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Polystom
Adam Roberts
Gollancz hardcover £16.99

review by Patrick Hudson

The eponymous hero of Adam Roberts' new novel Polystom is a young unworldly aristocrat with a large estate, a fancy title, pots of money and not much to do. He spends his time indulging his passions for reading poetry, listening to opera records on his gramophone and flying his biplane to visit his uncle who lives on the moon. In Polystom's world, a breathable atmosphere that envelopes the Solar system enables the inhabitants to travel between the half-dozen worlds by propeller-driven planes and airships, giving a distinctly steampunk ambience to a plot that weaves leisurely between Polystom's disastrous marriage, his uncle Cleonicles' mysterious murder and a final quest for redemption in the trenches of the Mudworld.
   Polystom cleverly builds its world out of familiar elements of the early 20th century British Imperial society combined with deft touches of the alien. Edwardian prudery has been replaced by complex poly-sexual relationships, and Polystom has two fathers, but the hereditary principal rules political relationships. The dialogue is crisp and aristocratic, but the names evoke Classical myth and invite decoding (Polystom = many mouths?). The focus on big engineering is typical of the industrial Empire, but the changed circumstances and subtle neologisms make everyday items seem fresh (air boats, slot pistols and the Computational Device). It's an impressive piece of world building, and the stagnant, stratified society is highly reminiscent of Jack Vance, an impression emphasised by the frequent voluptuously detailed descriptions of food and drink, a typically Vancian flourish.
   The novel has lots of fun with the central concept of an atmosphere-bound Solar system. The extended flight to the moon described in intricate detail in the opening pages of the novel allows Roberts to sketch out the practical implications of his world, while evoking the gung-ho Boy's Own adventure stories of the early 20th century. Polystom's brainy Uncle Cleonicles is the mouthpiece for most of the really hard stuff, but Roberts is not overly concerned with scientific consistency and sometimes forced to indulge in a bit of hand waving to avoid getting bogged down in technical quibbles.
   Polystom and Cleonicles - who is the focus of the middle section of the novel - are well realised but not particularly likable characters and Roberts shies away from redemptive Lawrentian epiphanies for either. Although Polystom goes looking for some sort or deliverance in the war on Mudworld, if it is delivered at all it happens after the novel's close. Cleonicles spends his last hours tugging at something in his subconscious that won't come loose (nice use of constipation metaphor, here) but never quite grasps it and more conventional plot points - the identity of Cleonicles' murderers, for example, is broadly hinted at but seems of no interest to Polystom - also remain frustratingly unresolved.
   The rich background and characterisation is well served by Roberts' poetic style, which effectively sketches emotional backgrounds of the interior and exterior landscapes of Polystom's world. He fills the forests with romantic mystery, pours horror into the war scenes on the Mudworld and eloquently juxtaposes the wonders of a journey through the system on an airboat liner with Polystom's anxiety, as he gets closer to the war.
   Perhaps it is just the details of the Edwardian setting, but Polystom reminds me of writers like more of D.H. Lawrence, Thomas Hardy and E.M. Forster who dissected the social and moral boundaries of their society that was then very contemporary but now has a distinct whiff of costume-drama lingering about it. This is compounded by the conceit that Polystom is a mysterious artefact that has somehow appeared in our world (there is a textual reasoning behind this which I shan't give away). The novel is littered with square-bracketed editorial interpolations and ends with pseudo-academic essays, commenting on the text, like the cheap annotated Penguins we used to buy at university. Roberts has setup a website containing supplementary material. I've browsed this, and skimmed the essays, but I'm not sure if it really adds much to the final product. The reality warp doesn't have the metaphysical weight of something by Philip K. Dick or Greg Egan, and makes it hard to know how seriously to take things.
   Polystom is a complex novel, and Roberts has created a richly fascinating world and complex characters to populate it. He writes with intensity about human emotions in a world strangely dissimilar from our own, while posing questions as to the nature of reality and fiction - if the latter is somewhat half-hearted, the former more than makes up for it.
polystom

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