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Adam Roberts is the author of a growing number of science fiction novels, short stories, essays and other writings. This site contains not just his blog, but everything you could ever want to know about everything Adam has ever published. And more...

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Deathray on Headless: it’s Clever, Unfortunately

By Adam Roberts | July 25, 2007
Categories: Book News

Deathray you ask? Deathray I say. Guy Haley reviews the novel, and his tagline is: 'Newly headless pompous poet wends painful way to self-discovery in picaresque SF tale that is, at time, too clever by half.' Quite right too: no place for cleverness in SF. Vile quality.

Tricky, tricky Mr Roberts. He's a tough one to evaluate. An accomplished sculptor of prose and a cunning satirist, Roberts writes playful SF with concepts so high, you sometimes need a stool to get them down from the shelf. ... There's a part of me that loves Roberts' output: it's all that SF should be, packed with brilliant ideas and clever--

No! There it is again.

--clever examinations of the human condition. Land of the Headless does both, taking the hero Jon Cavala on a painful road of self-discovery before finally, finally his eyes are opened to his inner self. But he can be a plodding read. Roberts is unquestionably a good writer, so much so that he feels he can happily stuff a paragraph with analogies and similes until it chokes on literary merit, and this is bad. It slows the pace right down, as do the long discursive sections (which, to be fair, are an integral part of the tale) and it all robs the story of vitality. There's an additional annoyance with Land of the Headless, in that you'd quite happily cut Cavala's head off yourself. He's the most pompous ass since Lucius Apuleius and though the story is concerned with his enlightenment, spending 275 pages with Cavala's morbid whining is not easy. Of course, it's all a very clever--

Dammit.

--a very clever parable on perspective, makes sly use of the picaresque form, and has a good deal of satire on fundamentalist societies (and the woe-filled self-pitying mentality of writers, for that matter). Cavala's character is at the very heart ofthis, but that doesn't mean you don't want to thump him, a desire shared by, and acted upon, by quite a few of the other characters too. Do persevere, though. For Cavala's salvation, when it finally comes, is a satisfying experience, and there are many great ideas in here, so hats off, if not heads, to Roberts.

So no more cleverness for me; and no writing that does anything other than move narrative forward. And only likeable, Stepford-wifelycharacters too. It's an interesting review, actually; that could either be summarised (for, say, blurbing purposes) like this:

[Roberts is] an accomplished sculptor of prose and a cunning satirist all that SF should be, packed with brilliant ideas and clever examinations of the human condition.

or like this:

tough plodding bad slow.

I know which one I prefer. On the other hand, Deathray likes the 'Swiftly' story included in Keith Brooke and Nick Gevers' Infinity Plus anthology, also reviewed in this issue: 'one suspects,' says Haley, 'Roberts is referencing Candide with Land of the Headless ... [he] has played with early modern literature before--witness his excellent story 'Swiftly' (see the Infinity Plus review) a clever story that ...'

Oh. Damn.

Ah well, let's turn to the the Infinity Plus review itself, and see whether it specifically mentions my story. It's by Matt Keefe, and it does mention the tale! 'One man struggles to free Lilliputians from slavery in aclever follow-up to Swift's Gulliver's T....'

Oh.

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12 Comments to-date;

12 Responses to “Deathray on Headless: it’s Clever, Unfortunately”

  1. Birgit Kraus Says:
    August 2nd, 2007 at 8:50 pm

    If you hired a carpenter to build you a walk-in closet, and he instead built you a twenty-foot contorted wooden sculpture in the garden because the muse told him to, youd be pretty annoyed with him. Writings not so different.
    Are you sure? That writing is a craft and not an art?
    It seems to me that people buying a piece of (science) fiction might want a work of art (with some spacecraft, maybe). As far as I can see the closet-sculpture problem is exactly the problem you have, only the other way around. You build closets. Your work is fine, on a rational level; it is ideo-logically good, done cleverly. But it (sometimes) lacks vitality, feeling, authenticity.
    [] the actual process of writing for me is an elaborate process of self-distraction.
    Considering the way you write, you do a good job anyway. But people want the sculpture, not the closet.
    Though some can recognise a good closet too.

  2. Birgit Kraus Says:
    August 3rd, 2007 at 5:19 pm

    Beautiful closets, I mean, twenty feet high. It is just that, sometimes, I would like to get less closet, more tree. A twenty-foot rainbow-coloured spacecraft Tree ... for me.
    Or whatever your very own self-some (subjective) tree tastes may be.

  3. Birgit Kraus Says:
    August 3rd, 2007 at 6:16 pm

    Or is it that you like closet trees? Self-less hollow closet trees ... I havent read Land of the Headless ...
    Is it a land of unfeeling self-less closet trees? Probably.

  4. Peter Hughes Says:
    August 4th, 2007 at 9:24 pm

    There's nothing wrong with a good closet. A largely under-rated device, there aren't enough of them now-a-days. Who knows what the closet of the future might be like?

    But, moving on to the topic at hand, I must say Mr Roberts that I eagerly await reading this new book. Having just found and finished Gradisil (far, far too late) I'm looking forward to your next novel. Granted, this message seems to be purely devoted to praise, but I nevertheless find myself inclined to say that your prose is remarkably refreshing compared to other, more 'traditional' science fiction and is remarkably stimulating. Sort of.

    High praise indeed from a 16 year old :p

  5. Peter Hughes Says:
    August 4th, 2007 at 9:28 pm

    I'd also like to add that no book can be 'too clever', least of all yours. Of course, I'm sure that Headless is, er... 'intellectually stimulating', but I'd view that as more of a positive comment. Each to his own...

  6. Octavo Says:
    August 6th, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    Been at the happy pills again Birgit?

    The reviewer's an idiot. There's nothing wrong with a clever novel - I actually like clever novels and find I much prefer them to stupid ones. The danger, however, comes when a novel tries too hard to be clever just for the sake of being clever, or so that the novelist can show everyone how clever he is at cocktail parties (Will Self, I'm looking at you...).

    Your writing, however, is clever because you obviously respect your readers and because you actually seem to enjoy putting together an intricately crafted story with a satisfying conclusion.

  7. AdamR Says:
    August 6th, 2007 at 6:37 pm

    Thanks, Octavo.

    Birgit -- no; there are no trees in "Headless". It's all desert landscapes, I'm afraid.

  8. Birgit Kraus Says:
    August 7th, 2007 at 7:49 pm

    I said trees, not trees; I wonder whether Land of the Headless might have hollow people without any feelings. I use tree for anything that is alive, having no better word for that. No happy pills, no.
    Dont get me wrong, I like Adam, being one of his former (visiting) students, and I like his writing too. His novels are clever, which is a good thing. But it is a matter of fact that part of his readership have a certain problem with his style of writing, and Id be very careful with calling them all idiots.
    Ive tried to explain to Adam, personally and in detail, what might be improved about his writing. In short one might say that his novels lack subjectivity. Well, sometimes, as Ive said; nowadays less so than before.

    Adam, youve got a few days of your holidays left; why not practise a little alternative reading ... Up! up! my Friend, and quit your books ...
    Your little vernal daughter tree will teach you more of man ... than Nietzsche ever can.
    Also remember Joseph Kugelmass about intelligence.

    But be assured that Im one of Adams greatest fans ever.
    Car si lintelligence ne mrite pas la couronne suprme, cest elle seule qui est capable de la dcerner. Et si elle na dans lhirarchie des vertus que la seconde place, il ny a quelle qui soit capable de proclamer que linstinct doit occuper la premire. (Marcel Proust, Contre Sainte-Beuve)

  9. AdamR Says:
    August 14th, 2007 at 2:08 pm

    Peter ... apologies: your comments were stuck in moderation whilst I was away on my holidays. But thank you for your kind words!

  10. Isabella Says:
    August 22nd, 2007 at 1:22 am

    I think the problem with all of Adam,s work is detachment. When writing one presumably becomes oblivious to oneself and immersed in characters, plot, etc. This does not seem to be the case with Adam; when reading he always appears to be looking over my shoulder, asking for validation. Maybe a truly gifted writer is one who is invisible to the reader because he has lost himself amongst his own characters as has the reader.

  11. AdamR Says:
    August 22nd, 2007 at 12:09 pm

    Isabella; that's a very interesting observation. I need to think about it.

    I have read similar criticisms of Nabokov; which is, sadly for me, neither to compare myself with Nabokov, nor to excuse the practice.

  12. » Friday Photo Blogging: Portsmouth as it once was » Velcro City Tourist Board » Blog Archive Says:
    August 24th, 2007 at 5:43 pm

    [...] expecting high literary values. I nearly said “I expect it’ll be clever”, but I know that annoys him [...]

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