Kinbote in Space
Astral Weeks/Ed Park
Sitting on the bookstore shelf, Adam Roberts’s new novel, Gradisil (Pyr: $15, 551 pp.), makes few appeals to the general reader. The title, in a hard-to-read Transformers font, suggests an epic story centering on hair-regrowth formula, and the curiously cropped cover illustration manages to make an explosion soporific. But if you just pick it up—perhaps with a furtive glance down the aisle—and read the first paragraph, something interesting happens:
Take this printed page, the very one you are looking at now. Take away all the letters and all the commas and the dashes, and take away the apostrophes, and leave only the full stops, the colons, the dots over the “i”s. You will have a star map, cartography that describes precisely the sky of my imagination. I want to go there, you’ll say. So do I.
That’s as elegant as invitations come. Roberts starts us off in the sky—in that blank canvas of so much science fiction—but simultaneously grounds us by evoking the visual, nearly tactile experience of reading. By the three-word finale, you might find yourself hooked.
Additionally, close readers of Vladimir Nabokov will detect a nod to VN’s late quasi-SF tale “Lance,” whose narrator sees his story’s “every dot and full stop” as describing a “kind of celestial star chart.” Coincidence? Maybe. But consider that, on Gradisil’s acknowledgments page, Roberts not only references a 1959 book called Theory of Wing Sections, Including a Summary of Airfoil Data but thanks, amidst the names of friends, one “Charles Kinbote”—the mad annotator who turns Nabokov’s Pale Fire inside out. (Near the novel’s end, Roberts swings a double reference to Look at the Harlequins!) Which is to say that Gradisil operates on multiple levels, and that its pleasures lie not just in its densely plotted particulars but also in its unconventional, playful construction.
Where Pale Fire features Kinbote’s commentary and other textual apparatus wrapped around John Shade’s 999-line poem, Gradisil gives us two heart-pouring memoirists, the adrenalized thoughts of a soldier freefalling thousands of miles from space (as his unprotected left hand withers away), 22nd-century pop song lyrics in three languages, and passages crafted using a futuristic argot in which the letter “c” has apparently been outlawed. And for all the seriousness in conception and technological accuracy (see Theory of Wing Sections, above), Roberts, the author of numerous parodies, including something called Dr. Whom, or E.T. Shoots and Leaves (“about a grammatically correct time lord”), leavens the proceedings with a wicked satirical thumbnail of a mumble-mouthed, war-mongering president, “tailored books” (classics in which the reader’s name is inserted), and awful poetry that could give the Vogons a run for their money.
At well over 500 tightly printed pages, the sprawling Gradisil has its longueurs, but for the most part Roberts (a professor of 19th-century literature at the University of London) keeps the pages turning with a skill for richly characterizing his generations-spanning dramatis personae. The title refers to the charismatic de facto president of the Uplands, a loose aggregation of Earth-orbiting homes. Gradisil Gyeroffy is a shrewd, three-steps-ahead politician and matter-of-fact maneater (in one case, almost literally), who motivates the freedom-loving Uplanders to provoke a galvanizing, seemingly unwinnable war with the territory-hungry Americans. (In a mind-bending touch, Roberts notes that one postbellum lawsuit “disputes the term ‘territory’…on the grounds that vacuum and emptiness is not territory.”)
Gradisil is heroine of the book’s long middle section, and even after death she generates much of the book’s drama. Perversely, she’s never a narrator: Most of what we know of her is via Paul, her rich husband (and former homosexual), whose admiration for his wife gets pushed to the edge by her adulteries and messiah complex; and Gradisil’s mother, Klara, who authors the novel’s compulsively readable first part.
It’s Klara, of course, who gives Gradisil her medicinal-sounding name; the odd word stems from her own youthful mishearing of Yggdrasil, the world-tree of Viking mythology. As a 13-year-old she listened to her father, one of the first homeowners in the Uplands, describe the Earth’s magnetosphere as a version of Yggdrasil, “its branches reaching into space”: “Then we could climb up, couldn’t we?” He’s seen as mildly nutty for championing the use of electromagnetic fields (rather than rocket power) to get into orbit, but history will vindicate him.
When her father is cold-bloodedly murdered by Kristen Janzen Kooistra, a grotesquely fat serial killer, teenaged Klara vows to avenge his death—think True Grit in space. This purest of motivations, coupled with the relative simplicity of the Uplands frontier at this point in the future (about 50 years from now), makes for an engaging novel in itself. (The similarity to Charles Portis’s classic Western resonates all the more when we realize Klara is penning her story as an octogenarian, just as Mattie Ross chronicles her youthful adventure from a distance of decades.)
It’s fun to watch Roberts build his universe, describing the outsider culture of the Uplands and conveying the exquisite sense of being out of reach, above it all. At the same time, he describes the hassles of housekeeping so far off the ground, and spacewalks have rarely been less romantically described: “[A]fter half a day you developed a form of habitude that enabled a sort of progress around the Station in a weirdly dangling-zombie style of perambulation.”
Klara’s section of Gradisil is a revenge story, but then so are Parts Two and Three, and the entire saga portrays bloodlust as an unquenchable but wearying human condition, like a futuristic version of Park Chanwook’s “Vengeance” trilogy. The moral quandaries multiply as political intrigues and death wishes snap into place; the Uplands become developed, just like “downbelow,” becoming just another field for commerce. By book’s end, the Gyeroffy family tree, for all its greatness, has grown into a twisted version of Yggdrasil, whose branches once promised so much possibility.