2015’s The Thing Itself is a standalone novel by Adam Roberts.
Perhaps in another trouser-leg of time, Charles Gardner’s Antarctic sojourn with fellow researcher Roy Curtius ended with professional accolades all round. In the timeline related in this novel, Gardner and Curtius not only failed to provide the world with tangible evidence of SETI, but Curtius went mad and Gardner only narrowly survived the murder attempt that followed.
A traumatized and scarred Gardner spent the next few decades tumbling down the ladder of British society, only coming to rest when there was nowhere else to fall. Obscurity and an unremarked death seemed all that was left to the alcoholic, abrasive former scientist.
The researchers at an obscure Institute are convinced that Curtius holds the key to their ambitious research. They believe that Gardner can provide them with the leverage to render Curtius, long consigned to an institution for the criminally insane, tractable. Why bother? They are sure that Curtius holds the key to understanding the true reality behind the reality we perceive.
At first, the partnership between bitter, frustrated Gardner and the Institute seems to work out well. Curtius is willing to talk to Gardner and the Institute is willing to compensate Gardner for his help (with sex). This phase is all too brief: soon after Gardner and Curtius meet for the first time in decades, the Institute seemingly concludes they have no further need for Gardner.
This is lucky for Gardner, at least in the short run, because it means he is not at the Institute when an escaped Curtius tears through it like a tornado at Burning Man. The Institute was right to think that Curtius’ madness concealed a deeper understanding of the world. They were wrong to think that it would be safe to bargain with him.
Her Majesty’s Extremely Secret Service might have ensured Gardner’s eternal silence on the matter. Peta, the mysterious figure who seems to run the Institute, intervenes. Peta’s allies are for the most part fled or dead. Gardner isn’t much but he is at least alive and available and most importantly Gardner is mobile, which Peta is not.
The world’s first AI has some curious plans for both Gardner and his nigh-godlike frenemy.
Let me begin1 with my usual moaning about repellent sex tropes. I’d bitch a lot less if fewer authors were recycling the same ugly tropes.
No more rape, please, even if the victim ultimately explodinates his abusers with the powers of his mind. There is no law, anywhere, which requires every book to include some sexual abuse.
No more skeevy protagonists. Gardner is bitter because nobody has wanted to have sex with a badly scarred, aging alcoholic; he gleefully takes advantage when he learns that one of his co-workers has been assigned the distasteful task of touching his bits with her bits. If I had in any way sympathized with the protagonist (which I did not), his decision to abuse his co-worker would have immediately destroyed any interest in his further career.
The conceit behind this novel is that the reality we think we know is not the true reality and that if we were somehow able to access that which we perceive only indirectly through the filter of imperfect, lying senses and minds that interpret and reconfigure reality … marvellous things might be possible. Or possibly disastrous things. Basic science, yeah? But the notion that you could do this without tools, just with better thinkology, is a bit out there. But it’s still an old old SF trope2, which often segues into something like magic.
I was not entirely a fan of Roberts’ earlier novel, Gradisil. I will admit his career has otherwise been built on books that did attract lavish accolades. Perhaps it is for this reason the author is under the impression that publication would invariably be followed by an enthusiastic reception. However, The Thing Itself did not get an enthusiastic reception.
It was not nominated for the BSFA or Clarke awards. Nor for “the Philip K Dick, Tiptree, (…) Hugo or Nebula awards” (to quote Roberts, who helpfully provides a list of other awards for which he was unconscionably overlooked). I cannot fathom why he would have hoped for a Tiptree for this novel in particular. I don’t follow the sausage-making that goes into the Dick or Nebula awards, so I cannot fathom their laxity. But I do know something about the Hugos. A tiny part of the overlookedness may have been due to circumstances (The Thing Itself came out while the Sadly Rabid Puppies were doing their thing), but really, the biggest contributors may have been the Hugo voters themselves, who do not have a record of voting for stylistically ambitious fiction about applied philosophy.
Still, the book was nominated for the John W. Campbell Memorial Award3 and the Locus Award (something of which the author was not aware when he wrote his essay). That’s not nothing. The release of the book was not followed up by his publisher suddenly losing his email address and refusing to take calls from him, which puts Roberts one step ahead of some authors I know. He talks about his next book being less ambitious. A lot of authors’ careers are destroyed by the mid-list death spiral after book three: Roberts’ next book is his seventeenth. Publishing is a merciless, rapacious machine that eats careers and aspirations the way ravening wolves consume unwary Canadian schoolchildren. To still have a career at all after seventeen non-bestseller books is a victory in itself. Don’t let the fact that one can imagine glorious accolades to blind one to accolades actually received.
1: And not the question I had when I began reading this, which was whether a SETI-related expedition to Antarctica would have been funded in the 1980s. It’s possible the primary benefit sought by the funding organization was a year in which they would not have to deal with either Gardner and Curtius.
2: See footnote three.
3: This is where I would normally make fun of the Campbell award’s tendency to focus on stories John W. Campbell would never in a million years have purchased for Analog. In this specific case, I can’t riff on any improbability, because magic woo powers through better philosophy is totally a Campbell-era Astounding idea. Or possibly Unknown. Maybe Campbell would have insisted that Roberts replace Kant with another philosopher (possibly J. W. Dunne) and tone down the experimental prose. I’m pretty sure that Kay Tarrant, Campbell’s long-time editorial assistant, would have cut the involuntary sodomy and child abuse (go her). With those caveats, this could have been published as a serial in the Astounding of the 1950s.