Vicky: Jon Courtenay Grimwood tells us (via The Guardian) that Adam Roberts is 'the king of high-concept SF', and if the Arthur C. Clarke-nominated Gradisil - Roberts' sixth novel - is representative of his work, I must concur. One of three 'traditional SF'* novels in the running for the Award, it proves a painstakingly well-crafted and thematically dense novel, heavy with ideas.
Structurally akin to the generational sagas of the early twentieth century, it is essentially three novellas strung together by DNA and the theme of revenge:
In the 2060s Klara Gyeroffy, aged 15, is amongst the first generation of 'Uplanders'. Her father, a Hungarian by birth, is one of the pioneering explorers and enthusiasts who fly fixed wing aircraft into orbit and begin the process of colonising space. He converts an old jet, fits it with the requisite materials and steadily climbs beyond the sky. Explaining the electromagnetics that make this possible to his young daughter (and, thankfully, to this clueless reader), he uses Yggdrasil, the world tree of Norse mythology, as a metaphor:
"'It,' said my father, ' is a mighty tree from Viking myth... We don't need to grow such a tree. The Earth has already provided for us. The Earth possesses something called a magnetosphere, created by the differential in rotation between the earth's molten core and its solid mantle. Really - think of it like a bar from the North Pole in a great sweep through space, and in again at the South Pole. Ions from the sun stream down the branches of this tree, my princess, at the north and the south poles, to create the auroras. Better, we can climb up the same branches to space.'"
His is the forteith 'house' dragged into orbit, a glorified tin can with a homemade atmosphere and zero gravity, and Klara spends her adolescence travelling back and forth between the Earth and the black. The 'Uplands' in this earliest incarnation is hardly a place or a nation at all, just a rag-bag of wealthy, enthusiastic pioneers floating about in infinite space; it has no laws, no boundaries and no allegiances. It is exempt from international treaties, and far from the reach of the world's two main powers: the US and the EU. To Klara it is a kind of paradise, shared only with her beloved father. Her world is brought tumbling down however when Kristin Janzen Kooistra, a tenant in their 'house' murders her father and steals the Gyeroffy home, leaving her bereft, bitter and earthbound.
Forty years later and Klara's only daughter, the eponymous Gradisil (named for the all-important world tree) is the de facto President of the Uplands. Now technically a territory of the US (after a takeover in the early 2080s), Gradi is engaged in a determined campaign to unite the thousands of Uplanders in a bid for their independence. She spends all of her time and energy working towards these ends, sacrificing her relationship with her husband (who narrates the section) and with her two sons to the cause. Ruthless and manipulative, but also charming and eloquent, it becomes clear to all around her that she is willing to sacrifice almost anything on the road to nationhood.
And a further forty years down the line Hope and Solidarity Gyeroffy meet in a luxury Upland hotel, run by US interests but under Upland government jurisdiction, to exact revenge for crimes committed against their mother, the posthumously beatified Gradi.
All three sections stand complete and justified unto themselves, and could easily be read independently from one another. They each have their unique voice - Klara, Gradisil's husband Paul and the final omniscient observer - and their own style. But clearly they're thematically united: by the ideological vs actual and political development of the 'Uplands' and by the ubiquities of familial drama. If Gradisil's structure is a variation on The Forsyte Saga, the narrative thrust has all the flavour of Greek tragedy: murdered parents, vengeful children, wronged husbands and siblings in conflict, mixed together with political and social upheaval - the development of national government and the consequences of power conjoined with the fate of families.
Now it's true that Roberts' prose is sometimes pedantic and that his characters are often, and above all else, cold and distant but, as I see it, these qualities serve Gradisil's ultimate purpose. The Gyeroffy women, Klara and Gradi both, are quite disagreeable creatures, hard-nosed and closed off. Neither of them exhibit 'maternal' instincts and neither is 'feminine' or 'intuitive' or 'emotional', and this is only right. They are, after all, women living on the outskirts of life, at the very edge of the permissable. Like all pioneers and colonists they are driven by physical hardship to positions untenable in the heart of society; and they're both consumed by a vision of the Uplands as it was or as it could be. Perhaps most difficult of all to reconcile is their attitude to their fertility and procreative capacity, which they both reject in the selfish pursuit of life in zero gravity (where foetuses can't mature). Gradisil especially adopts a violent oppositional stance to her womanhood and her sexuality, obliterating her identity as a mother, lover and wife through a preference for being only the 'President'. In the most devastating and disturbing scene in the book she repels a rapist with a serrated device inserted into her vagina, invoking the 'virgina dentata' (toothed vagina) of myth. In doing so she castrates her attacker with an inhuman calm that denies her victimhood, the visceral cost of her revenge and any ordinary emotion alike; only her husband recognises the trauma buried in her aplomb and even he struggles to see her as a woman and as his wife. The reader snatches glimpses of vulnerability though, painful and all the more incisive because they are rare.
And it is not as though the novel is devoid of sympathy. Roberts' male characters are wonderfully fleshed out, flawed and all at sea with their surroundings and with themselves. Paul Caunes and Hope Gyeroffy are the obvious antitheses to Klara and Gradi, but more moving than either is Gradisil's one auxiliary character, Lieutenant Slater, a US soldier instrumental in the campaign to conquer the Uplands. Slater shares narratorial duties with Paul Caunes in the second section of the novel and, at first abhorrent, later becomes Gradisil's pointman in matters of mundane emotional interest. His failing marriage, his ordinary ambitions for promotion and his confusion in the face of death are his enormous strengths as a character. He has a blandness that, when faced with its own annihilation, becomes something extraodinary.
This is Roberts' real achievement with Gradisil: his dramatisation of lives lived in extremis, in a vacuum, narrowed by the constraints of the nascent civilisation of the Uplands. Whether insignificant or instrumental, all actors in such a play are magnified and laid bare - like Odin strung out on Yggdrasil they're at the mercy of sun and sky.
It would be a worthy winner of the Clarke, I think.
[*Knowing SF fans like I do, I scent controversy in that statement. (Yes, I'm looking at you. You know who you are.) I will say only this: I'm willing to haggle over the SF credentials of various novels until the cows come home - Jan Morris' 'Hav'; David Mitchell's 'Black Swan Green'; Ali Smith's 'The Accidental' to name but a few - but I reserve the right to call anything set partially (or entirely) in space 'traditional SF'. I've qualified it with inverted commas and even provided a caveat. So now let us move on.]
"Do you know what a tree is? [...] A tree is a seed that wants to get into orbit."
Another blow for those of you who were hoping for more arguments in these dual-posts of ours: I thoroughly enjoyed Gradisil, and have to agree with Vicky's contention that it is "painstakingly well-crafted and thematically dense".
Let's start with the latter, from which we can draw two, interlinked strands: firstly, the challenges of establishing and maintaining a frontier society, and of navigating its transformation into something less rough-and-ready; secondly, an Oresteia-in-Space approach to familial relations and the legacy of violence and vengeance. (There's a third - memory and identity-creation through creative retelling of one's backstory - which I'll come to below).
The uplands are a paradise and a haven, to a certain way of thinking: they represent the opportunity to live and be, well, rich and geeky, devoid of such pesky curbs upon one's freedom as laws and, naturally, taxes. As a young Klara - half-smug, half-ironic - tells Kristin Jansen Kooistra, the woman she later blames for her father's death:
"It's a free land. Give me liberty or give me death."
"No police," [Kooistra] said, musingly.
"None of that. No government, no taxes."
Through Klara's retrospective and transparently self-serving narration, we see several examples of how this absence of law plays out - and, in the community's treatment of an ongoing dispute between Klara and her ex-lover, Jon, how soon the search for some sort of retributive justice rears its head, albeit an impromtu and easily derailed one. Lacking conventional channels through which to seek redress for her father's murder, Klara settles on personal revenge - although, as is characteristic of the novel, with a certain wry self-awareness:
It's easy to talk about melodramatic quests for vengeance when you're drunk and amongst friends who egg you on, but people can't actually live their lives that way, outside Viking sagas and Shakespeare plays.
The irony is a double one, in fact, for several of her descendants do indeed live their lives this way. The events of the middle section - ruthlessly single-minded Gradi's quest to forge a united, functioning society from the disparate tin cans of the uplands, and her sacrifice of an unborn child to this end - warp the lives of every member of the family. Gradi is Agamemnon, sacrificing Iphigenia for a fair wind to Troy; her husband Paul, whose child it is, is thereby tipped over the edge into doing a Clytemnestra; Gradi's surviving children (by other fathers), Sol and Hope, grow up to be Electra and Orestes, respectively (in the spirit of the Euripides version, i.e. half-maddened). This is interesting in and of itself: the characters are extremely well-drawn (Paul in particular, a complete weasel of a man and yet a pathetic one in the strict sense) and their motivations are convincing, even if their passions are often portrayed remarkably clinically; they are certainly not strait-jacketed by the parallels.
But Roberts also transmutes the mythic formula for his thematic purposes. Thus, the court case set-piece of the Eumenides - the final part of the Oresteian trilogy, in which Orestes faces the Furies for the crime of matricide, and is cleared by Athena on a legalistic technicality, representing a move from personal revenge to impersonal law(yers) - is brought forward. Here it is the Clytemnestra figure who is put on trial, as Hope seeks a distance from the act:
"We don't have to execute him! We could imprison him."
Sol shouts, "Brother, brother, he killed our ma!"
"I don't want his blood on my hands!" cries Hope.
Gradi being the revered founder of a nation, of course, this trial is every bit as vengeful as might be expected of frontier justice; but the fact that it takes place at all is a sign of how the Uplands have been transformed into a community by shared hardship and dreams, and of where this community might go in the future.
Onto the "well-crafted" part, then. Gradisil is a novel steeped in self-awareness, fascinated by the mechanics (and limitations) of storytelling. Roberts is an academic (of English lit), and it shows: Gradisil is full of formal exploration, from a playful and alienating look at language change (expressed in modified spellings, such as the removal of "c" from words ending in "-ck", all of which put me in mind of the mid-1990s German spelling reform), to the artful construction of the various competing narratives. (There's also sly, intertextual humour aplenty; although when Gradi says "misunderestimating" at one point, it's funny but potentially a clever-clever step too far).
Klara and Paul, our two first-person narrators, provide stories that are heavily partisan and entirely shaped by hindsight, told in tones that veer between the conversational and the self-consciously high-flown. Both frequently appeal to their audience as witness or jury, seeking to justify their actions and shape what will be remembered of them: Paul tries to present Gradi in the most reprehensible light as woman and mother and politician, though he cannot conceal his slavish love for her; Klara, leaving young Gradi behind on Earth when she returns to the uplands, notes that "in some sense, I had completed my duties as a parent, that at twelve Gradi had moved into adulthood." Both lie like crazy; both, moreover, admit to the necessarily schematic nature of a story told about events many years past, and the problems of reporting dialogue with anything like accuracy. The retelling is symbolic, representative, rather than truth. Klara concludes one scene with a short commentary on "the speech I have put into Jon's mouth"; elsewhere, Paul comments:
Of course she didn't say any of that. Can you imagine Gradi making a speech like that? I am extrapolating from several conversations, much less obviously aggressive on her part, over several occasions. I am trying to capture not the canny, considered mode of her speaking, but wat was in her mind.
In the third part, meanwhile, the omniscient narrator (who is, again, hyper-aware of the audience being addressed) makes asides like this:
Hope tries his meditative mantra to try and calm his poor little fish-on-the-riverbank heart. He repeats, silently to himself, his personal mantric phrase. Repeats it, re-repeats it. I can't tell you wat his phrase was, I'm afraid; it's an intimate secret, one he has told neither his wife nor any of his four children.
There's a danger, of course, that all this narrative playfulness could overshadow the experience of the novel as a novel. Certainly, I found the enforced and emphasised distance made Gradi tricky to get a handle on, both as a person and as an icon; it is to be expected (and is probably for the best) with a character of this nature, one who must inspire multitudes and then be sanctified, but it sometimes felt, especially in the early stages, as if her once-in-a-generation talents were discussed more often than they were demonstrated.
I also never connected with Slater in the way that Vicky did - but the extended passage describing his fall to Earth (under complicated circumstances) really is an astonishing, soaring piece of writing, showing what Roberts can do when he lays aside the irony for a while.
Vicky: Nic is right to highlight Roberts' tricky narratives - the way Klara and Paul constantly apologise for themselves; the way they fictionalise and transform events and individuals. I think Gradisil is a particularly interesting character in this light. She is, after all, the nexus of the novel and the catalyst for change in the Uplands...and yet she has no voice of her own. The vision we have of her is entirely that given by Paul who, lonely and rejected, is hardly an objective observer. I suspect this is why her qualities and talents don't sit quite right with her reputation: because Paul is incapable of understanding her charisma, he also fails to convince us. Similarly he is unable to explain her appeal to the Uplanders - he knows she is popular, that she inspires incredible loyalty, but is somewhat immune to that appeal.
As for Slater, I admit that I was initially wooed to his character by the passage that Nic mentions - the long meditation on his fall to earth. I leave you with a taste of it:
'He is going to die up here, soaring over the heads of everbody he knows, round and round, a man unsheathed. In a sense, he thinks, he has been pinned to the upper branches of the world tree and left to die of exposure, which gives his death an ancient and primitively pagan bitterness... He comes around the corner of the world and the sun emerges in its splendour, the splendour it wears every day and every night regardless of humanity's attention or inattention; indeed, not only careless of human observation but actively hostile to it. Burn out your eyes! Bright white focal point, look away, mauve afterimage, hanging as insistently in the centre of vision as a bothersome fly in the summertime.'