This review of Swiftly by Adam Roberts first appeared in Interzone 216, June 2008.
Sometimes you wonder if Adam Roberts can write about an undamaged character. Abraham Bates, our ‘hero’, begins this novel as a depressive whose mental state is so febrile that he can swoop from the heights to the abyss and back again several times in the space of a page. He ends the book as a man sexually aroused by the sight, smell or even thought of human ordure. His companion and rival for much of the novel, the Dean of York, is addicted to a new type of snuff (we infer cocaine, though this is never made explicit) and this addiction brings on mood swings as wild and sudden as Bates’s. Meanwhile their enamorata, Eleanor Burton, begins the novel as a young woman whose ignorance of sex (the date is 1848) leads to disgust and hence to frigidity (in this she is reminiscent of, though less subtly drawn than, the heroine of Ian McEwan’s On Chesil Beach); she ends the novel as a sexually rapacious adultress for whom, like Bates, disgust is arousing. Actually I am not entirely convinced that this novel does not feature two entirely different women who happen to share the name Eleanor Burton. At the end of chapter two we leave the frigid Eleanor shortly after she has witnessed, without emotion, the grotesque murder of her first husband. She is, as the chapter ends, caring for her mother and negotiating to mortgage her London home in order to raise bail money for a treasure-seeker who has appealed to her. When next we encounter her, part way through chapter three, she is walking alone towards Yorkshire, and there is no further mention of murder, mother, mortgage or treasure-seeker; how and why she came to be in this place remains a mystery, and it is perhaps safest to assume that she is simply a new character appearing afresh in the novel at this point.
Such excess and discontinuity of character is typical of a novel that is, itself, full of excess, and often discontinuous in its leaps of plot. The excess starts with the novel’s source material. As the title and the blurb point out, it is a continuation of sorts of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, though without any of the satiric intent. In this world the Lilliputians (and their neighbouring Blefuscans) have been colonized and enslaved by the British. But as the novel opens and we are admiring the delicacy of the work performed by their tiny hands, we are reminded more of another tale of big and little characters, Beatrix Potter’s The Tailor of Gloucester. And as the novel goes on, while Roberts appropriates more and more of the Swiftian universe, Brobdignagians and talking horses, we notice that one facet of Gulliver’s journey is missing, the flying island of Laputa. In its place is another flying visitor, this time from outer space and also from yet another work that plays with different sizes of characters, Voltaire’s Micromegas (the link is made explicit in the name of the extraterrestrial visitor, Littlebig).
There is excess also in the plot. Bates campaigns to free the Lilliputians, and in this has found himself working as an agent for the French, with whom Britain is now at war. Initial British success is reversed when the French unleash Brobdignagian troops, and Britain is soon invaded. With another turncoat, the Dean of York, Bates finds himself dispatched to Yorkshire accompanying a calculating device designed by Charles Babbage (though employing, we eventually learn, hidden Lilliputians). Along the way they meet Eleanor, but Bates falls ill, as do Eleanor and the Dean in their turn. The three recover, but everyone else who catches the plague dies. It turns out that the Lilliputians have gone to war against the humans by employing yet smaller creatures. Meanwhile yet larger creatures have arrived from space and seem to be going to war against humanity in their turn. In the midst of this three-way war of extinction, a succession of intriguing plot devices (such as the calculating machine), are mentioned and then quietly forgotten. A Lilliputian turncoat who helps Bates keeps disappearing from the book for huge swathes of time, only to reappear fortuitously just when he can rescue Bates then disappear again until the next time. And so it continues: coincidences, sudden reversals, leaps of faith across gaps in the plot that are never filled.
This is a novel that does indeed move swiftly, but it does so by piling on of invention while plot, coherence, sense are steadily buried under the weight of it all.