(Gollancz, 294 pages, hardback priced £16.99; trade paperback
£9.99, ISBN 057507179; published May 2003. Gollancz, £6.99,
344 pages, paperback, first published 2003, this edition published 8
Sigh. Another rave Roberts' review to write.
it never end? It's not like good reviews are easy to write. Could he
not, just once, do us all a favour and write a bad or even just an average
I mean, it's not like it's difficult -- lots of other writers all over
the world do it every day! But no, 'My name's Adam Roberts and nothing
but genius ever flows from my pen'. Tsk.
Polystom, 50th Steward of Enting, lives a pampered life in a solar
system that is not only much smaller than our own but also has breathable
air between all of its constituent bodies. This solar atmosphere makes
travel between the planets by airship or aeroplane easy, so they have
all been colonised for about 400 years. This exquisitely charming aspect
of Polystom's universe, however, is rather counter-balanced by the kind
of class system that makes 19th century Britain seem an enlightened
meritocracy by comparison.
Polystom's first chapter, 'A Love Story', follows its eponymous
hero on a routine visit to the system's most famous scientist, his uncle
Cleonicles, who lives on Enting's moon. It's a fantastic sequence (in
both senses of the word): Polystom takes off in his little monoplane,
heading upwards as any pilot would, but keeps on going. To him
it's a routine journey; to us, not expecting the unbounded nature of
air travel in his world, it's really quite magical. Bob Shaw had some
very similar ideas in the enjoyable The Ragged Astronauts, but
to my mind he didn't use it quite as exhilaratingly well as Roberts
What follows once Polystom has landed at his uncle's is an account
of his disastrous marriage to the 'Ungovernable [...] simply ungovernable'
(p.23) Beeswing. Polystom's near total lack of self-awareness betrays
him here into believing Beeswing is a poetic soul like himself. Sadly
Polystom is a foolish, arrogant and rather typical member of his class;
he mistakes Beeswing's detached dreaminess for the Romantic temperament
he imagines himself to have. It all comes to a bad -- but exquisitely
written -- end. The wonder at this point is that we're still only a
third of the way through Polystom, although Beeswing's death
in this section (I'm not giving anything away with this, I promise)
will continue to reverberate throughout until the final page, and in
some rather unexpected ways.
The second chapter, 'A Murder Story', shifts the emphasis to Uncle
Cleonicles and a most terrible crime carried out on his estate. A skywhal
(gigantic whale-like beasts that swim in the airy skies of Polystom's
universe) beaches itself upon Cleonicle's estate, to the (ever so slightly
disturbing) delight of the old scientist. I shall say no more about
it except that this chapter is every bit as good as the previous one.
'Whither now?' asks the stunned reader, 'We've had a love story and
a murder story, so what next?' Surely that should be obvious -- chapter
three is 'A Ghost Story'! Again, I don't want to say very much about
the plot of this chapter because it would really spoil things.
Let's just say that the plot veers from the severely physical to the
decidedly metaphysical, and if anyone has read Sebastian O, an
eccentric piece of neo-Victorian comic writing by Grant Morrison, they
may not be quite so surprised by the ending as perhaps they ought ...
Weaving three quite distinct stories like these together is no mean
feat, but it's the telling of the story that really captivates. Roberts'
language perfectly captures the romance of this incredible universe,
but it also evokes the way these people live on a smaller scale, with
all the mannerisms and the pettiness of their daily lives, not to mention
the subtle ignorance of the main characters -- which seems at times
almost wilful to us but is so beautifully woven into the language that
to them it isn't ignorance at all. I certainly recognised a bit of my
younger self in Polystom -- although I've changed a lot since, I hasten
I have to say, I always expect good things of Adam Roberts, but even
with this expectation Polystom is surprisingly good. Having read
it I was trying to think how I would describe it to someone who wasn't
a reader of fantastic literature. How I would have to first of all explain
that Polystom lives in a solar system bathed in a breathable atmosphere
and people can fly between the worlds in open-cockpit aeroplanes. However,
this novum, whilst not a minor part of the story is not the entire
story; it's the backdrop to a classic tale of love, loss, war and mystery
that anybody -- anybody -- should enjoy. Roberts is able to include
the big sf stuff and let it entrance us for a bit, but then he takes
us back down to earth (or wherever) to deal with how and why it's there
in the first place. His ability to write on both scales is (to me) the
mark of a good sf writer.
It only remains for me to categorically state that this is Roberts'
best novel so far, better than Salt and Stone -- both
excellent books. If you know anyone with the merest hint of an imagination
who enjoys reading intelligent, well-written fiction then superglue
their hands to a copy of Polystom -- they'll forgive you for
it. Hell, they'll probably thank you for it!
Review by Stuart Carter.
Elsewhere in infinity