Jack Glass is Adam Roberts's most fan-friendly novel to date, but will that be enough to win him a Hugo award?
The worst thing that ever happened to science fiction was getting confused with genre fiction. If any kind of literature relies on the new and the innovative to excite the reader it is SF. Genre fiction recycles, repeats and repackages the same old ideas. Space exploration, faster-than-light travel, cybernetic implants and virtual realities all stirred that fabled "sense of wonder" in the kids who grew up with them. But now those kids are running out of middle age and wonder has been replaced with nostalgia. The SF genre today is like your dad's prog rock LP collection, a last link to a lost youth.
Adam Roberts's Jack Glass is a science fiction novel about our nostalgia for science fiction novels, replete with the favourite devices of Golden Age SF. It's also a detective novel, a locked-room mystery in the style of Dorothy L Sayers or Ellery Queen. The fact that Ellery Queen was a "house name" for many pulp writers, among them SF legend Jack Vance, underlines the fact that these stories have more in common than separates them. In an illuminating review of Jack Glass, critic Jonathan McCalmont cracks open Adam Roberts's love-hate relationship with SF's self-regarding nostalgia. Roberts is clearly a fan. But he is also a critic, and his fiction can not help but reflect both.
Reading any of Roberts's 13 published science fiction novels I often find myself thinking of their author as the last true science fiction writer. It's an exaggeration, there are other original voices in the field, but few as consistently and startlingly original. In a field where most writers can be relied upon to write the same book over and over again, Roberts insists on writing an entirely different book every time. Worse, far from writing a breathless homage to the giants upon whose shoulders he stands, Roberts is more often to be found affectionately taking the piss out of the genre science fiction has spawned.
(Roberts is, on his days off, also author of parodies The Soddit, Bored of the Rings and The Va Dinci Cod under the pseudonym ARRR Roberts.)
Swiftly: A Novel is an enlightenment-era steampunk fantasy, spun from the what if? question of how the British Empire might have evolved had it enslaved the Lilliputian people of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels. Yellow Blue Tibiariffs on the heavily politicised history of Soviet science fiction to create the ultimate in paranoid conspiracy theories. New Model Army imagines a second English Civil War, and a decentralised army of hackers and tech-heads who wrest military power from the hands of the British establishment. In his novel By Light Alone, Roberts ups the political ante by taking on the new gilded age of our post-economic crash reality, depicting a world of fabulous wealth and extreme deprivation where the poor are genetically engineered to subsist, like plants, on mere daylight and oxygen.
The genuine "sense of wonder" that Adam Roberts's wonderfully original SF novels evoke is winning praise from many quarters. In April he joins China Miéville as one of the few SF authors to become the focus of a major academic conference, "New Genre Army", organised by Christos Callow and Dr Caroline Edwards of Lincoln University, to be followed by an anthology of critical writing on Adam Roberts fiction from Gylphi. Roberts has also picked up nominations for the Kitschies and the British Science Fiction Association awards, although as the youngest of the six white, middle-aged and male candidates for the latter prize he might be considered too diverse to actually win.
Major awards within the genre of science fiction have, to date, eluded Adam Roberts. The Hugo awards, voted for by members of SF fandom attending the annual WorldCon, have demonstrated wide range of tastes in recent years. Shortlisted titles for best novel range from the overtly nostalgic Leviathan Wakes by James SA Corey and Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold to the exceptionally original Palimpsest by Catherynne M Valente and Embassytown by China Miéville. Jack Glass manages to be both nostalgic and original in equal measure, and may be the novel to win Roberts the genre's most coveted award.