Stone by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2004, 303p, plus 13p glossary.

This is an epistolary novel unusual in that the addressee of each letter is the stone of the title.

In a space-faring society known as t’T where crime is all but unknown Ae starts her narration awaiting execution in a seemingly inescapable jail situated in the upper atmosphere of a star. The death sentence is carried out by the removal of her dotTech (nanodevices which repair any deleterious damage and render humans effectively immortal.) However, having struck a bargain with mysterious would be liberators to kill the inhabitants of an entire planet she is soon sprung from her confinement. Unfortunately we do not get to this climax for a long part of the book as Ae travels the galaxy and meets with various people fascinated by the injuries, illnesses and scars she suffers as a result of her lack of dotTech.

She kills one who has begun to suspect her status as an escapee – this is a necessarily laborious process because of their dotTech and is gone into in detail – yet later takes a lover. A lot of discussion centres around a galactic phenomenon known as the Great Gravity Trench, an anomaly where space has been bent back on itself like a ruffled sheet. Indeed it sometimes seems as if Roberts is using his story to present a primer text on quantum theory. The faster than light mechanism works by means of simultaneous quantum adjustments but is constrained by mass – effectively anything larger than a human is debarred – and also by the volume of space involved; fast-space allows up to 3000c, slow-space up to 3c and sub-light space only Einsteinian travel. These areas are seemingly influenced by the Gravity Trench.

To portray a mass murderer in any sort of sympathetic light is a difficult trick to pull off. While Roberts does not quite succeed in this he nevertheless draws the reader in to the story. In many ways I felt I was reading a 1950s or 60s piece of SF, here. The characters seemed a bit wooden, but of course they were being filtered through Ae’s consciousness.

It is a neat authorial trick to get round the information dumping problem by having the narration couched as what is effectively a confession but also as a translation (supposedly from Ae’s language Glicé into Amglish) complete with footnotes. Under a psychiatrist’s suggestion Ae is telling her story to a stone due to her inability/reluctance to communicate with other humans.

Stone is an interesting read but with some longueurs. I’ll look out for more Roberts.

(However there was a span, shrunk and miniscule count of 1 each.)

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