The Roamers by Francesco Verso
(Flame Tree Press, 2023)
Reviewed by Stuart Carter
Long, long ago, back in the nineties before I’d written a single review for Vector, it felt like a boom time for nanotechnology in science fiction: Neal Stephenson’s whimsical The Diamond Age, Kathleen Ann Goonan’s jazz-heavy ,Nanontech Quartet, Wil McCarthy’s vertiginous Bloom, and the grandaddy of them all, Greg Bear’s magnificent Blood Music.
So, I felt a Proustian rush on reading this new nanotech novel: The Roamers, by Francesco Verso. Set in Rome, and translated from the original Italian, The Roamers follows a group who “…altered their bodies, changed the way they eat and liberated themselves from the need for food” (back cover). The blurb mixes the terrifying onrush of transformation in Blood Music with the hard work of grasping and maintaining freedom seen in much of Cory Doctorow’s work.
I was hooked immediately, and eager to follow Alan, who lives in Rome and works for “Globalzon” but, after a bad fall, is left paralysed from the waist down. Fortunately, his mother, Miriam, is able to contact hackers on the Dark Web who can help her son with revolutionary nanotechnology they have been developing. But wait—nanotechnology itself is not revolutionary, because in this near-future world nanotechnology already exists and is available on every street corner via Public Matter Compositors (or PMC). What our Dark Web hackers have developed is a new application of nanotechnology that will help Miriam’s son walk again—and more!
Because in this near future of publicly available nanotechnology it seems no one has thought of using nanotech to repair spinal injuries like Alan’s.
But never mind the technical questions, do Dark Web hackers have the moral right to develop such new applications of this technology? Fortunately, Miriam has a pompous, info dumping friend, Ivan, who lectures her about the pros and cons throughout chapter 4. Thanks, Ivan; you can go now.
After taking the nanites, Alan begins to feel unwell—something is changing in him! What will happen now? How will these nanites alter him? Has he made a terrible mistake?!
At which point The Roamers’ focus switches to Nicolas, a previously unseen character, where it stays for much of the book’s remaining length. Nicolas is a perfumier of sorts, morbidly obese, and has a dysfunctional relationship with food that is about to kill him.
What’s happened to Alan and his nanites? We don’t know. We’re stuck with Nicolas as he has some minor, forgettable, adventures, while attempting to score some of this new, secret, previously unimagined nanotechnology for himself.
Only after a great many pages about Nicolas does Alan reappear: he’s lost weight, is walking again and leading a commune of anarchist taxi-runners, who live in a fantasy world where they’re romantic revolutionaries living on the fringes of a collapsing society. Or something. Anyway, Alan’s revolutionary nanotechnology is doing revolutionary, er…stuff, although no-one seems sure quite what (come back Ivan, all is forgiven!). Meanwhile, the anarchist taxi commune has set up home on an abandoned viaduct in a totally revolutionary gesture of, like, something or other. The police put the anarchist taxi commune under siege, there’s some trouble, and then The Roamers ends, with any possibilities for a brave new future free of hunger and exploitation quite lost.
The blurb on the back of The Roamers is misleading in every way because this is emphatically not a genuine examination of who and what humanity could become when we’re truly free. Try as I might, what The Roamers was trying to say never became clear, and I kept waiting for something—anything!—beyond the undergraduate philosophy of “All these poor sheeple with their jobs and marriage, unlike I, who know better and am a free and “real” person”.
You’re better off sticking with the Nineties nanotech: Greg Bear, man—that guy knew!