Interview With Adam Roberts
Adam Roberts is, in my considered opinion, the coolest fucking guy. He’s a science fiction writer, a literary critic, a parodist, a university professor, the editor of the most up-to-date scholarly edition of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, a translator, a biographer, an obsessive punster, and, in all my interactions with him, a really pleasant and helpful guy. I’ve written about him before, in this newsletter, in my Plough new-books column (which I really need to revive one of these days), and in an old piece for the Christian Courier. For the latter piece, I tried to read just the books that he published in 2018, and I was defeated when he added—to an excellent future mystery novel, a troubling and rich historical novel, a postapocalyptic adventure, a punchy idiomatic translation of Virgil’s Eclogues, and a thoughtful scholarly monograph—a translation of Finnegans Wake into Latin. I concluded that his 2018 would pass as a very respectable career for any other writer. That’s Adam Roberts for you.
What’s he been up to since then? He translated an obscure Renaissance epic poem about Christ from Latin to English. He published the novels Purgatory Mount (just nominated for a major award) and The This, the latter of which we talk about below, and a deeply interesting critical biography of H.G. Wells, and a study of apocalyptic media. I’m surely missing stuff.
One more point before the interview. The way Roberts is discussed by some critics drives me nuts, and unfortunately, I risk playing into it a bit by focusing so much on his prodigiousness, on the sheer variety of ways that he is brilliant. He writes somewhere that the lightly pejorative description “clever-clever” has followed him throughout his career. I once had a girlfriend describe me as “like a brain in a jar,” so I know that there’s a variety of ways to call someone “smart” while turning it into an insult. Anyway, I don’t think Roberts is simply “clever-clever.” I find his novels vivid and moving—there’s a description of bereavement in By the Pricking of Her Thumb that still haunts me four years or so after I first read it—and animated, even as he jumps between one moral/conceptual system and another from novel to novel, by a consistent moral vision: an acceptance that the universe is violent alongside a wish that it were otherwise, and an admiration for humbly competent, helpful, good-willed people. I don’t think that these qualities exist in contrast to his dazzling intelligence; I think they are the most important facet of it.
It seems as though you're writing an unintentional series of SF novels that metaphorically examine the major thinkers and political ideas of the Enlightenment. The Thing Itself and The This do so overtly, with Kant and Hegel, but New Model Army does so as well, with Hobbes among others. I'm assuming that this wasn't planned. Is it simply a result of your immersion in the writers Coleridge read, or is there something about that Enlightenment philosophical lineage that particularly inspires you? Is Leibniz next?
Thing Itself came about only because I actually read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, instead of reading bits of it and cribbing the rest from secondary sources, which is how I’d got through life beforehand. As most of us do. And I read the whole thing, as you say, because I was making a scholarly edition of Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria, and Kant was so very important to STC that I couldn’t avoid it. But having read it I found myself revolving various SF ideas associated with it, so I worked up a novel out of that material. SF is often written out of extrapolated science and technology; why not out of extrapolated philosophy? Metaphysics: it’s the oldest of the sciences after all. And so on. And so forth.
Anyway: then I discovered a pressing reason why I had to read Hegel, although I’ve forgotten, now, what it was. And that gave me a bunch of new ideas. So I wrote those up.
There are aspects of The This I do like, but I don't, honestly, think it's as good as Thing Itself. Partly that's to do with the more misshapen form of it. I could try to excuse myself by saying the form was imposed on me by the weird, misshapen structure of the Phenomenology of Spirit itself, as opposed to the nice clean and symmetrical, if complex, structure of Kant's Critique that undergirds Thing Itself, but I have to concede: nobody put a gun to head and forced me to try and ape the shape of Hegel's mad book. I brought that entirely on myself. I’m also interested in the form of the fix-up, that distinctive SFnal form, but equally that’s no guarantee the finished book will actually work, structurally. Rather the reverse.
I’d say that there is potential for a SFnal novelisation of Kant’s ideas—I mean, I would say that, wouldn’t I—and also for a SFnal novelisation of Hegel’s ideas. Leibniz, I don’t know. When you teach creative writing you say to your students: so, you have the story-idea or premise, great; now identify the conflict inherent in it, because without a conflict there’s no drama and without drama there’s no story. Where’s the conflict in monads? They’re inert. Isn’t that the point of them? Neal Stephenson and Jo Walton have done Plato. Siegel and Shuster have done Nietzsche. I have sometimes wondered about writing a properly pessimistic, spacegrump Schopenhauer novel, but the problem here is that if I keep writing these kinds of novels, people will peg me as an, as it were, singer of novelty singles. Time to try something else, I think.
You've written recently about the first story that impelled you to write fiction, Roald Dahl's "A Piece of Cake." In addition to being a prolific writer of fiction, you are also a prolific and excellent literary critic, of the sort that I can enjoy reading even when I'm only somewhat interested in the subject of the piece (as with your H.G. Wells biography). What was the first piece of literary criticism that made you realize that criticism could also be written artfully, and that you wanted to try your hand at it?
Oddly enough, I can answer that question very precisely. And the answer would go like this: I was a withdrawn, bookish kid and I read nothing but SF and Fantasy—Golden Age stuff, P. K. Dick, Ursula le Guin, Tolkien of course, Herbert, Christopher Priest and a thousand pulp SF novels. All my pocket money went on this. Then one Christmas I got a poster book of art with big A3 full colour reproductions—the idea was that you could break the pages out of the book and bluetac them to the wall and so on. And there was one picture in particular that really spoke to me: Millais’ ‘Mariana’ (1851). I was just hypnotised by it: the colours, the forms, the tenor of it, that whole Pre-Raphaelite vividness, its mixture of the medievalised historicization and Victorian respectability. And it’s a very sensual image, for all that she’s in a full length long-sleeve blue velvet gown. The way she is stretching, the sense of a body beneath the clothes—I’m sure that spoke to teenage me too. That might look odd, given the image, but there we are.
Anyway: I knew the image was based on a poem by Tennyson, so I got Tennyson’s poems out of the public library and read ‘Mariana’. It went through me like a sword. So I read a bunch of other Tennysonian stuff too, and from that to the Romantics (Keats, Coleridge, others) and other Victorians. That’s what led, eventually, to my day job—for now I’m Professor of Nineteenth-century Literature and Culture at Royal Holloway, University of London. But the first step on that path came, really, when I went back to the public library and saw they had a copy of Christopher Ricks’s Tennyson book. That really is a marvellous study: beautifully written, insightful and stimulating. You read what Ricks has to say about any given Tennyson poem and you find new things, a new and deeper appreciation of it. I suppose it’s only an ‘introductory’ study, but it’s so eloquent and brilliant it gave me a template. He’s a much underrated critics, Ricks, I think.
As a British Gen X-er, you were a child during an era of televised fantastika that strikes me (if maybe only me, and a handful of bloggers who use the word "hauntology" a lot) as uniquely rich. I'm thinking of the later Nigel Kneale, or of things like The Owl Service, Sapphire and Steele, and Children of the Stones, not to mention some of the stronger seasons of "Doctor Who," and even "The Tomorrow People" (laughable as it often is). Was this an influence on you? I'm wondering partly because these shows do "haunted suburb" scenes really well, and that's true of some of your work—though I suppose that could all just be the influence of Ballard.
I read Owl Service, and indeed all of Alan Garner (my Dad was at Manchester Grammar School with Garner—I mean, he wasn’t a family friend or anything, but going back to visit relatives meant wandering around Alderley Edge and so on which added a frisson to my reading of Weirdstone of Brisingamen) … although I never saw the TV version. But I did watch Sapphire and Steele, Tomorrow People—maybe if I rewatched that one I’d find it laughable, but I certainly didn’t at the time—and of course Doctor Who. But also US shows like The Time Tunnel and Star Trek. TOS Trek is intensely suburban, I think: the bridge of the USS Enterprise is a comfortable suburban living room with a big comfy chair for the ‘Dad’ to sit as he watches the universe come to him via his gigantic TV screen. So much of Trek is a manifestation of the comfortable life, surrounded by labour-saving devices, demure women to attend you like suburban wives and so on.
I never watched what are, now, some of the classic shows—the Patrick Goohan Prisoner series for instance was before my time, I only saw when I was properly grown up, by which time it was basically a period piece. But two shows nobody talks about any more made a big impact upon me: Greatorex’s 1990, and Terry Nation’s Survivors. I also remember the last of the Quatermass series, with John Mills as an elderly Quatermass: I hadn’t seen, and frankly had no idea about, the earlier Quatermass shows, but that 1979 drama worked strangely and powerfully upon my teenage imagination.
Whenever anyone writes about Adam Roberts—myself very much included—there are always remarks about your fearsome productivity, how hard you are to keep up with. This also applies to your selection of platforms. You jump between Blogger, Medium, and conventional publication; even as a fan, I often find out by chance that you're six-sevenths of the way through, say, translating some half-forgotten Latin epic into English on some random blog. How do you decide what platforms to use? How do you decide what projects—you always seem to have about six going at any given time—to stick to?
I don’t how I can tell you, Phil. It’s an affliction. The truth is I don’t know what I think about something until I write-out what I think about something—which is to say, I don’t sit down and make notes to get my thoughts in order and then write them up. I sit down, open my laptop and start writing. And then, as I write, what I think about whatever-it-is starts to become clear to me. So that means if I want to arrange my thoughts on Book X or Film Y, or if an idea occurs to me in the shower or whilst I’m doing the ironing, I need to sit down and write a couple thousand words to work it out. As to how I decide: well, some of it is prompted by the exigencies of my day-job, teaching this or that writer or poem or novel; some of it is stuff that occurs to me and interests me.
When they asked H. G. Wells how it was he was so productive, he replied: ‘well, I’m an indolent man, and I’m sitting down anyway. So I might as well write something.’
What younger SFF writers give you hope for the future of the field? What older science fiction writers are not getting as much attention as they merit?
The younger generation of SFF writers need no blurb from me: they’re conquering the world, and actualising a proper globalisation of SF, a shift of the genre away from a narrow canon of straight white US/Anglo dudes and towards a rich and brilliant tapestry of African and Asian and South American SF visions.
The older writer question is more tricky, because I’m bound to end up being carnival-barker for my personal idiosyncratic influences and favourites. Reading 1970s Chris Priest played a large part not just in me deciding to write SF but in the kind of SF I now write: I think he’s brilliant (I’m too close to be objective, but what the hell) and I don’t think he gets the kudos he merits—although I will say that Paul Kincaid’s recent critical study is excellent, and worth your time.
I have a theory I want to run past you. In some interviews with you, I've run across the statement that science fiction is more "imaginably hospitable" than realism, that it's a mode you just can do more with. I initially wanted to argue with this statement, and then, as I thought more about it, I realized that I agreed with it, in that I can hardly mark off "realism" from fantastika generally. I don't simply mean the trend of previously "realist" writers (McEwan, etc.) doing SF, often badly—all too often they forget to do their homework, and they repeat ineptly things that actual SF writers have done better long ago. But contemporary writers whom one might be tempted to label "realist"—Sally Rooney, for example, or Jenny Offill—are like young people generally: they're so terrified of climate change and horrified by global capitalism that their "realist" novels read like dystopias or near-future novels. When I read publisher's catalogues, I often feel like everybody both inside and outside of SFF is borrowing the Cloud Atlas structure, jumping between centuries (Hanya Yanagihara is a recent example). Even as far back as the New Wave writers of the '60s and '70s, Pamela Zoline showed (in "Heat Death of the Universe") that you could take a basically domestic-psychological realist story and recontextualize it as SF in a way that seemed to expand both the story and the genre. Is SFF eating realism? Or is something else happening?
One argument here would be the one advanced in Gary Wolfe’s 2011 book Evaporating Genres, that science fiction, fantasy, and horror evolve and merge, and then "evaporate" into new and more dynamic forms, including a kind of hybrid realism that is increasingly predominant in ‘the novel’. A chemical analogy rather than a carnivorous one. I’m not sure that’s true, though.
I do think “realism” is a meaningful category, although it’s harder to define than (say) my students tend to think it is.
What is realism? It’s a specific literary form that comes out of le naturalisme in the French 19th-century, and that establishes itself in the work of Zola, George Eliot, Tolstoy, Gissing and a few others. People still write plenty of books like that, although it is, when you take the long view, a sidebar—for most of human history, the stories people have demanded have been one or other version of fantastika, from the Epic of Gilgamesh through the Odyssey and The Golden Ass, via Beowulf to medieval romance and on to the modern categories of SF and Fantasy and all that. But that’s alright: I don’t say so to denigrate Realism. Microcultures can produce wonderful art.
No, I think my point is otherwise. People think ‘realism’ is a matter of content—stories about the kinds of people you might meet in quote-unquote real-life, in recognisable cities and societies, hedged within the bounds of plausibility and so on. But that’s not it. ‘Realist’ novels often do cover that kind of content, but before it is a textual content ‘realism’ is a textual style, a textual form: the linear narrative, the specificity, declarative prose that aims for a pseudo-documentary verisimilitude, fond of precisely observed detail, often piled up in great lists of things—when Zola’s characters walk around the market in Le Ventre de Paris (1873) Zola describes the grande salle exactly as it was, and stints none of the merchandise: all the many kinds of vegetables heaped up, all the varieties of fish, listed in great wodges of prose. You get a detailed sense of what this place was like, but here’s the thing: that’s the style and form of most science fiction too. Stan Robinson’s Mars books are masterpieces, but he writes them using all the stylistic and formal bells and whistles of Realism: oodles of precisely observed (or precisely extrapolated) detail, lists of things, a linear progression through a world evoked with scads of specificity. This is not to say all SF is written in a realistic mode: E E ‘Doc’ Smith writes a kind of melodramatic bombast. But Clarke and Asimov and Heinlein and Herbert all use those tools—a sort of pared-down simplified realist mode for Asimov, quite dry but always materially specific. Le Guin inhabits various styles but Always Coming Home, which some consider her masterpiece, is solidly Realist in form and style, a kind of pastiche of actual documentary writing. Delany’s Dhalgren starts with gestures towards Finnegans Wake and free indirect style, but most of the book is written in an idiom of precisely observed contemporary realism. (Much of Dhalgren is descriptions of people having sex, actually, and like porn much writing about sex defaults to a realist mode—not that porn is an accurate representation of sex, because obviously it’s not: but the style and form, the insistence on listing all the specific bodily parts and what they’re doing, the flattened affect of exhaustively laying out all these particularities. It’s why so much porn is so dull, I think.)
It’s a method that can often be dull, in other modes too. In SF we call it ‘infodumping’ when it bogs the story down, but infodumping is just a synonym for ‘the narrative strategies of le naturalisme’. And my perhaps counter-intuitive argument would be, few of the writers conventionally pegged as ‘realists’ are actually in charge of that instrument. So my problem with McEwan is not when he occasionally dabbles in SF, weak though those books are: it’s when he thinks he’s writing a realist novel, and does it really badly. Saturday, say, whose protagonist is a surgeon, and for which McEwan talked with surgeon friends and made detailed notes that he then decanted straight into the novel. It’s dull, it’s super dull. He had misunderstood the kind of writer he is. McEwan is not a realist: he is more of a poet—as, for example, in the stunning image at the end of the Black Dogs novella, the eloquently deracinated moments of Cement Garden and Comfort of Strangers. He seems to have forgotten all that. It’s been years since he wrote anything that was, you know: good.
Perhaps the reason ‘we’ (for certain metrics of ‘we’) are so addicted to Twitter is precisely because it satisfies our yearning for an aphorism of banality rather than an aphorism of profundity; an aphorism that closes down rather than discloses, that glues us together in our shared pettiness.
And in December you took a look at “the new prolixity”—the seemingly random ongoingness of writers like Knausgaard, Fosse, and others. Are these two different modes for pursuing the same end? The Pithy Petty vs. The Encyclopedic Petty? Can pettiness be artistically generative, or is this a bad sign?
Isn’t that one of the secrets of life, one we only realise (or perhaps I’m only talking about myself here) belatedly? Grandiose and hyperbolic melodrama is mendacious. Some people are enamoured of it, sure. People can even get addicted to it. But no gigantic space explosion or earthquake or collectively vast hideously beweaponed battlecruisers the size of moons can capture the intensities occasioned by the quiddities of ordinary living. It’s a kind of acromegaly of the imagination, odd-looking and lumbering.
It’s what Chesterton says: the two great human dramatic stabs are mortality and ridiculousness: every (wo)man is tragic in that they have to die; every (wo)man is comic if their hat blows off and they have to chase after it down street. SF is a metaphorical literature, in that (as Samuel Delany says) it aims to represent the world instead of reproducing it—but although there is, perhaps, a drift towards hypertrophy in the genre’s metaphors, that’s not inevitable. I mean, I’ve been guilty of it myself, I have to concede. But I think there is untapped potential in the genre’s capacity to explore the actual stuff of life, the random, the trivial, the prolix. Joe Chip bickering with his AI-door as he tries to leave his apartment. It’s not Dave Bowman transcending through the Stargate, but rather him chatting to his mum and dad on a videocall, or jogging endlessly round his spaceship. ‘The door dilated’, in that Heinlein story, is preliminary to the hero stepping out into quote-unquote ‘exciting’ adventures—but it’s the door dilated that we remember, not the whatever-they-were adventures. Because that’s true to life. And I stand by my assertion that SF’s metaphors are both more eloquent but also truer to life than the paraphernalia and whifwhaf realist writers deploy.
We're both Gen X guys, so I have to ask you: what are some of your desert-island records?
It's all exactly what you'd expect. Really. I'd hate to disappoint you by trying to conceal how disappointingly conventional are my music passions. So, it's white guitar bands—Beatles, Who—skewing New Wave: Smiths, Jam, Joy Division, REM, Julian Cope, Elvis Costello (I have an Costello lyric, or a bit of one, tattooed on my left shoulder) leavened by a love for Kate Bush, and quite a lot of electric folk from the same era, Fairport/Richard & Linda Thompson and so on. I also listen to a lot of classical, from Bach on to Debussy and Satie, but especially the big symphonic stuff from Mozart/Beethoven through the 19th-century. Wagner. Parsifal is just sublime. I can't persuade my Jewish wife to come see an actual Wagner opera with me. “He was anti-Semitic,” she says, and so he was. Really, very much so—not just in the background-radiation sense in which most 19thC gentiles were anti-Semitic, but properly, virulently anti-Semitic. Parsifal is particularly anti-Semitic. But, God, it's extraordinary music.
The other big strand in my listening is electronica: I love Jean Michel Jarre. I love him. Mike Oldfield: I have literally everything he's ever recorded. I don't care if you think that's naff. It is naff. Naff is the true temperament of cool, on this hill I will die. Go away and listen to Hergest Ridge and tell me it's not a sublime piece of music. Prog too: Genesis, Pink Floyd, Yes. I listen to music when I write, so I listen to a lot of music. Although then again, there’s some music I used to love that I can’t listen to any more.
I wanted to use an Costello lyric as the epigraph to The This actually, from the album he recorded with the Roots: “when you gonna wise up/Rise up Ghost”. My publisher baulked: I had, they said, to get unambiguous copyright clearance and pay any fee required out of my pocket. And I tried! But EC's people never got back to me, so it had to be cut. Shame really: it's perfect for the book.
At the conclusion of an author interview, it's customary to ask the subject "What book are you working on next?" Since I'm talking to Adam Roberts, I'll modify the question: "What half-dozen or so books are you working on next?"
I'm due a sabbatical at my University, which they award if you make the case you have an academic project worth completing, and if you apply for assisting funding and so on—mine got delayed by Covid. So I'm getting a head start on that by laying the keel of a book about Dickens and Spirit: souls and religion, but also alcohol (CD liked a tipple) and “the spirit of the age”, which many of his contemporaries thought Dickens embodied. The various senses in which he was just a very spirited writer, full of a unique kind of energy, or engagement, or vibe. Also about ghosts, of course: CD wrote some genuinely wonderful ghost stories. And also about Geist, Hegel a bit, a little bit of Derrida's De l'espirit, one of the few Derrida books I can still read, that still seems to me to have valuable things to say, non-Heideggerian though I am (Spectres de Marx is OK too, although, as you say above: everybody talks about hauntology nowadays, it’s all over academia at the moment like a rash. I'm going to try and steer a little clear of that in what I do).
Literary criticism can do, has been doing, some things really well: formal analysis and things like narratology are extremely nuanced and sophisticated nowadays, and critics are good at exploring intertextuality, and the social, cultural and political contexts of literature. But there are some things we lit-critics are poor at, and two things in particular: analysing characterisation, and reading humour. In the latter case I think it’s the old problem that a joke explained stops being funny, but the former surprises me: characters are a main thing people love about novels and plays and films, one thing people specifically go to literature for. Yet analysis is still more-or-less stuck in E M Forster’s “two dimensional versus three dimensional characters” stage—an analysis I think is wrongheaded, actually. Dickens is in many respects a caricaturist rather than a painter of nuanced character; he really doesn’t do interiority, and his figures move through often melodramatic, goodies-and-baddies worlds. Nonetheless his characters live, they are alive—they are, I would say, inspirited in some way. And that really interests me: what it is, textually speaking, that means Dickens’s writing is suffused with Dickensianness, how it is that Dickens’s people are inspirited. He’s also really funny, and there’s a particular spirit in that too. So that’s what I’m trying to get into with this one.
I'm also about a quarter of a way into a novel, with the working title Lake of Darkness: a space-opera thing, future humanity applying as-it-were can-openers to black holes, seeing what comes out. My son, 14, thinks I should call the book Space Satan!!, with the exclamation marks. My agent agrees.