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On by Adam Roberts
(Gollancz, 10.99, 388 pages, trade paperback; published 21 June 2001.)

What's so difficult about a second novel? cover scanWhy do so many writers write a great first novel, then turn in a turkey for their second?

Here are a few possible explanations.

Maybe a writer spends five or ten years pondering his first novel, fiddling with every sentence, worrying over each character, debating every twist of the plot; when it's a success, he has to cough out his second in six months or a year.

Or maybe a writer writes five novels before getting one published; for her second, she retrieves one of those manuscripts which she had - so wisely - discarded.

Or a writer might write his first novel in a sudden rush of inspiration - which is never repeated.

Or a writer might have one great thought or one profound experience which she is desperate to express, then no more thoughts or experiences which are worth expressing.

Or... I could continue, but I won't. I'll just say that, for whatever reason, second novels are tough. And, I'm sorry to report, Adam Roberts has written a second novel which isn't a patch on his first.

His first was Salt (reviewed elsewhere in infinity plus), which describes the colonisation of a planet by several nations who arrive together, then bicker and fight. The story is told by two narrators, one from a militaristic, hierarchical, spartan tribe, the other from a group of laid-back, anarchistic individualists. It's a brilliant book, which justifiably won a lot of acclaim.

His second is On, which describes a world tipped on its side. Like the characters in Ian Watson's "The People on the Precipice," people cling to a narrow cliff, and, if they trip over the edge, drop to an unseen death. The central character is Tighe, a young boy, who falls off the cliff and, to his surprise, survives. He joins an army, fights another army, and meets a Wizard who has some explanations for the world's strangeness.

On isn't a bad novel, but it's just not nearly as good as Salt. The writing is obscure and twee. The narrative wanders for 400 pages, then stops so suddenly that I half-wondered whether some pages were missing. The plot hinges on a clever idea which would have made a brilliant short story. All in all, it's a deep disappointment.

Adam Roberts is an academic, and has written an excellent introduction to the critical issues surrounding SF (Science Fiction, Routledge, 2000). The narrative voices in Salt reflect this background: they are punctilious, precise and intellectual. Much of the book's enjoyment comes from reading around the narrators, interpreting their prejudices, seeing them through one another's eyes, while trying to avoid succumbing to their confident justifications of their own perspectives.

In On, Roberts seems to have made a deliberate attempt to escape himself: he writes from the perspective of a young boy who is not particularly educated or even intelligent. The narrative reads like a deliberate attempt by the author to conceal his education and intellect. Perhaps there is a devilishly cunning scheme underlying the novel which I've entirely missed. I hope so. I would be fascinated to know what it was.

To conclude: if you haven't read Salt, hurry to your bookshop and get it. If you have read Salt, and you're eager to read more by the same author, wait for his third.

Review by Josh Lacey.

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© Josh Lacey 19 June 2002