Adam Roberts’ work often has a big concept upfront: Snow (what the snow just keeps falling); By Light Alone (what if people could photosynthesise through their hair); Gradisil (what would orbital habitats be like if they organised as a country). So…this opens on a generation starship. Fantastic, Roberts’ take on this trope. Then they arrive at their destination pretty damn quickly, and there’s a Big Dumb Object waiting. Great, Roberts’ take on the inscrutable alien BDO. Hold that coffee. We’re winding back from the far future to around ten years from now.
The story-within-a-story takes place in a US where the worst 2020 predictions of the death of democracy, informal warfare, and gun-nuttery have progressed ten-fold. Which is in many ways a shame as the elements of Roberts’ post-Trump apocalypse feel less original than the first far future section of this novel. Weaponised neonicotinoids, iphones plugging directly into people, artificial intelligence, shadowy and paranoid government agencies, malware, VPNs…it’s a convincing mix of horrors, but not quite on the level of On (idea: what if gravity operated at 90 degrees).
This is not to say that the central section of Purgatory Mount is not a satisfying read. It is. The protagonists, chiefly 16-year old Ottie, are a likeable bunch and their struggles to survive as the US falls into civil war are told with an urgency that will have you racing through this book. It’s just that teenager-in-a-dystopia is a well-mined vein of fiction right now, and Roberts’ story is well-told without being as original as some of his other work mentioned earlier.
We return at the end to the far-future in the final section of the book – where he does connect his two stories – and Roberts’ concerns with revenge, guilt and atonement surface more explicitly. There are references to many belief systems including the Greek gods, medieval Catholicism, cargo cults,the singularity, and post-humanism. The abrupt gear-changes continue as the final resolution is more to do with arriving at a philosophic position than resolving or explaining the plot. Lots to enjoy, and even an postscript explaining some of his thinking, without this novel cohering into an entirely satisfactory whole.
Netgalley review copy provided.
Length of Read:Medium
Might appeal to people who enjoyed…
Both his previous work, but also dystopia addicts who love Handmaids Tale, Station Eleven and so on…
One thing you’ve learned
Make sure your central story makes everyone forget about the framing device. Shakespeare got it right with The Taming of the Shrew.