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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Gradisil by Adam Roberts

Gradisil by Adam Roberts. Amherst, NY: Pyr, 2007. ISBN: 978-1-59102-538-2

It is sometimes illuminating to look at the “Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data” printed at the bottom of the verso of the title page, especially the subject headings that have been assigned. Library catalogers didn't always assign subject headings to fiction, but in recent years it has become the thing to do. This book has four such subject headings assigned to it:

  • Twenty-first century—Fiction
  • Space colonies—Fiction
  • Space flight—Fiction
  • Revenge—Fiction

Now the first three, I can understand, and even agree with. The fourth one I understand, but I'm not entirely sure I agree with it. If I had to assign a non tangible heading like that, I think I would have chosen something along the lines of

  • Nation-building—Fiction

Of course, I don't know if that IS a valid LC (Library of Congress) subject heading, and I'm too lazy to look it up and see.

So what's the book about? I enjoyed the first section the most, I think. It describes how a little later in this century, people begin building habitats in earth orbit. Using modified planes that are able to leverage their way into orbit by manipulating earth's magnetic field, they don't need the expensive rocketry favored by NASA, and, in fact, regard the entire rocket-based mode of space travel to be a needlessly expensive and dangerous foible, a mistake, a blind alley.

Each of the book's three sections is named after its primary protagonist. Klara is the person in section one. Her father owns a plane such as those I describe, and has a small earth-orbit habitat. Klara grows up traveling between earth and orbit. This vision of the future of space travel is truly fascinating and visionary, and alone makes the book worth reading.

Now I realize that human interaction is what actually makes a story. But Adams takes this a little too far, in my view. His people are not particularly happy, for the most part. Their personal lives often devolve into a kind of insipid grayness, an unhappiness caused by relationships (or lack of them) with others, that doesn't make for particularly happy reading.

I did really enjoy the first part of the book, and its vision of how an extra-planetary earth-orbit community might grow up. The second part of the book is the nation building part. Klara's daughter, Gradisil, for whom the book is named, obviously, is fixated on forming the loose agglomeration of orbit dwellers into a genuine nation. The means to this end are not always as obvious to us normal non-political types (or even to those closest to her), as they apparently are to Gradisil, herself.

The revenge part comes in when her husband, Paul, eventually betrays her to the Americans, with whom the uplanders (as they call themselves) have fought and won a war. It isn't as if Paul doesn't have plenty of motivation. Gradisil has two sons, and Paul is the father of neither, although he was married to Gradisil during the conception, pregnancy and birth of both.

Gradisil eventually loses his natural child, as the pregnancy occurs during the war, and she cannot (or chooses not to) go below. Children can't be born in weightless conditions, and pregnancies there inevitably end in spontaneous abortion or miscarriage. Paul blames her for the consequences of this decision. Building the nation is more important to her than their child. The end justifies the means, at least to Gradisil, the consummate political being.

The final section of the book deals with Gradisil's sons, and their revenge on their father; not their biological parent, after all, but he did raise them, mostly. But the older son is fanatically determined to bring him to “justice” as a traitor to the nation their mother founded. The younger son goes along, but is really far more interested in his scheme to move Mercury into an earth orbit to provide virtually unlimited building materials for the uplanders. It's not really clear whether this scheme is technically viable or not.

The book is a fascinating vision of a possible near term future, and one way that humanity could begin the process of expanding into space. That part of it was very much worth the reading. But the human part, the political part, and the humdrum aspects of daily life that combines them; the drama of the individuals involved, as told here—that part I found to be more than a little tedious and downright depressing, at times.

For SciFi readers, I recommended this book for the science, but I found the fiction part less satisfying.

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