Book review: Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

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IN THE preface to this tremendously enjoyable and intellectually capricious collection, Adam Roberts writes “short stories and science fiction marry well.

Adam Robots by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, £12.99

In part, I think, this is because there’s no generally accepted definition of either”. The 24 works which follow exemplify this sense of range, shifting between political critique, theological fantasia, philosophical parable and comic relief. Whereas the realist short story, nowadays, seems gauche if it includes a twist, pulling the carpet from beneath readerly feet is what makes Roberts’ work such a delight.

Some of the stories deliberately invoke the tradition of science-fiction. The World Of The Wars presents HG Wells’ novella from the perspective of the Martians (subtly undermining the inadvertent human triumphalism of the original). The Imperial Army seems like a retort to Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, and Woodpunk manages to splice ecological apocalypse and William Gibson. In one of the cheekiest stories, The Man Of The Strong Arm, Roberts describes a future society where the historical has been forbidden, so scholars concentrate on re-­editing the canon to prioritise sci-fi and fantasy, reconstructing the works of “Edgar Burroughs of the Rice” and “the Jew, Verne”. They interpret the moon landing as a piece of typical science-fiction.

For all the polyphony and ventriloquism here, some concerns remain constant. There’s a profound vein of religious speculation. The title story, for example, is about a robot who cannot understand why, if its Creator says it is not allowed to look in a special crystal, it has not been simply programmed not to do so. Dantean re-reads The Divine Comedy through a sci-fi lens and Godbombing posits a weapon that makes the enemy see you as God.

If there’s a standout piece here, it is Anticopernicus, a First Contact story that winks at Arthur C Clarke and which pirouettes around dark energy, consciousness and the Fermi Paradox (if the universe is full of life, why won’t it talk to us). Roberts is not just a great sci-fi writer, he’s a phenomenally ­interesting writer per se. «