This review of Polystom by Adam Roberts was written in 2003 for the website Infinity Plus.
Gollancz, 2003, £9.99, 294pp, ISBN 057507179
Sigh. Another rave Roberts’ review to write. Will it never end? It’s not like good reviews are easy to write. Could he not, just once, do us all a favour and write a bad or even just an average book?
I mean, it’s not like it’s difficult – lots of other writers all over the world do it every day! But no, ‘My name’s Adam Roberts’ and nothing but genius ever flows from my pen’.
Polystom, 50th Steward of Enting, lives a pampered life in a solar system that is not only much smaller than our own but also has breathable air between all of its constituent bodies. This solar atmosphere makes travel between the planets by airship or aeroplane easy, so they have all been colonised for about 400 years. This exquisitely charming aspect of Polystom’s universe, however, is rather counter-balanced by the kind of class system that makes 19th century Britain seem an enlightened meritocracy by comparison.
Polystom’s first chapter, ‘A Love Story’, follows its eponymous hero on a routine visit to the system’s most famous scientist, his uncle Cleonicles, who lives on Enting’s moon. It’s a fantastic sequence (in both senses of the word): Polystom takes off in his little monoplane, heading upwards as any pilot would, but keeps on going. To him it’s a routine journey; to us, not expecting the unbounded nature of air travel in his world, it’s really quite magical. Bob Shaw had some very similar ideas in the enjoyable The Ragged Astronauts, but to my mind he didn’t use it quite as exhilaratingly well as Roberts does.
What follows once Polystom has landed at his uncle’s is an account of his disastrous marriage to the ‘Ungovernable […]simply ungovernable’ (p.23) Beeswing. Polystom’s near total lack of self-awareness betrays him here into believing Beeswing is a poetic soul like himself.
Sadly Polystom is a foolish, arrogant and rather typical member of his class: he mistakes Beeswing’s detached dreaminess for the Romantic temperament he imagines himself to have. It all comes to a bad – but exquisitely written – end. The wonder at this point is that we’re still only a third of the way through Polystom, although the Beeswing’s death in this section (I’m not giving anything away with this, I promise) will continue to reverberate throughout until the final page, and in some rather unexpected ways.
The second chapter, ‘A Murder Story’, shifts the emphasis to Uncle Cleonicles and a most terrible crime carried out on his estate. A skywhal (gigantic whale-like beasts that swim in the airy skies of Polystom’s universe) beaches itself upon Cleonicle’s estate, to the (ever-so slightly disturbing) delight of the old scientist. I shall say no more about it except that this chapter is every bit as good as the previous one.
‘Whither now?’ asks the stunned reader, ‘We’ve had a love story and a murder story, so what next?’ Surely that should be obvious – chapter three is ‘A Ghost Story’!
Again, I don’t want to say very much about the plot of this chapter because it would really spoil things. Let’s just say that the plot veers from the severely physical to the decidedly metaphysical, and if anyone has read Sebastian O, an eccentric piece of neo-Victorian comic writing by Grant Morrison, they may not be quite so surprised by the ending as perhaps they ought…
Weaving three quite distinct stories like these together is no mean feat, but it’s the telling of the story that really captivates. Roberts’ language perfectly captures the romance of this incredible universe, but it also evokes the way these people live on a smaller scale, with all the mannerisms and the pettiness of their daily lives, not to mention the subtle ignorance of the main characters – which seems at times almost wilful to us but is so beautifully woven into the language that to them it isn’t ignorance at all. I certainly recognised a bit of my younger self in Polystom – although I’ve changed a lot since, I hasten to add!
I have to say, I always expect good things of Adam Roberts, but even with this expectation Polystom is surprisingly good. Having read it I was trying to think how I would describe it to someone who wasn’t a reader of fantastic literature. How I would have to first of all explain that Polystom lives in a solar system bathed in a breathable atmosphere and people can fly between the worlds in open-cockpit aeroplanes.
However, this novum, whilst not a minor part of the story is not the entire story; it’s the backdrop to a classic tale of love, loss, war and mystery that anybody – anybody – should enjoy. Roberts is able to include the big sf stuff and let it entrance us for a bit, but then he takes us back down to earth (or wherever) to deal with how and why it’s there in the first place. His ability to write on both scales is (to me) the mark of a good sf writer.
It only remains for me to categorically state that this is Roberts’ best novel so far, better than Salt and Stone – both excellent books. If you know anyone with the merest hint of an imagination who enjoys reading intelligent, well-written fiction then superglue their hands to a copy of Polystom – they’ll forgive you for it.
Hell, they’ll probably thank you for it!