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Stone by Adam Roberts (Rod's view)

01/09/2002. Contributed by Rod MacDonald

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Pub: Gollancz. 260 page enlarged paperback. Price: 9.99 (UK). ISBN: 0-575-07064-1.

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The author is actually a Dr. Adam Roberts, a man in his thirties with a Ph.D. from Cambridge specialising and working in 19th century literature.

Stone by Adam RobertsIndeed, Robert Browning's poetry, especially related to the classics, accounts for most of his published work but he has another side to his career as a Science Fiction author, both of critical works and novels.

Amongst his many academic publications is a critical guide to SF, Science Fiction (Routledge New Critical Idiom, 2000). The novel 'Stone' is the latest in a successful series of novels, the others being 'Salt' and 'On'. I'd like to know where he gets the time to do all this, work and eat as well?

Well, I thought the cover was crap. There's nothing inspirational on the cover to make you want to open the book. This is a great pity. Never having read any of Roberts' novels before I didn't know what to expect and vaguely and irrationality thought, because of the monosyllabic titles, that a vague similarly to Ballard was on the cards.

This wasn't the case at all. I found his work to be unique in its own right. Never judging a book by its cover is a useful maxim and in this case it was very true. This therefore ends the list of my faults about 'Stone' - that miserable Adam Roberts, you'd think he'd give a good complainer like myself something to work on but no, there's nothing, so I'll have to take the unaccustomed step of completing a review without any cheap jibes as to the novel's quality.

Before reading 'Stone', I'd turn to the back and read the glossary first because this will greatly enhance your understanding of what's going on.

Without falsehood, I can say this is the most wonderfully inventive novel I have read in a long time. The actual writing seems to flow so easily that pages turn without your knowledge and though this in itself doesn't make a good novel, the plot, substance and style does.

It's also liberally sprinkled with magical innovative gems that'll make you chuckle and smile with appreciation. The setting is the far future and a galaxy populated by beings who are human but also augmented by nano-technology.

DotTech, as Roberts calls it, makes them virtually invulnerable to everything. Cut off a head and the tiny machines will immediately work to join everything back together again or float in a river full of parasites without fear of being infested because they're there, protecting you every nanosecond of their seemingly indestructible tiny lives.

Not only humans exist. There are others, including forms of artificial intelligence which live within a person's mind. Travel within the galaxy is easy too. There's quantum mechanics in this novel but, excepting a few circumstances, it doesn't become dominant and you don't need a Ph.D. in physics do understand the novel.

Suffice to say, ordinary travel by spaceship is restricted to sub-light speeds but in Fastspace, you can travel a thousand times faster than light.

Quantum restrictions demand that this travel is only possible through a 'tube' less than two meters wide which rules out spacecraft but allows individuals, protected by a type of foam, to make journeys themselves.

And now to the main character. In a galaxy without crime, he is a criminal and we find him imprisoned in an escape-proof jail which is actually located deep within a star. Get out of that one? The person, who's mainly a he but could be a she as well, is simply called Ae.

He has had all his nano-technology removed, something which causes him immense problems during the course of the novel. And now, the most curious bit! Everything that happens is expressed in Ae's letters or communications with an inanimate stone. Hence, the title.

In this far distant future, money or commerce doesn't exist. Such is the control of the environment that manufactured objects cost virtually nothing to make. Think of the TV. Twenty-five years ago you'd pay five hundred pounds sterling for a large colour job.

Now, after loads of inflation, the same thing is technically better and costs half the price. Twenty-five thousand years of extrapolation will find us in a universe of abundant power and a TV, if such a thing was still relevant, would cost next to nothing.

It's also OK in this future to have voices in your head. This will probably be an artificial intelligence and not schizophrenia. You might think that this idyllic future would make us all fat and lazy slobs but the nano-technology ensures bodies and minds remain in perfect health. Ae has voices in his head too but they tell him that, in exchange for getting him out of the impossible jail, they want him to murder sixty million people on a planet.

The problem is not only in finding a person capable of doing this deed, it's also in the mechanics of killing those with protective machines within their bodies without obliterating the planet in the process.

Ae takes up this challenge because he's fed up being the only prisoner in the galaxy. As mentioned, this novel is sprinkled with innovation. Someone helping Ae to escape had the name Agifo3acca. Numbers within names were common for this species. Also, on a planet where it rained constantly, the source of currency was leaves from a certain type of tree - the fact that money was a useless concept or that the trees were abundant didn't matter but woe betide anyone who didn't have the right change.

'Stone' is a refreshing read. There's quite a lot of rubbish out there, some of it old and some of it new, so it's aesthetically pleasing to come across a work that is not only interesting but challenging too. I haven't read Roberts' earlier novels nevertheless this one gives the incentive to do just that.

Not knowing the author from Adam, I'm not being bribed to praise his book but I'd definitely suggest that you read it and come to your own conclusion.

I don't think you'll be disappointed.

Roderick S. MacDonald

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