Land Of The Headless by Adam Roberts (book review)

January 16, 2015 | By | Reply More

Adam Roberts is an ideas man. ‘Land Of The Headless’ is only the second of his novels I have read. The first was ‘Stone’. In both books, Roberts introduces some very modern and refreshing ideas. But where Roberts really excels is in the thinking through of those ideas. Nothing is throwaway in a Roberts novel. ‘Stone’ carefully examined the concept of personal nanotechnology in a very thorough way and also looked into faster-than-light travel with quantum mechanics in mind.


Land Of The Headless’ doesn’t quite reach those heady heights but I found ‘Headless’ to be a more enjoyable story. The central idea seems most preposterous at the start. The book is initially set on the planet of Pluse, which this reviewer read as Pulse until about halfway through and then did a double take and realised my mistake. Pluse society is based on a rather fundamental adherence to the word of God as laid out in the Bibliqu`ran. As such, there are three crimes in Pluse law for which the perpetrator is beheaded: murder, heresy and adultery. However, Pluse is also technologically advanced and the society considers it appropriate that the criminal should continue their life following their beheading. To facilitate this, the criminal is fitted with a computer called an ordinator at the base of the spine. Prior to beheading, the ordinator downloads the criminal’s personality, memories and the rest of their mind. Then, at the moment of beheading, the ordinator takes over all operations. A neck valve and artificial senses are added at the criminal’s own expense and the criminal then goes about their new life dealing with things without their head.

The main protagonist is Jon Cavala, a man who accepts the accusation of adultery rather than besmirch the honour of his twenty-one year-old underage lover. Accordingly beheaded, he must now adapt to life with the stigma of his crime. The novel does a fair job of conveying the discrimination faced by the headless as second class citizens in a religious society. Interestingly, Cavala himself, being a product of his society, accepts most of this with a rather serene acceptance. However, Cavala is his own worst critic. Having been befriended by Siuzan Delage, a fanatic adherent to the Bibliqu`ran, Cavala falls promptly in love. Rather saintly Suizan decides to shepherd Cavala and two fellow headless to a different city to make a new home.

During the journey an incident occurs and Cavala finds himself arrested. Finding justice distinctly slanted against him, Cavala feels compelled to volunteer for the army. Suddenly, the book takes a right turn into military SF territory. The novel makes some nice observations about the harsh training regime these second-class soldiers get and the value the army places on troops that cannot be put out of action by a head wound. Shipped off to a completely different world to fight in the sugar wars, Cavala goes on a similar spiritual journey. His self-perception goes through a number of stages and this is really what the book is about.

The whole novel is told in the first person which rams home Cavala’s various feelings and most importantly his self delusions. A lot of Cavala’s thoughts goes into revenge against the headless he feels was guilty of the incident effecting Suizan. Roberts skilfully alters Cavala’s mind set throughout the book in a way that seems subtle enough not to jar but shows huge upheaval by the end.

Land Of The Headless’ is quite different in character from ‘Stone.’ It seems that Roberts is skilled in giving a novel a unique voice. Naturally, all the description is couched in terms of Cavala’s observations giving them a character that adds to the evocation. Action is written clearly and decisively allowing the reader to quickly grasp the situation. Love and lust are handled in a deft and delicate manner. Technology has the right level of commonplace presence. Hatred seethes with appropriate heat. Altogether it becomes quite compelling and suddenly was a book I didn’t want to put down.

It is true that in the first couple of chapters I found the main concept preposterous. It is so outlandish, how could one not? But it is a credit to Roberts that he makes it work with panache. Roberts somehow manages to make the preposterous fit as correct and like much classic SF then uses the preposterous to tell a story about the human condition.

I have no qualms about recommending this book. Indeed, I find myself anticipating reading more of Roberts’ work. It is thoroughly aimed at the adult reader without the presence of sex, instead inviting one to consider the nature of love, revenge and our perceptions of them. As a novel it rather defies classification beyond SF. It is part-military SF, part-religious satire, part-serious study of self-delusion. One thing I am sure of is that it is certainly not written in the Land Of The Mindless.

David Corby

January 2015

(pub: Gollancz. 274 page enlarged paperback. Price: £10.99 (UK only). ISBN: 978-0-575-07799-7)

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Category: Books, Scifi

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