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Swiftly: A Novel
Adam Roberts
Gollancz paperback £12.99

review by Duncan Lawie

Adam Roberts begins the afterword to Swiftly: A Novel with a strict admonishment to go back and finish the book. Nevertheless, it's the right place to start a review as the author outlines the book's construction. Even so, it seems unlikely that any science fiction reader will be surprised by the sources he offers given how transparently the text wears them. The shaping of the book may be a little more surprising to those familiar with Roberts' output: "Having got into the habit of writing novels across a period of time measured in months it was challenging to write one whose gestation and parturition was measurable in years" (page 358). However, if this is the sort of thing he can produce with more consideration, I would recommend he repeat the effort.

The first 30 pages of the book are a previously published short story. It is clever, sharp and bitter - absolutely typical Adam Roberts stuff and an excellent introduction to the book's world. Lilliputians have been enslaved in the manufactories of Britain while the British Empire has employed gunboat diplomacy on the Brobdingnagians. Now, in 1848, Britain has achieved victory at Versailles as their invasion of France moves unstoppably forward. Bates is a worthy but ineffective Englishman, a campaigner for the freedom of the Pacifican peoples first noted by Gulliver. He finds himself encouraged to betray his country when a French contact imparts that "France and the Pope have declared a common right with the Pacificans" (page 13). Bates, in this story, is a typical Roberts character - conflicted, melancholic and at odds with the world around him. There are pages of his struggles with his conscience and with his depression. Despite this, he abets - and witnesses - the invasion of Britain and the sack of London by the combined forces of France, Lilliput and Brobdingnag. As this initial short story finishes, Bates is wondering just how bitter his triumph has been.

The second piece was also previously published independently. It shares the setting and a background character with the first chapter but uses a Victorian novel of manners as its model. Eleanor, both intelligent and clever, is trapped by her family's straitened circumstances into marrying the wealthiest match her mother can find for her. She suffers in silence, accepting the marriage as inevitable. It seems that this story could go the way of Susanna Clarke, with the Pacifican peoples substituting for the magic of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but Roberts introduces harder edges and anachronisms to his tale. Perhaps, instead, we are in the territory of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, given that our young lady protagonist is an aficionado of the sciences. However, her interests become a problem rather than a solution.

Roberts then chooses to write about a matter which may be at the heart of such Victorian works but which could hardly be made so explicit - the awkward and unpleasant process of Eleanor's deflowering. Her complete unpreparedness - and her husband's also - seem thoroughly realistic in the historical setting, the product of the vast embarrassment of a society. Combined with her original dis-ease at marriage to this man, the impact on her character is devastating. As well as the destruction of all the reader's hopes of a happy marriage - something which ought to be inevitable to those who've read Pride And Prejudice - the secret knowledge that the invasion of Britain is not far off impels a further plunge of fear for the protagonist. By the story's end Eleanor is wild, impetuous and therefore doomed. The logic of the Victorian cautionary tale has imposed itself.

At this point the book returns to Bates, who is sent by his French masters on a mission to York, where there is a massive cannon built into the hillside. Travel in the mid 19th century is hard work and the country is not actually subdued. His companion is the Dean of York, a mathologue and sniffer of 'white snuff'. The Dean's outbursts of excitement and withdrawal lead Bates to the realisation that his own moods are not, by comparison, all that exceptional. However, the reader is expected to recognise that the Dean is a cocaine addict. This is typical of the book's expectation that the reader will be ahead of the characters. Roberts repeatedly writes things that a modern audience will quickly understand but which his characters, innocent, foolish or both, do not notice or are slow to understand.

As the party travel north they collect Eleanor and plague is added to their difficulties. Propelled by events, most remnants of a formal structure for the book are abandoned. Perhaps this is an indication that Roberts should have done more to integrate the first two sections into the novel proper. There is no real return to Eleanor's interior life and no further mention of the secondary characters peculiar to her 'origin tale'. As a result, this is primarily Bates' book and it becomes difficult to understand why the second short story was included at all. The answer would appear to relate again to the difference between the tale that the characters are experiencing and the effect which Roberts is eliciting in the reader. Bates with his romantic ideals and the Dean with his traditional standards each sees in Eleanor what they expect to see. When she reacts in unexpected, even modern, ways we readers can reflect on the emotional crucible in which she was forged.

The changing shape of the book has the more profound effect of undercutting any reader expectation. Around the middle of the novel the story could go anywhere - Roberts could easily abandon his Gulliverian premise as he works in a dozen more sources from the history of science fiction. The French invasion is like a backdating of the future war tale; the Dean spends cocaine fantasies in using the giant cannon Verne style, to fire them across the world in a padded shell; Voltaire's extension of Swift is acknowledged and a connection to H.G. Wells is made explicit in the afterword. Throwing so many ingredients into the mix should have been disastrous, but the result is more a Christmas cake filled with nuts and fruit than an over-egged pudding. The teetering nature of the tale keeps the reader as off-balance as Bates remains in his attempts to cope with Eleanor, the Dean and the wider world. This is partly a reflection of the increasingly strange circumstances the characters find themselves in but is also an indication of how involved the author has become in telling his story. He doesn't abandon the Victorian style, though. Indeed, the sex and fetishism which threatens to dominate the story for a few tens of pages is all the more shocking because the period language is not a normal tool for writing about them - Fanny Hill notwithstanding.

Swiftly would probably be viciously unsatisfying if it was only read on a single level. There is an archness in maintaining the Victorian style when it appears so ill suited to tell the story, but the friction ultimately gives the novel a freshness which would be impossible if the same period was being written with modern eyes. The disasters are heightened by happening in the reliably safe setting of our own Victorian England and by its direct impact on our principal protagonist. Bates' explicit soul-searching could have been as tedious as reading a teenager's diary, except that Bates experiences real growth, both through inner change and in his reaction to external events. There is a vast ellipsis between the last two chapters, where great works must have occurred - reminiscent of Ken MacLeod's Learning The World - before an ending as unexpected as much else in this book. Even so, it is a satisfying conclusion which feels as if it has been earned, by both the characters and the reader.
Swiftly by Adam Roberts

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