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The Thing Itself by Adam RobertsFour stars
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One might think of philosophy as a vital intellectual endeavor, or little more than fodder for rambling late-night conversations in a college dorm, enhanced by assorted chemical stimulants and some Pink Floyd dialed up on Spotify. But it has provided a dazzling fever dream of a foundation for The Thing Itself, a book in which Adam Roberts quite possibly achieves Peak Adam Roberts, mixing such elements as mad scientists and helicopter chases over Arctic wastes with the curious spectacle of a time-hopping AI having a Platonic dialogue about the existence of God with a physicist. If science fiction is meant to be a truly speculative fiction, where ideas have no limits and the imagination is free, it takes a book like this one to drive home just how rarely that kind of SF is written. Though The Thing Itself may not have changed my own views regarding metaphysics, let alone God, it gave my brain some real treats to chew on, proving that a book can be — contrary to what some seem to think — full of challenging ideas and roaring entertainment at the same time.

If you're not academically trained (or at least well-read) in philosophy, the most you're likely to know about Immanuel Kant is that he was a real pissant who was very rarely stable. But in his treatise The Critique of Pure Reason, Kant argued that such concepts as time and space were simply the human mind's way of ordering and comprehending objective reality, that those were not actual features of the cosmos, and that true understanding of the universe — the "thing in itself" — was thus out of our reach, because we cannot step outside of our own minds to observe it. Naturally, Kant's premises alone are pretty out there, and you'd be right in assuming philosophers (and not just those in college dorms) have donated a great deal of grey matter to arguing over them down the years. And yes, there's probably been a lot of Floyd on heavy rotation in the background.

In The Thing Itself, Roberts catches Kant's central ideas and runs them all the way down the field. The story involves the development of an AI to test Kant's central thesis: if a human mind cannot properly perceive the universe, perhaps a non-human mind can. And if time and space are merely constructs originating between our ears, then what could be achieved by a mind not limited by such cognitive biases? Could it traverse interstellar distances, access the past and distant future?

The story opens in the 80s, as two British scientists, Roy Curtius and Charles Gardner, are doing SETI work at a remote Antarctic outpost. Charles is more or less a regular bloke, while Roy is mostly introverted, moody, and obsessed with Kant. As tensions and personality conflicts grow between the two men, something in Roy snaps and he comes very close to murdering Charles by locking him outside their station. Charles does not survive unscathed, however, and during the worst moments stranded outside in the cold, he experiences... something. A vision, an encounter, something he cannot quite identify, but which affects him profoundly all the same.

Cut to the present day, and Charles' life has been in a downward spiral in the decades since his experience. A long bout with alcoholism has left him, now in his early fifties, working as a trash collector, his scientific golden years far behind him. To his surprise he is contacted by an institute you immediately know is shady, as they only call themselves The Institute. It's a truism that no reputable business would ever name itself in such a generic way. If you're driving at night, common sense will tell you not to stay at a motel whose sign simply reads "Motel," unless you want to end up talked about on one of those YouTube videos with titles like "Creepiest Unsolved Disappearances."

The Institute offers Charles his old life back, literally seducing him into the arrangement, and he is informed that they are in the process of developing an AI, called Peta, in the vital interests of national security. But they need Charles's help in contacting his old colleague and nemesis Roy, who has, since the incident in the Antarctic, been incarcerated at Broadmoor, where he is considered exceptionally dangerous. Whatever it was Roy was up to in that frozen remote outpost, his work became the foundation of the Institute's research goals. Naturally, Charles doesn't relish the thought of the meeting, but he has no way to anticipate how events will take a turn, increasingly desperate and urgent, afterwards.

What Roberts has crafted here reads like some delirious love child of Philip K. Dick, Douglas Adams and Robert Ludlum, but it gets even stranger. The main narrative is interspersed with chapters, which act almost as stand-alone stories, with different narrators set in different time periods, from the medieval past to an undetermined future. In each of these, characters will have inexplicable (to them) experiences, visions of some hyper-reality just beyond the veil. A couple of these chapters are hard to digest, but some are so strong that they could qualify as award-worthy novelettes if they'd been published on their own. And when Roberts ingeniously links all of them to the main narrative as the book nears its climax, you'll realize you've had the rare pleasure of watching one of science fiction's finest storytelling minds at work and at play. As a writer, Adam Roberts isn't just a lot of things. He's the thing itself.