary; once he is given motive, he is actually a functionally weakened character.

[7] I particularly wondered why the Scots didn’t lease a London based army.