3 February 2021

#Review - Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts

Purgatory Mount
Adam Roberts
Gollancz, 4 February 2021
Available as: HB, 336pp, e, audio
Source: Advance e-copy via NetGalley
ISBN: 9781473230941

I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of Purgatory Mount via NetGalley.

The eagles are coming! 

The eagles are here!

Adam Roberts is one author I'll always, always take time to read and I'd been sp looking forward to Purgatory Mount. I thought I knew what it was going to be about, and it was that... but also it wasn't, it turned out to be something much bigger and very different and thoroughly ramified. It does, though, rather defy a neat review. I could just say, buy this, and stop at that but I really want to persuade you, so let's try that.

Opening as a city-sized interstellar exploration ship, the Forward, arrives from Earth at a distant planet, V538 Aurigae - gamma, we seem to be in hard SF territory with a description of the long voyage, the peculiar emptiness of space in the interstellar "Local Bubble", the ice-encrusted ship itself (the ice provides both a shield and fuel), the crew - who are able to alter their perception to live faster or slower, surviving the generations long (for their livestock) voyage - and the mysterious alien artefact that has drawn Earthly attention. No, not an obelisk - an immense spire so high that it soars beyond the planet's atmosphere (indeed, beyond the original, deeper atmosphere long eroded by the local star). 

What is the spire made of? 

What is it for? 

Where did the makers go?

Just as we might think we know what's coming - Roberts will describe the crew's exploration and tease out these mysteries - he knocks the reader sideways by adopting a different genre, the near future thriller, and location, the USA a few years from now. That country is on the edge of civil war ('The problem is - there are plenty of people real keen to shoot their guns and run around in combat gear'). Ottoline (Otty to her friends, who call themselves the Famous Five in a reference which I suspect isn't to be found in the cultural life of the typical American teenager, now or near future) is fleeing from the adults. From government law enforcement. From the gun-toting militias. From a mysterious third faction. 

The description of the rending fabric of a modern state is terribly compelling and oh so convincing, particularly in that there isn't an overnight collapse. Otty sees a bureaucracy staggering, still trying to function, but losing its coherence and purpose. Even at the level of the combat, the increasingly dislocated refugees, the writing is terrific (in both senses) and remembering the turmoil on 6 January, I couldn't help compare this vision of a USA that has begun eating itself to that coverage on CNN of the swamping of the Capitol by an army of grotesques. 

That conjunction, which couldn't have been foreseen, makes this book seem prescient in detail, seem predictive, to an extent that may distract the reader from what I think is more fundamental, and intended, a sort of moral prescience which becomes clearer towards the end. But still, the idea of incipient civil war, of rage and destruction spraying in all directions, the urgency with which Roberts captures the violence, the unholy beauty he finds - look at the description of a coach being blown up ('Boom, boom, shake the room. Crush, crush, flip the bus') - all of this makes the book absolutely, grabbingly, compulsive. 

Roberts pulls out all the cultural stops in characterising this process, from the explosion 'like a colossal door being slammed shut somewhere in Hell' (yes, we know what that would be) to the queue jumping mob ('wearing Old Glory jackets and red MAGA caps') who try to barge onto the bus to the sharp eyed lawyers and journalists who prowl through the ruins trying to make a turn from the chaos. It's a purgatorial landscape for a sixteen year old to find herself traversing and there are no more answers as to why all this is going on than there are to why Otty is being targeted. We see a limited explanation from one character, that it's all about the money (in New Model Army, Roberts posited an almost cheerful, open-source approach to urban warfare, with some idealism driving it, here the mood is a great deal darker, more despairing).

I started reading this near-future section thinking, what's this - when do we get back to the Forward? - then found myself more and more drawn by the hectic story, the scrapes, the sheer guile and courage of a young woman whose life has been upended. We don't know, for most of the story, why Otty is on the run. She's far too canny to reveal that, to us or her interrogators. But her pursuers are clearly bad, tainted in some sense by an association with the chaos and destruction raining down and slowly, surely, they push Otty to a desperate place and to an act with unforeseeable consequences.

We do return to the Forward again, eventually, for a final act in which the connection between the two timelines is made clear. Otty's experiences turn out to be foundational to the existence of the Forward and its crew, but also to the position of others on board - to the creatures known as "Pygs" who worship the Crew as gods. And they drive the actions of both in a moral sense, Roberts invoking the concepts of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory - sidestepping the hard physics question of how that incredible, planet-topping spire was built and how it stands up for the more interesting question of what it means and what that means for those who have travelled so far to see it. 

That feels like a place I could stop - Purgatory Mount an utterly compelling book, fiercely intelligent and unconventional SF rife with ideas yet completely approachable and fun to read - but I think I also have to point out a couple of further things. First, Roberts' writing is glorious, subtlely varying to fit its subject - for example look at the down to earth, dryly humorous, opening section, even amidst all that science-y exposition, or the beauty he often evokes ('the sky was starting to blush strawberry and yellow-orange, with bars of luminous cream-coloured horizontal shine layered over the top of it'). It can also be mischievous, or mischievously inventive, as with the word 'sidegoogling' which occurs a few times (I NEED that word!) or references to the Forward's 'hal', its AI. And how about 'her heart was beating in her chest like Animal from the Muppets playing the drums'?

Which reference brings me to the second thing I wanted to mention here (and then I'm done, I promise). This book is drenched with Lord of the Rings references and comparisons. Most broadly, there's the whole device of telling us, as Roberts does in several places, that names or cultural references used to describe the ship or its crew have been translated into terms we can relate to from something utterly strange that we wouldn't get. (In fact the most blatant example of this didn't, as the author tells us in an afterword, survive copyright issues - he wanted  to give the five members of the Crew the names of the five wizards from The Lord of the Rings and indeed Pan, the one we meet most, 'a figure gifted with magic (in the Clarkean sense of the word) and given responsibility over beats, birds and plants...' would make a fine Radagast). There is also lots of detail, such as tree trunks which 'shuddered and moaned like Ents' at the force of an explosion, way bread, or all those references to eagles - The eagles are coming! The eagles are here! - but also 'Somebody would come to rescue her and she would fly away on the back of a Johannine eagle'. The latter bridges the gap between Tolkienish references and the Christian ones behind Purgatory Mount, with its themes of offence, of sin, redemption and atonement.

In short, this book is a glittering achievement, Adam Roberts in full splendour giving us a novel of ideas, of fun, of beauty. Go and get it.

For more about Purgatory Mount, see the publisher's website here

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