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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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Land of the Headless

Published By:
Gollancz, UK [21 June 2007]
£17.99 Hb / £10.99 TPb
0575075880 / 0575077999
978-0575075887 / 978-0575077997
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Land of the Headless is set in a far future where mankind has taken his religious dogma and the divsions that result from it out into space.On a planet where society is shaped by a strict adherance to the word of God as laid out in the Old Testament and Quran a poet is accused of the rape of a woman.

Found guilty he must face the punishment laid down in the Good Book: beheading. Beheaded, he is fitted with a neck valve, ordinator and basic sensory equipment and sent out into the world. But he bears a terrible and very visible stigma. The only way he can make a living is to join the army and serve in the war against the neighbouring planet. And plan his revenge against the man he believes is really guilty...


"Land of the Headless... a brilliant burlesque conceit, and Roberts exploits it in bravura fashion, reflecting soberly on economic marginalization and segregation even as he segues into elaborate farce in the manner of Robert Sheckley.

"That the literary touchstone of the novel is Marcel Proust adds a further strain of inspired oddness ... [The Hero Cavala] is a Proustian narrator, profoundly reflective and egregiously memorious; and thus Roberts achieves his remarkable juxtaposition of fraught inner turmoil and zany outward satire, escaping the usual superficiality of satirical characterization with admirable dexterity.

"Psychological depth in a picaresque protagonist: most unusual and very welcome. It’s a crazy scheme but it works; in line with Proustian concerns of memory, Cavala remembers not only himself but much of the central matter of the ‘50s satirical SF of Sheckley, Bester, Pohl and Kornbluth, and that revival is aesthetically very pleasing." - Nick Gevers, Locus

"Land of the Headless is a darkly satirical tale that extrapolates an absurd idea into something weirdly plausible. This is not escapist adventure but a dystopian vision in the tradition of Swift, Orwell and Atwood against the cruellest extremes of human stupidity." The Times

"...grotesque satire of religious fundamentalism. Thoroughly engrossing... deeply affecting... impressively visceral... nightmarishly gripping... fiercely intelligent. While Richard Dawkin’s The God Delusion only annoyed the faithful, this novel aims to fry their brains." Starburst (five star review)

"Land of the Headless is billed as ‘a simple story’. This might not be your first thought as you read the tale of a man who is beheaded for adultery in a world governed by an extreme interpretation of Islamic law – though Roberts synthesises it with a fundamentalist Christianity heavy on old Testament values – but then continues to live, thanks to prosthetic senses and an ordinator fixed to his spine.

"John Cavala, the beheaded poet, finds himself in the army. His real journey though, is into the morality of the society that has punished him. Roberts provides more sympathetic voices and plausible arguments than might be expected from his satirical theme. How innocent, we begin to wonder, is Cavala? All adultery is rape in this world, but what of his crime? He uses words to defend, deceive, justify and condemn himself; so does literalist religion. This is a subtle parable, in a grave, perfectly appropriate voice." Daily Telegraph

"[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." Deathray]

Adam Says:

The title is literal, not oblique. The Land of the Headless is a novel that concentrates upon certain headless people. There is, moreover, a land called 'Montmorillon' in which the proportion of headless to headed is higher than elsewhere, where the main characters hope, one day, to retire.

The premise is strictly science-fictional. The people in this book adhere to a strict religiously-determined code of law that requires beheading for crimes of murder, rape and heresy. But technological advances, and a certain liberalisation of cultural norms, has led to a mitigation of the punishment. Immediately before execution victims' consciousnesses are downloaded into artificial processors, plumbed into the spine and embedded into the small of the back. And so they carry on living, although their headlessness marks them out to society-at-large as criminals of the worst sort.

The story is narrated by one of the headless; and we discover why he was decapitated, and whether he deserved his punishment; we learn what he did next, and whether it was good or bad. There's travel, work, war and, in the end, love.

I'm very fond of my poor truncated headless characters, actually, and their blundering shame-marked travels about their world—worlds, indeed. Perhaps my fondness is why I turned what was, in its earliest stages, a novel about not thinking, about not remembering, a sort of Pulp-SF antiProust, into a novel about falling in love. Do you need a head to fall in love? What do you reckon?

There are some poems included in this book; not especially good poems, mind you, because they are the effusions of the narrator, and he's not as eloquent or emotionally insightful as he thinks he is. Luckily, writing not-very-good poems come naturally to me; and I wrote a whole portfolio of short, rhymed verses to service various moments in the plot. Here's one poem that didn't make the final cut; not because it's too not-good even for this not-good poem, but because the story called for a poem with a different emphasis. But it captures the tone that the novel, eventually, fell into. An intimacy, and a suffering/love story.

Let our embrace
Zip us up together
Like a winter coat
Against the cold weather
Tight from hip to throat
Framing the face
Let love be shelter
Make gracelessness grace
Love, let us embrace.

Do you need a head to fall in love? Indeed, what if a head is a positive disadvantage if you wish to fall properly in love? I wonder.

An Extract:

Chapter One.

On Tuesday a genetic materials test confirmed my guilt (but of course this confirmation was only a formality) and on Wednesday I was beheaded. My crime was adultery.

There is a traditional belief, which many still share, that adultery is the least of the three offences punishable by decapitation under our penal code. For it consists of injuring another's life, whereas murder is a crime that fully deprives another of their life; and blasphemy is a crime against the divine principle, which is clearly a wholly other affair. But I do not say this in self-exculpation. The punishment is the same whichever of the three you commit. Holy law sanctions no legalistic evasions or hairsplittings. And how could it be holy if it did?

On the Wednesday morning the maior, Bil Charis came to see me in my cell. He was there to oversee the fitting of the ordinator. Two security employees lay me naked on my front and strapped me down. The strap was not necessary, as I assured them, but they applied it nevertheless. 'It is,' said Bil, as the surgeons started about their surgical work, 'the usual procedure.''

And let us not,' I replied, bitterly, 'ever depart from the usual. Let us never reform, or improve, the ancient barbarities.'

'Boh, Jon Cavala,' Bil replied. 'For you cannot deny that these beheadings have indeed been thoroughly reformed and improved since the old days!'

I said nothing.

The surgeons touched the base of my spine with an analgesic proboscis. They spliced swiftly and precisely into my spine, affixed the primary and secondary node and embedded the ordinator. The analgesic meant that I felt none of this, except for the butterfly pressure of the machines moving over my back. I could hear only the whiz and click of their metal tools. I could see nothing but the portion of grey bench immediately in front of my eyes. This, by a chain of association, brought into my mind the thought of my impending blindness, and my dissatisfactions found voice. I will admit that I spoke peevishly.

'You will shortly be blinding me,' I pointed out to Bil. 'Taking my sight, and my hearing and taste and smell, as well as my head. The latter necessarily includes all the former.'

'By no means,' returned Bil, in an easy voice. 'There are many forms of prosthetic sight on the market, even for somebody with funds as limited as, perhaps, are yours. Only last month Medicom released a new design: fashioned as a webbed cloak worn around the shoulders and granting one-hundred-and-eighty degrees of vision behind the wearer. Or, if you choose to wear the cloak on your front, ahead of you.'

'By repute,' I complained, 'the visual input from this new device is grainy and has a limited range of colours.'

'Then choose another,' said Bil. 'Your Ordinator has multiple compatibilities. Cameras on stalks, pods for the wrist or palm, bio-devices, all can be connected to your new brain.'

'Any such device I must furnish for myself, at my own expense,' I said.

'Naturally. The same is true of your future clothes, food, housing. You do not expect the State to provide you with such things freely? Such charity would be demeaning.'

'I do not expect,' I said, becoming heated, 'the State to decapitate me for a so-called crime that ...' But Bil stopped me.

'Come come, no sermonizing here,' he said. 'It is fruitless to harangue me. Besides, the surgeons have completed their work.'

And so they had.

I was taken to a separate room for the download, which was accomplished in a matter of minutes: mapping all cortices and lobes of my brain and copying all their patterns and potential synaptic arrangements electronically into the ordinator at the base of my spine. Then I was dressed in loose pants, but no other clothing. The surgical analgesia was beginning to wear off by this time, and I was conscious of a vague ache where the incisions had been made. And I was aware of the weight of the wallet-sized metal ordinator under my skin, at the base of my back, just above the top of my buttocks. I have heard stories that condemned men and women experience oddly doubled and near-hallucinogenic sensations whilst possessing both head and ordinator. I cannot confirm these stories. I felt no doubleness of consciousness. I felt nothing but anxiety at my approaching execution.

After that everything happened quickly. I was hurried up a dozen steps and through a door onto the outside platform. It was a hot afternoon. The air smelt fiercely of a city summer. The sunlight was sharp on my face. Florettes of white cloud were arranged across a primrose blue sky, and there were neither too many nor too few of these clouds. It was a beautiful arrangement. The colour of this sky, a delicate and exquisite blue, was the last I saw with my flesh eyes.

Beyond the yellow walls of the execution yard I could see the city of Doué baking in the sun, and very beautiful it seemed to me there, at that time, before my beheading. How often I had walked about it and never noticed anything about it! Alleys of lime trees, their silver bark nearly phosphorescent in the sunlight, flanked the straight roads. Pavements of tessellated brick deserted in the afternoon heat. A muddle of tiled roofs, most of them the colour of carrots or pumpkin and textured like pineapple-skin. In every direction white walls, and in every wall white-shuttered windows, giving the city a blank face, perfectly uninterested in me or my execution. To my right a stretch of river ran cyan with dyes from the fabric factory. Behind the river stood the metal stalks of the telecommunications park. The moon was very skinny in the afternoon sky, a curve of scalpel silver against the blue. Above, the tiny hieroglyph of an airliner moved slowly, hurdling the moon in slow motion.

That sky-blue! That colour!

I said, 'the weather is hot.' This was merely stating the obvious, of course, and a poor bid for last words; but witnesses at executions will confirm that only very rarely do the condemned utter profundities. You should not expect wisdom from people in such a position. Their minds will be elsewhere.

I walked forward, and sweat started dotting my skin.

There were no more than five people lolling in the execution yard. A century ago, of course, the public executions drew swarms of eager spectators. Our modern, high-tech tastes are less bloody, I suppose. Or perhaps the spectacle is less entertaining nowadays, since the human headsman has been replaced by the flawless mechanics of the clapper.

The herald read my crime, declaring me, in the whole world's hearing, an adulterer and a rapist. My panic at the impending event took a sudden, hyperbolic swerve upwards. I was blinking, and I was sweating in the heat. I felt as if I were choking on my hump-pumping heart, as if the heart were somehow lodged in my gullet grown four times its normal size. Its throb was restricting my breathing and clogging my whole chest in palpitating grossness. I could not command my own legs. I was told to walk forward, but I could not do so. I was shoved.

The herald muttered in my ear—these were the last words my fleshly ear would ever hear—'drop your shoulders, lad.' He spoke kindly, I believe. It is of course better if the cut does not pass through the shoulders as well as the neck. But it was hard for me to comply: every muscle in my frame had tensed taut as hardwood. This was something beyond my conscious control.

I heard the hum of the Clapper behind me, floating up and positioning itself. I almost called out, but I did not, and then the blade spun and bit, and my world went instantly dark and silent.

I did not feel any pain.

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