Thursday, December 04, 2003
On by Adam Roberts
On is Proper Hard SF. Where most hard SF is content merely to baffle and/or illuminate with scientifically-correct extrapolation, On provides a short appendix with equations and a glossary of terms. The reason for this is that On turns around a central premise that is nboth simple and utterly transforming.
The world of On has (via a mechanism which becomes sort-of apparent) had its gravity rotated by 90 degrees. To the inhabitants, this gives the impression of a vast wolrd wall, punctuated by ledges (formerly, vertical outcroppings) upon which pockets of humanity scrape a meagre existence.
Tighe, the protagonist of this tale, lives on such a ledge with his father, mother and fearsome grandfather - a village priest whose fire 'n' brimstone sermons about the God of the Worldwall set the moral agenda for the locals.
Tighe, inevitably, falls of the edge of the world. Unlike previous plummeters, Tighe (barely) survives and discovers a slighly more advanced society further down the wall. He is adopted by on of two warring factions as a lucky mascot and through his eyes we glimpse a terrible conflict, full of folly and glory. This being a sort of planetary romance, we also learn more about what makes this unique environment tick, and why Tighe himself may have a crucial role in its future.
It mostly works. Roberts is a fine writer with a good ear for dialogue and eye for detail. Tighe is (by necessity) a sort of 'everyboy' figure, but there are many other memorable characters with distinct voices who leave a lasting impression. The environment is well thought out (I am taking the veracity of the equations on faith) and Roberts has clearly put in a lot of work to making his world tick in just the right way.
The plot, though, is less successful. The scenes of military life seem familiar, despite the outlandish scenery and the 'secrets' that are revealed seem bizarrely tacked on. There is one character, in particular who is significantly less primitive than the rest and while he gets some decent lines it seemed more as though he was addressing us - the modern SF reader who might easily figure out what widget X does - rather than Tighe.
The biggest let down, for me, was the ending. Roberts builds up a fair head of steam by emperiling his protagonist, giving him something to lose and crankingup the tension... and then halts proceedings so fast I kept thinking someone must have swiped the last page from the printers.
Despite its faults, though, On is mostly an enjoyable read. Roberts' style is impressive enough that I will be on the look out for his (apparently superior) first novel Salt as well as the rest of his back catalogue.