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Stone by Adam Roberts4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsAdam Roberts’ third novel Stone is the strange, absorbing and sometimes gut-wrenching story of the loneliest person in the universe. Ae is the sole criminal sociopath among the zillions of citizens of the interstellar t’T civilization, an honest-to-goodness utopia in which intelligent nanotech (or dotTech) keeps people healthy and alive for centuries for purely hedonistic pursuits, and such archaic notions as politics and economics are practiced only as amusing fads. For their crimes (gender-switching is common, and we don’t even find out until halfway through the book that Ae is currently presenting female), Ae has had their dotTech removed and been imprisoned for life within the jailstar, an inescapable enclosure buried beneath the heliosphere of a remote sun.

But now there’s an interesting development. Ae is contacted, somehow, by a nameless entity who offers to break them out of the jailstar — a presumably impossible feat in and of itself — in exchange for one “simple” task: Ae must kill off the entire population of a world. The world itself must be preserved, but no people must survive. Desperate to be free, Ae accepts the offer and worries about consequences later. 

How’s that for a high-concept grabber? The mystery immediately engrosses you as it engrosses our pitiful antihero. Exactly who wants this atrocity done, and why? Ae can get no answers from the AI implanted — again, somehow — in their brain by their shadowy rescuers.

Ae is first met by a member of the enigmatic Wheah civilization, and then travels to numerous t’T worlds in an apparent effort to procrastinate as much as possible from carrying out the mission. Dire threats about re-imprisonment come from their increasingly agitated AI, but Ae — in addition to growing dubious about the job, though they have never said they will refuse to complete it — is in actuality trying to connect with the worlds and communities from which they’ve been distanced by their unique pathology. 

An entire interstellar civilization given over to leisure and sexual adventure might seem like one of those old-hat tropes that’s just a little tough to believe. Roberts here is making the ironic point that such a civilization’s worst pariah is most likely its most involved and grounded member, that a utopia might even need a figure like Ae to shake it out of its self-absorbed torpor. In their brief travels before the genocide must be carried out, Ae makes sincere attempts to fit in on several worlds and be happy, and even convinces themself they’ve fallen in love at one point — an idea greeted by the love object as uniquely strange. In each case, they find a decadent, superficial people who can’t commit to anything genuine as a matter of course. 

But does that mean any of them deserve to die? When Ae commits their first post-release murder, it disturbs them in a way they aren’t used to. We learn of Ae’s childhood, as is routine among psychologically motivated plots, and the pattern of events that shaped Ae into a killer. While I wasn’t sure I fully bought the implication that this kind of development wouldn’t happen to more members of the t’T culture than one in a zillion, Roberts’ explanations for the epiphany that led to Ae’s murderous nature, and the ultimate revelation of who has set them on their onerous task, are both satisfying and, in the latter case, rather ingenious.

At well below 300 pages, Stone is taut, engaging, and moving in the way only stories about the irretrievably lonely and isolated can be. Adam Roberts is a gifted writer who loves to tweak preconceptions and push you to think about things in challenging ways. Hopefully one day, he will enjoy a presence in American bookstores as prominent as that which he enjoys in his native England.