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Polystom

by Adam Roberts

(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 July 2004.)

The new novel from the acclaimed Adam Roberts is a bit of a dissembler. Its three parts comprise a Love Story that involves precious little love; a Murder Story cover scanwhose murder, left hanging (so to speak), only really serves to allow the next stage of the story to happen; and a Ghost Story that makes ghosts of (potentially) all its participants. The protagonist is the titular Polystom, but he isn't the story's driving force, more of a passenger. Polystom is actually about the world Polystom lives in, rather than Polystom himself. Ultimately, his purpose as a character isn't even to uncover the truth about his world, but to have it told to him. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The solar system in which Polystom lives is enclosed in a reservoir of breathable air. Its sun burns oxygen, like any other fire, and the planets and their moons are relatively close together, allowing travel by propeller aircraft and dirigible between the spheres. Polystom is heir to the largest estate on the planet Enting, but spends much of his time visiting his uncle, the scientist Cleonicles, on Enting's moon. With poetic aspirations and an impulsive nature, he marries a beautiful but distant young woman called Beeswing -- tragedy ensues -- then, in the wake of his uncle's death, signs up as an officer to fight in the war on the Mudworld, in the hope that this will give his life some meaning. Just how much, or how little meaning his life finally has is left for the reader to decide.

Polystom has rather an "old" feel to it: there's the characters' Hellenistic names, and the low-tech culture, but there's far more besides. For a start, having characters flit across manageable distances between planets through a breathable atmosphere is not a new device in literature -- Voltaire was doing it a few hundred years ago. Of course, he didn't know any better, and the difference here is that Roberts presents the physical rudiments that would allow for such a set-up, and knowingly pits this against our own ideas of how a solar system should behave. This isn't to say that he makes a painstakingly technical case for such a system (although he does invite the reader to peruse further musings on the matter at his Polystom website). We're asked to take a lot on trust, but Roberts' point seems to be that we routinely take a lot of the mechanics of our own solar system on trust, and is it really any less reasonable to have a carbonising sun and an interplanetary atmosphere than to have a hydrogen-fusing sun sitting in vacuum? Perhaps this is more a book for the poetically minded than for the scientists -- for the Polystoms among us rather than the Cleonicles.

More noticeably old-style is the means by which Roberts chooses to explain the story to us, with one character sitting Polystom down and revealing all to him over the course of a chapter. Not only is this a rather dated narrative technique (although it's difficult to imagine how one might resolve this particular story without some sort of info dump), it also puts the reader at something of an emotional remove from the characters. Then again, this may be an intentional reflection of Polystom himself who, for all his poetic pretensions, barely understands his own emotions. He brutalises the fey Beeswing in an effort to make her love him, all the while convinced he is acting out of the noblest concern for her. Later, he finds he is unable to grieve for his uncle, and later still this inner schism seems to drive him mad (although in fairness, that's more likely the result of having the story explained to him). While all this was going on, I found myself mentally slapping my forehead and growling, "No, you fool!" -- whether the reader identifies with Polystom or not is moot, but it's easy enough to recognise his flaws, and his inability to rectify them. In this, Roberts has delivered a well-realised character that, in spite of the narrative's emotional distance, is still highly engaging.

A bit of an odd one, then, this latest novel from Adam Roberts. Paradoxes and ambiguities, and the scientific high concept of the novel, are sugar-coated in mock-period detail and washed down with beautifully fluid prose. In the final analysis, however, Polystom struck me more as a fictionalised scientific/philosophical treatise than as a tale in its own right. I felt, as the last page turned, as though I'd just read a New Scientist article written by Jane Austen. I'm still unsure what to make of it all.

Review by John Toon.

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