Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts
Reviewed by Duncan Lawie
With Purgatory Mount, Adam Roberts has written a rather peculiar novel. This should not surprise anyone paying attention to Roberts’ SF career. Regular readers of his oeuvre may be bemused to discover that he has come up with yet another way to bamboozle and delight.
The book opens with a post-human space crew arriving at a peculiar alien artefact. The eponymous object extends far above the atmosphere of a planet with no other signs of habitation. The narrator makes a point of the distance in time and culture when the text says that using referents such as Pan, Apollo and Hades to name the crew are inevitably imprecise ‘cultural translations’. They have the delightful capability of changing their perceptions of time, dialling up or down at will. This allows the tedium of an interstellar journey to pass in weeks or months; or to speed up perception for active maintenance as required. Surely there is enough here to unpack into a novel, as the puzzle is investigated. Instead, we switch to the perspective of the pygs, part of the ship’s livestock, on whom four of the five crew feasted to celebrate arrival. Then we discover pyg is short for pygmy and that this is a belittling term describing their incredibly limited lifespan – mere decades. The pygs, hunting and farming, recall the decayed civilisation of Aldiss’s Non-Stop (1958), living out generations on a starship’s journey. Yet they also refer to the system running the ship as “hal” and worship the crew, who barely move in a pyg’s lifetime, as gods.
Enough yet? Apparently not, as the book abruptly switches to the “United States of Amnesia” which fills three quarters of the pages. Now we are presented with a teenager in near future America, shot at whilst scavenging copper wire.
Otty and her friends are a kind of Famous Five. They have a private internet, to escape surveillance; but there is something in this network which The State and its opponents want for themselves. As they are pursued or arrested, the country falls apart in armed uprisings. There is bleak comedy and dulled tragedy as Otty is subjected to the casual horrors of a system prepared to misuse rules meant to protect the citizenry. Her incarceration slides into bureaucratic incompetence as her country collapses. Roberts’ sharp observations of the nature of our twenty-first century are always present. An example of this is the amnesia itself – the result of neonicotinoids. These pesticides are well known to cause honeybees to forget where their hives are. Weaponised against humans, they cause soldiers to forget. In Roberts’s 2010 novel New Model Army, connected technology augments citizen soldiers, creating a superorganism. Here, similar technology is needed just to enable much of the population to have any sense of self. Disconnected from their devices, they become thoughtless, mindless.
Enough? No! As this story reaches its denouement, revealing what is actually in the private network, we are whiplashed back to the starship at Planet Dante. This story takes an unexpected turn, if one which follows a thread established in the opening pages. Roberts provides one line to connect the ends to the middle but the protagonists of these sections have almost no cognisance of Otty’s world. There is a temptation to close the book in bafflement and let it fade into slipstreamy feelings.
And then there is the afterword. Here is a key to unlock the book, which claims not to be such a key. Roberts (or perhaps Dante’s Matilda, or even Beatrice) delivers a reward for the reader who has climbed to the top of Purgatory Mount. This note on the book’s construction suggests that it is only with the passing of time that we can have ‘story’; that purgatory is as much about ‘putting up with’ as persisting. By this reckoning, ‘story’ exists in sin, between the fear of damnation and the hope of redemption.