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‘I’m more interested […] in the past than the future’

Adam Roberts is the author of 23 science fiction novels, many short stories and a number of critical and non-fiction books, including The Palgrave History of Science Fiction (2nd edition 2016) and H G Wells: a Literary Life (2020). He is a professor in English and Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London, and is FRSL. His most recent novel, The This (Gollancz 2022), is a pulp-sf novelisation of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit. 

Adam Roberts is a renowned Science Fiction Writer, Critic, Historian and Professor. His 2014 novel Bête, is an important contribution to the field of science fiction and considers post-humanism theory and technological advancements. Purgatory Mount, is another superb example of Roberts’ mastery of the genre. This 2021 novel explores haunting possibilities of humanity’s flawed and technological future, whilst drawing clear and relevant allusions to a variety of other fictions. Purgatory Mount is an intelligent, inventive, and profound piece of fiction, with a bludgeoning and beautiful impact, imprinting emotional scars on the reader. 

Humankind’s first forays into technological enhancement was, after all, precisely the restoration and propping up of functioning memory.’

The novel is neatly sliced into sections, constructed like a speculative fiction sandwich. The novels beginning and end are the SciFi slices of bread, baked from a narrative of the far-future of humanity, following five technologically enhanced humans who are on a ship, traveling to explore an alien-type structure named Purgatory mount. The five individuals are barely recognisable as humans, sharing their living spaces with an artificial intelligence, and a plethora of uplifted animals (a staple of Roberts’ successful SciFi). The sandwich’s SciFi filling focuses on humans who are living in America, in a slightly defamiliarised setting, in a time similar to ours. 

It had been constructed so as to resemble a massively elongated mountain, with its peak outside the air. There were many terraces running around the circumference, but twelve main ones. In all this it resembled the mountain of Purgatory, as described in Dante’s medieval Italian epic, and so the crew began referring to it with that name.

purgatory-mount-adam-roberts.jpg?resize=The five advanced humans are on the ‘Forward,’ an interstellar exploration craft. Roberts’s novel beings with a ‘Forward,’ introducing the reader to the ship and crew (well played, Adam). Quickly, it is clear that things are not as they appear within this novel, ‘the ship has been equipped with a great quantity of advanced technology and [….] livestock – animals from pygs and sheep all the way down to chickens.’ Roberts plays with the readers expectation from the moment you open up onto the first page, and I would hate to ruin the surprize. The five humans are nick-named after the Gods; Pan, Zeus, Apollo, Dionysus and Hades, whilst some of the connections are quite obvious, as the texts states, ‘the cultural translation is less and less helpful, more and more imprecise. But let’s go with it. Why not?’. The characters act other than human, and embrace their technological advancements, happy to call themselves gods to the other creatures aboard the ship. “I am a god to you,” Pan tells the pygs later in the novel, acknowledging that whilst other creatures die, he and the other ‘gods,’ will continue to go on ‘effectively, for ever.’ These types of technological humans echoe of many other texts, particularly (for me) Paolo Bacogalupi’s The People of The Sand and Slag, in which the characters call themselves gods and see themselves at the top of the food chain. Whilst their technological advancements appear to be corporeal and focus on longevity, Roberts’ irremovable focus on the inept and limited capability of human memory seem to be at the forefront of this entire novel. 

Take the five human beings. It is not physical or bodily decay that limits their lifespan to a few tens of thousands of years. Their bodies are capable of, more or less, unlimited self-repair and restoration. Short of complete firestorm atomisation of their corporeal selves, these are bodies that will last and last, But the consciousnesses housed in those bodies, their carbon strands of mental tissue, howsoever augmented by silicon data processing capacity – well, that’s a different matter. […] memory goes first, overloaded by the sheer accumulation of lived experience and information. But memory is also the easiest to prop up with artificial prosthesis.

Memory is the key focus of this SciFi sandwich. Both narratives are infected by the concept of compromised memory. The closer-to home narrative set in America focuses on Bee-loving Otty, and her four friends Gomery, Kathry, Allie and Cess. This part of the narrative begins with the chapter; ‘The United States of Amnesia,’ immediately positioning memory as essential to all the layers of this novel. Otty and her four friends are very tech orientated and have managed to create a secret and secure internet that only they have access to. It appears that Gomery has stolen some sort of technology and the government are less than pleased. Promptly, Otty and the others are targeted, arrested and America goes to war.

“That’s the fatal disease of this country. Forgetting. It’s the United States of Amnesia, they say.”

 They American-set narrative is already in a postwar society, where many of the inhabitants have a sort of chemically-induced dementia, who can only function within society (without other humans aid or assistance) by using the advancements in technology that are available, from phones acting as makeshift memory prostheses to the more advanced ‘smartBlisters’ implanted on their necks. 

‘He looked with complete bemusement at the phone, so she started searching him for his dockette. Clearly not wealthy, or he’d have one of those elegant miniports on his neck, or else one of the new surgical implant under the skin.

An analogy is quickly built between Bees and the disease which causes humans to loose their memories.

“Did you ever hear of beehive colony collapse disorder?” […] “it’s a bee thing.” […] “Colony collapse disorder, was this thing that happens to beehives sometimes. It started last centuray – I don’t know if it ever happened in, like, the deep past. Ancient Egypt and such. But the beecasts I listen to and the speciality feeds I follow talk about the 1990s. So in a beehive you got a queen, yeah? And a whole crowd of workers, and the workers go out and collect pollen and bring it back to the queen. The collapse disorder happens if the workers all go off and don’t come back” 

The illness was inspired by Colony Collapse Disorder, which ends with the collapse of bee communities and running out of food, eventually ending with the bees dying. It turns out this disease was caused by a pesticide, it ‘messed with their memories,’ and caused lots of problems. The concept appears to be that a human-effecting version of the pesticide was designed, and dropped on soldiers during the 60 day war. Unfortunately, countless soldiers and civilians were affected by this chemical warfare. Leaving the cities littered with ‘People shuffled down sidewalks in long snaking crocodiles of memoryless people.’

Roberts’ preoccupation with the concept of memory, has clear connections the Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sleep, set in a post-war world where many humans have moved off planet, most of those who remain have mental health issues or intellectual hiccups caused by the war, and are horrifically nicknamed Chickenheads. Roberts’ memory sufferers are called ‘Buckleheads,’ and are often treated in unkind and unjust ways, similar to PKD’s Chicken Heads. Throughout the novel Roberts’ nods in the direction of many genres, texts and concepts, from Descartes to Dante there are so many delicate illusions that I probably missed some of them. Roberts mentions a myriad of art forms and constructs, such as the music of Wagner (Ride of the Valkyries) and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (Ichabod Crane), and every mention is stitched into the novel seamlessly, and compliments the narrative.

Tap tap taapin on heaven’s head. Peck out their eyes. The government lies. The government lies. Peck out their eyes.

Overall, Purgatory Mount is structured in an undeniably strange way. The connections between the different time zones and characters are not clear until near the end of the novel, but that is what makes it so brilliant. This novel is inventive, inspired, and littered with Roberts’ playful genius. An important and beautiful novel, preoccupied with atonement and memory. This novel deals with the upsetting and catastrophic consequences of war and amnesia/ memory loss diseases, whilst playfully pointing out contemporary human dependency on technology and mobile phones. Roberts has blown me away, again, and I hope this novel is lovingly embraced by everyone and gets the adoration it deserves. 



The post PURGATORY MOUNT by Adam Roberts (BOOK REVIEW) appeared first on The Fantasy Hive.

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