Learning to read Adam Roberts

Every critic has a blind spot, an author for whose work the general acclaim seems mystifying. Any critic worth their salt recognizes these blind spots.

One of mine is Adam Roberts. We were both tutors on the SF Masterclass a year or so back and the experience was electrifying. I have a lot of time for his non-fiction. Yet time and again I bounce off his novels: I don’t believe the set up, I don’t believe the characters, the plots seem an exercise in artificiality. But people whose views I normally respect rave about him.

Then, recently, I read Károly Pintér’s Anatomy of Utopia. Pintér eschews Marxist readings of the form which have become the default response to utopias over the last half-century or so, and considers them as literary rather than political creations. His touchstone in this is Northrop Frye’s distinction between ‘novel’ and ‘Menippean Satire’. Now I have to say that I normally fight shy of such distinctions, but something in the way Pintér was using the idea of the Menippean Satire caught my attention. (As an off-shoot of this, my mutterings that I really must go back and read some Frye has resulted in a group of us reading Anatomy of Criticism, discussion of which begins at Paperknife on Monday.)

Usually, what I find interesting in fiction is the way it refuses to be categorized, the way it slips between our attempts at definition. At the same time I’ve been wary of the idea of Menippean Satire, partly because I find the name pretentiously unwieldy, but mostly because it seems like a handy way of denying forms of popular fiction such as utopian and science fictions the seriousness of belonging to the ‘novel’. Nevertheless, as I read Pintér’s take on Menippean Satire I found myself thinking how well it suited the fiction of Adam Roberts. So I went away and read his latest book, New Model Army, as though it belonged in the core of Menippean Satire, and it worked.

Let me deal with character, which has been an abiding problem in his fiction for me. A couple of years ago I got into an online discussion of Swiftly in which I was stymied by the inconsistency of the characters. As I said of one of the most significant figures in the book, Eleanor: “As we leave Eleanor the first time she is living with her mother, she has just witnessed the gruesome murder of her hated husband, she is living in a big house in fashionable London, she is negotiating for a mortgage to pay the fine of a treasure seeker, she is so ignorant of sex that she is frigid. The very next time we see her she is walking north alone. There is no indication of how she got there, there is not a single reference to her mother, her house, her husband, the treasure-seeker. And she has gone inexplicably from being frigid to being sexually manipulative.” Again in the next novel, Yellow Blue Tibia, there are characters whose sole function seems to be to constantly repeat the same few tics and traits, including one who seems to suffer from a curious mash-up of asperger’s syndrome and obsessive compulsive disorder. Read these as characters in a novel (in Frye’s very precise sense of ‘novel’) and they don’t work, they don’t cohere. One of the primary functions of the novel is to explore the nature and the development of character, but that is not what is on offer here. Take them out of the novel and consider them not as characters but as roles, as functions, and they work perfectly well. As a reader of a novel I focus on character; as a reader of Menippean Satire, that is not where my attention should be. I was misreading Roberts.

So consider our narrator in New Model Army as a role rather than a character. The point about his role in the novel is that he is a member of an army, part of a group, and he identifies himself more as a member of the group than as an individual. He often uses ‘we’ in a way that reminded very strongly of other Menippean Satires from Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis to many of the stories of Stephen Millhauser. The narrator does acquire a name, eventually, but in many ways this matters less than his membership of a group. We learn the name of the army, ‘Pantegral’, before we learn the name of the narrator, which gives an idea of relative importance. And I presume that the resonance with Pantagruel is entirely intentional. This is a new type of army, non-hierarchical, entirely democratic, its members linked by the web. When someone is wounded, his fellows call on a version of Wikipedia so that they can give medical aid immediately rather than having to wait for a medic to reach them. When it come to strategy and tactics, every member of the army has an input, which allows it to act more fluidly and quickly than the regular army. (Roberts, of course, loads the dice: the regular army is always portrayed as hampered by poor communications, poor leadership, poor thinking, so the New Model Army can dart around it to inevitable victory like Drake’s fleet around the lumbering Spanish Armada.)

For much of the book (and for all the best parts) the narrator is just a voice rising from within the mass, his individuality as a character mattering far less than his role as spokesman for the group. And he acts as spokesman, his narration is often more concerned with telling than with showing. It is when he leaves the group, when individuality is forced upon him, that he seems to lose impetus, and Roberts seems to lose focus. There is a long interlude in which our narrator, who is gay, visits a former lover and the lover’s new boyfriend, which feels like an intrusion from a different work altogether. You long for the viewpoint to return to the army because the individual is so flat as a character.

Gradually it dawns on you that our ‘hero’ (if that’s not too grand a name for his purpose here) is in the hands of the regular army. His narration to date has been a record of his interrogation, and he has been turned, so that the final part of the book is the story of his secret attack upon the New Model Army. His capture is passed over in a handful of words, his change in loyalty is never fully accounted for. In a novel of character such inconsistency, such gaps in the make up of the person whose life we are exploring, would be fatal flaws. These inconsistencies are on a level with those in Swiftly and Yellow Blue Tibia that turned me so violently against those books. But in Menippean Satire it matters less. Structurally, it is necessary to present the New Model Army from the inside and then from the outside, from the point of view of friend and then enemy. So the break in the character of our narrator simply allows him to fulfil both these roles. That way the narrative voice remains the same and we can compare perspectives.

There is a similar story to be told about how we read the events of the book. I have always felt that Roberts’s plots are as disconnected as his characters, jumping from incident to incident with no logical development, relying on repetitions that present no naturalistic account of events, removing characters from the scene for long pages only to have them reappear just when it is convenient for them to do so, eventually making no sense as a view of the world in which such characters might operate. But if you remove that issue of character, you see not a novelistic plot but a satirical structure. In a novel the impetus is to find a plot that will tell the story of the novel’s subject, and since the more a reader believes in the story the more likely she is to be convinced by the subject, so story becomes central to what the fiction is doing. For a Menippean Satire, the subject remains central and the story is less important. Here the impetus is to find what incidents and perspectives best highlight the aspects of the subject required. A loose plot might bind them together, but more important is to present a series of angles on the subject. If characters disappear, that doesn’t matter, because they are only needed when we want to present this perspective; if ritualistic phrases and repeated images emphasise key points then by all means use them.

As I have said, the structure of this book demands that we are shown the New Model Army as one body made up of many bodies (at one point Roberts specifically makes the analogy with the frontispiece of Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan). To do that, we need to see the body from the point of view of one of its components, and from the point of view of an outsider penetrating the body. He does this through a series of discontinuous scenes. In a novelistic sense they work better in the early part of the book where the overarching shape of war provides a linking thread. Any such continuity breaks down in the later part of the book, almost to the point where we get a blackout between incidents (the narrator is physically blindfolded between some scenes). The way the narrative structure breaks down as the book progresses could not but fail to convince in pure novelistic terms, we are not meant to be sucked in to the story because story is not what is driving this fiction. But if we read it as stabbing flashes that illuminate what Roberts wants to say about the army, then it works much better (until the ending collapses under the weight of its own overblown ambition, but that is beside the point I am concerned with here).

And what is the point? A novel can turn entirely inward into the world of its story, but satire must look outwards, must relate to something beyond the fiction. This need not be satire in our modern sense of biting attack, nevertheless, we do need to consider what is being satirized here. I realized that it was the same thing that is being satirized in Swiftly and Yellow Blue Tibia, though it is more overt in those books: Roberts is satirizing science fiction. It is made obvious in Swiftly, which incorporates elements from Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and from Voltaire’s Micromegas; and in Yellow Blue Tibia in which the central characters are science fiction writers. It is less obvious in New Model Army, there are no overt science fictional references, but I think the book is actually responding to militaristic science fictions, which consistently present future armies as being loaded with exciting new technology but essentially structured the same as they have been for centuries. Science fiction, Roberts is saying in these works, is conservative, is lacking in true daring in its imagination. Hardly an original perception, but it is at least consistent.

4 thoughts on “Learning to read Adam Roberts

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