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Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts (book review).

February 26, 2021 | By | Reply More

In the far distant future, a group of long-lived humans take a 40 light year flight aboard the starship Forward to investigate an interesting feature detected on the planet V538 Aurigae. The craft is also a generation ship for what appears to be a sub-species of human and briefly reminded me of ‘Non-Stop’ by Brian Aldiss. Lots of interesting high-concept concepts appear in this first section of the novel and are continued when the novel returns to this setting for the third act.

In the middle, we switch to what appears to be an entirely different novel, set not too far in the future in an unstable USA, though to be honest it didn’t seem that far removed from the current USA. A biological weapon that causes memory loss has been unleashed at some point, leaving people dependent on their smartphones to keep track of their own lives. Even more so than today, that is. Here we follow Otty, a teenage girl who, along with her friends, operates a semi-illegal private computer network in order to avoid being observed by the state. Unfortunately, they seem to have attracted the attention of the state, leading Otty into a series of unfortunate encounters with the beleaguered authorities. I spent a long time wondering how on Earth the two were going to connect.

Aside from the obvious differences in time and location, the two alternate settings also have very different pacing and tone. The advanced beings aboard the Forward have discussions on philosophy and comparative religion, theology and advanced physics. Compared to the lowly beings who live on their ship, they are gods and consider themselves to be such. Otty and her friends back on Earth are among the lowly, relatively poor, down-trodden masses whose lives are controlled and surveilled by the powerful, anonymous State.

They don’t view the State as godlike, but they do recognise its all-pervasive powers of surveillance. What makes this section, which comprises the bulk of the novel, intriguing is that we don’t really know what, if anything, Otty and her Famous Five group of friends have squirreled away in their private network. The police or security services or whomever, are exceedingly interested in it and are determined to possess whatever this mystery piece of software is. A matter of national security, they say. As the USA falls apart and the memory-loss plague spreads, it soon becomes evident that nobody is truly in charge of anything.

The truth of what Otty and her friends have been up to emerges with glacial, stately slowness. It’s not until the finale of Otty’s story that little tiny, obscure clues spring back to mind. It’s a wonderfully powerful piece of writing, made more so by the fact that up until that point it appears to be a fairly mundane story of societal breakdown, abuse of power, computer hackers and civil war.

Then, while still reeling from the implications, we return to the Forward, where I assumed all would suddenly become clear. How the two sections relate would, I was sure, spring into sharp relief. It doesn’t, though. I thought I could see a connection, maybe a couple of connections, but it certainly didn’t smack one in the face.

You could probably read this novel as a novelette split in half with a novella sandwiched between them and be perfectly happy with both of them. Adam Roberts has stitched them together subtly and seamlessly, though. You can enjoy the novel in its parts and spend some time afterwards appreciating the whole.

Gareth D Jones

February 2021

(pub: Gollancz, 2021. 336 page hardback. Price: £16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-47323-094-1)

check out website: www.gollancz.com

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Category: Books, Scifi

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