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Gradisil by Adam RobertsUK edition3.5 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsGradisil is, in many ways, an extraordinary feat. Provocative in terms of both its narrative choices and its themes, this sprawling tale of nation-building in Earth’s orbit could be thought of as the heir apparent to Heinlein’s The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress. More prosaically, it’s not so much a saga about nation-building as it is a frontal assault on American foreign policy since Bush, couched as a multi-generational revenge story. Readers of a certain political persuasion (don’t let Orson Scott Card read this!) will condemn Gradisil as anti-American and reactionary. But that would simply be attacking symptoms, when a sound treatment of the disease might be to contemplate how we ever came to such a pass in world politics that people have started publishing novels in which the U.S. are unequivocally the bad guys. 

This is an abrupt about-face from the proud Cold War jingoism of only twenty years ago (exemplified by such books as Ben Bova’s Privateers), and even though Adam Roberts is a UKer, it’s a sobering sign of how far America’s stock has fallen in world opinion since 2003, even among our old friends. Gradisil is not merely post-9/11 SF but post-Iraq-War SF, in which America’s traditionally-assumed moral high ground in promoting peace and world freedom is not only not taken as a given but cynically, even caustically rebuked. Reading this book puts one in kind of an inverse Sally Field moment: They don’t like us! They really, really don’t like us! Are we just reaping what the W administration’s track record has sown?

As I’m one of those wild-eyed anti-war loonies, I’m not particularly offended by Gradisil’s politics. In fact I think much of Roberts’ slagging of U.S. hawkishness — here portrayed as having been overtaken by lawyers, whose labyrinthine litigation practices demand no war even be declared unless a victory is a foregone conclusion and a specific timetable for said victory is followed to the letter — makes for some blistering satire. What reservations I have about Gradisil are more concerned with some of Roberts’ storytelling choices. This is a major work, though problematic, what you might term a flawed masterpiece. It’s the kind of book not easily dismissed by any means, the kind to prompt much argument and discussion.

Gradisil is spread across three generations and parallels the rise of the Uplands, an orbital community that starts with a mere handful of rich eccentrics living in cobbled-together tin cans but grows over half a century to tens of thousands of idealists, dreamers, and malcontents. Individual (wealthy individual, that is) spaceflight has become a reality due to an ingeniously conceived means of using the Earth’s own magnetosphere, rather than wasteful fuel-propelled rockets, to boost small craft into orbit and even back down again. The inventor of this technology is the grandfather of Gradisil Gyeroffy, and his lovely metaphor for his new electromagnetic drive — comparing the magnetosphere to the branches of the legendary tree Yggdrasil — even gives her her name. (“Gradisil” is a bastardization of Yggdrasil.)

The first third of the story belongs to Klara, Gradisil’s mother, and details in gripping fashion both the genesis of the Uplands and Klara’s lifelong obsession with avenging the murder of her father, whom she believes was assassinated by the Americans. This part of the novel ends with a surprising double-twist that leaves you reeling from the skill it clearly took for Roberts to pull it off. Klara’s perceptions of events in her life are not exactly wholly reliable, and her distrust towards the U.S. has a major influence upon her daughter, though they are otherwise never really close.

The main body of the story, of course, is Gradisil’s. From the outset Roberts’ handling of her character is risky but oddly engaging. I have had occasion to pan novels in which the titular character remains far too remote a figure to inspire an emotional investment; Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel comes to mind. Gradisil is similarly remote, but I think Roberts has a clearer handle on her. Having grown to adulthood from a youth of military adventure following the first official war over the Uplands (in which the U.S. effortlessly derailed attempts by the EU to establish a foothold), Gradisil has grown into a thoroughly calculating individual bent on the single-minded goal of nationhood for the Uplands. She’s so immersed in her role as statesperson that there seems no real person there at all. Every act or expression is a gesture, a performance designed to achieve a result. Every relationship is simply a means to an end. Her story is told through the narrative of her emasculated, wealthy trophy husband, Paul Caunes, whose life consists of one systematic humiliation after another (Gradisil unabashedly bears, and expects Paul to raise, two sons by other men) but who cannot — does not wish to — free himself of the hypnotic hold Gradisil has over him.

I was fascinated by Gradisil — not because I liked her, as she’s never likable, but because Roberts makes her convincing for all of her arch qualities. Having Paul tell her story achieves the desired effect. Gradisil’s commanding presence, her almost irresistible charisma, and her mind, calculating towards the higher goal no matter what the cost (to achieve one nearly impossible victory over the Americans, she elects to stay in orbit long enough that she miscarries) — all of this seems more believable when seen through the eyes of a narrator who himself sees through the artifice yet is still captivated by it. Gradisil becomes the de facto president of the Uplands, a title she is always careful never to call herself, and she does it all through her forceful personality and a preternatural ability to see the big picture. In an overt reference to current world affairs, seeing the big picture is not exactly a skill possessed by the American government, who are focused on claiming the rebellious Uplands first and working out the details later. Some of the American characters, particularly a smarmy vice president, are too cartoonish by half, but the satire is biting. 

We never get to know Gradisil too deeply, but as she’s just an actress on a stage of her own devising, that’s the whole idea. In real life, we don’t actaully know the politicians who represent or oppose us, whom we see on TV or the internet daily. They’re important figures to us, because their actions affect all our lives, but we still don’t know them in the way we know our real friends, those whom we’d actually trust to make decisions affecting our lives. One can read deeper into the narrative and see that Paul is probably wrong when he asserts that Gradisil’s one and only care in life is the Uplands. I don’t think it’s even that. Gradisil is obsessed with the legend of Gradisil. It’s not that everything and everyone in her life is a stepping stone towards Upland independence. Rather, the Uplands themselves are a stepping stone towards immortality for Gradisil. Roberts doesn’t exactly make her desire lines that overt, but it was an impression I was left with very strongly at the end. 

I mentioned the metatheme of revenge. While Klara’s vendetta against the U.S. is, to a degree, manifested in Gradisil, Klara is far more emotionally demonstrative (indeed, she pretty much goes mad). Gradisil evolves into the meticulous, cool and obsessive Machievellian. Meanwhile, Paul’s simpering passive-agressiveness turns into action when he chooses to regain control over a life for all intents and purposes controlled by Gradisil. Paul’s own vengeful designs are helped along by American agents bent on revenge themselves.

At over 550 pages, the book is long but well-paced. Its biggest flaw is that it ultimately overplays its hand and gives us a third part to the story that feels, if not gratuitous, fairly inessential. Seeing the grown sons of Gradisil undertaking their own vengeful quest — with one of them ambivalent due to concerns about a business venture — doesn’t really add much. Indeed, since Gradisil is an intriguing figure but not one in whom we’re exactly fond, we aren’t all that invested in seeing her fate avenged. The book would have been tighter, leaner (by a hundred pages, almost), and, I think, more profound and effective dramatically had it ended at the end of part two. 

Still, I would never deprive Roberts of his indulgences. When he isn’t delving into his characters’ chaotic ids, he can be relied upon to deliver a bravura setpiece. There’s a sequence running twenty pages describing the experience of a character falling from low earth orbit into the upper atmosphere, where a fiery death almost certainly awaits. It’s almost ludicrous in its audacity, but it’s an undeniable tour de force.

Gradisil is the kind of challenging and perception-skewing work the best SF always ought to be, the product of a fecund imagination who understands that humanity is never at its most idealistic and most sensible at the same time. It’s imperfect, but forgivably so, perhaps because what imperfections it has mirror those of its relentlessly driven characters — particularly the one whom we are asked to believe is the most perfect of them all. Gradisil.