In 1950, the physicist Enrico Fermi, asked the question, if Earth is a typical planet and the galaxy is so vast where are the aliens? In 1982, John Carpenter directed one of the best science fiction horror films of all time: set on an Antarctic research base, The Thing climaxes with two paranoid men waiting to see what happens next. In 2015, Adam Roberts writes a brilliantly composite science fiction novel that begins with those events in mind.
The story within The Thing Itself begins in 1986: two men at odds with each other in an Antarctic research station. One is missing his life back home. One is lonely and obsessed by Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. They are meant to be watching for alien signals. There is an incident with a letter and some brilliantly observed paranoia about its potential contents. What happens next is shocking!
Without giving away the plot – remember Fermi? – This is not a novel that is easy to classify, or discuss, without spoiling the adventure of discovery for the reader. Despite appearances, this is not the story you might expect. It is difficult and complex, and if you put the effort in, you are rewarded. In abundance.
Before long, we’re taken back to Germany in 1900. Two men are exploring various towns and cities. One seems oddly affected by HG Wells’ The War of the Worlds. This chapter reads like an old-fashioned Grand Tour story. With bonus extras! Now we’re back to Charles: our main protagonist from the first chapter, who is now telling the story of what happened to him since the Antarctic incident. Then we’re in a bizarre chapter with no punctuation – almost a stream of consciousness. Again in the past, and again, new characters. This continues throughout The Thing Itself. Each intervening chapter is a different time period, including some in the future. Those in the past are written in the appropriate style, while those in the future are given styles of their own too. My only criticism is that the chapter featuring Thos was too long in relation to the rest of the novel’s length.
Meanwhile, Charles continues his tale. He’s recruited by a mysterious Institute who have been experimenting with AI and are also obsessed with Kant. They want to speak to Roy, Charles’ nemesis, who is now locked up in Broadmoor. Roy might just hold the key to their research. Even though he is more dangerous than ever. Charles has lost a lot (both physically and mentally), but in the hope of regaining something, agrees to confront his demons. Now, the story begins to come clear. The various narrative threads – past, present and future – begin to come together in a way that you wouldn’t necessarily imagine from the outset. How Roberts manages such a feat of spaghetti-like narrative weaving is remarkable enough on its own. Considering the various writing styles he employs, it makes the experience of reading even more rewarding. However, this is much more than a science fiction adventure story, and the themes Roberts addresses take it to the next level.
Within the novel, themes of sexuality (gay men when it was illegal), gender (a non-binary gender future is offered), the nature of consciousness and the structure and perception of the universe (via Kant – where the title comes from – and AI), government conspiracy, aliens, child abuse by those in privilege and power, mental health and alcoholism, the existence of God, the potential power of love and more are all explored. [Ed: Phew, Ian, is there anything that isn’t in there?] None of it feels forced, or cause célèbre. Roberts wraps The Thing Itself up in some basic tenets of Kant’s ideas such as categories of quantity or quality, and adds some ideas of his own.
And through all this, it is still a thoroughly readable and enjoyable book. Surprising, quirky, fantastic. I won’t pretend I understood all the philosophical arguments, or all the science. Roberts’ skill however, is that he doesn’t make you feel stupid for not getting it. He brings the reader along at whatever level is comfortable.
We see the events through Charles’ bemused and sceptical eyes. But have the events in his life given the quality of the unreliable narrator? Is he deluded? Only further exploration leads to answers. There are some incredible ideas and boundless leaps of imagination. The plot strands that seem to be disparate all appear to eventually make sense. You’re left wondering about the nature of reality and our place in the universe – themes of all the best science fiction. You’re left reflecting on the book long after you’ve finished. Roberts is one of the best contemporary writers of original science fiction in terms of technical skill, vision and storytelling. The Thing Itself is a brilliant book for many, many reasons.