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by Adam Roberts

(Gollancz, 9.99, 261 pages, trade paperback, ISBN 0-575-07064-1; also available in hardback priced 16.99; published 18 July 2002. Gollancz, 6.99, 338 pages, paperback, this edition published 13 March 2003.)

The galaxy's only prison is secure inside a star; the galaxy's only criminal is secure inside that prison inside a star. Or was -- now cover scanthey've been sprung by agents unknown to commit genocide on a planetary scale...

Come on, how bad can a book with a premise like that be? Given that it's also written by Adam Roberts the probable answer is surely "not bad at all".

Ae lives in the t'T, a human galactic civilization that is, by our standards, a utopia. Nanotechnology (or DotTech as Roberts' characters call it) makes t'T citizens very hard to kill and gives them a great deal of control over their own bodies (Ae was born female but spends much of Stone male, by choice) and "Zhip-boxes" allow them to travel faster than light across their zone of control (which is surprisingly limited, for various interesting reasons).

Ae has to make his own way to the scene of his crime with only an apparent minimum of help from his mysterious employers, which gives Roberts a fine opportunity to have some fun as a tour guide, showing us the wonders of the t'T -- not to mention graphic proof of the need for Ae's previous incarceration. The deadpan narrative style, always apparently cold and reasonable, gives no hint of how ill he is (even by our standards) except through his actions.

Although there are obvious comparisons to the Culture (particularly in the t'T's social organisation) Roberts' civilisation makes the best of the limitations he has imposed upon it, such that a full-on Culture-style utopia is not quite possible. I won't go into details here as the mystery behind what is outside the t'T and why was a significant part of the fun of Stone for me.

Stone sees Roberts' conjure up another exceptional work of fairly hard sf but I still can't shake the feeling that he's yet to peak, that there's a really ground-breaking sf work inside him waiting to spill out Alien-style across the sf dining table. While we're waiting for this to arrive I'd love to see another book set in this universe since there are many more interesting things to be seen and done both in the t'T and outside it -- and I think we need to see outside if Stone is not to be too easily dismissed as another derivative of the Culture.

Review by Stuart Carter.

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