The Thing Itself | Adam Roberts | 2015, Pb 2016 | Gollancz | 358p | Review copy | Buy the book
Charles Gardner and Roy Curtius are two scientists spending the loneliest and coldest of winters in Antarctica, their job to measure astronomical data from the nearest planets – in other words, to watch out for alien life. But in such a place the simplest of arguments, compounded by coincidence, loneliness and stress, can escalate into something catastrophic. As the title pleasingly suggests, horror is never far away in the Antarctic, it’s only its form that is unpredictable. What happens to both men changes the rest of their entire lives and when we catch up with them a few decades on it is clear that the changes continue, with repercussions that challenge everything that we take for granted. Not even the ticking of a clock, the distance between two points on a map, the nature of reality itself can be relied upon in this new world that has come into being.
I’ve said it many times but one of the things about science fiction that I look to and enjoy the most is the sense of wonder it brings me. The Thing Itself has this quality in abundance. I’m not going to pretend that I understood everything I read – this is a novel that gives the brain a workout and that is no bad thing at all – but Adam Roberts’ stunning writing and soaring imagination ensured that I loved every single page. It may be full of complex ideas – mostly revolving around the philosophy of Kant and what this tells us about whether we are alone in the universe – but they are wrapped up within the most fascinating collection of stories.
Running through the novel is Charles Gardner who, more than anyone else, is struggling to make sense of what is happening to him, to understand why his life was overhauled so completely in Antarctica all those years ago, and why his future is still so inextricably linked to Roy Curtius, a man like no other, who has the ability to steal the reader’s attention whenever he appears on the page (and not just for the big dent in his head). Charles is our narrator for much of the time and as he travels on his journey, not knowing where he is going, he’s an immensely sympathetic character, not least because of the physical battering that he’s taken over the years. I cared for him enormously.
But alternating with Charles’s narrative, which builds up into a thrilling mystery, is a sequence of other stories, moving through time and across countries and cultures. These chapters come in a full range of flavours – H.G. Wells, 17th-century diarists, tender romance, futuristic science fiction, horror. I loved where these stories take us. They are full of memorable characters, each set within a time and place beautifully evoked by Adam Roberts. But as time goes on, the cohesion of the novel grows, links between the stories and lives become clearer, the mystery of the nature of our universe hovers tantalisingly within reach.
The Thing Itself has a wonderful fluidity and grace. Its ideas are complicated but the novel is also accessible, lightness easing the complexity. There is humour and great character, real depth of emotion – fear, love, panic, guilt, terror, guile – and also enormous sin. Contrasting with the humanity on parade are the glimpses of something other worldly, slotting into each of the stories with such originality and quirkiness. I had to re-read several passages to check that I really had just read what I thought I had. I loved the strangeness.
I do appreciate a novel that makes me think while also entertaining me. The Thing Itself marries the two to perfection. There is so much packed within these pages and, without doubt, it’s one of those memorable novels that will stand to repeated readings over the passing of time. A book of the year for me, for sure.