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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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On

Published By:
Gollancz, UK [2001]
£6.99 Pb
ISBN10:
0575072997
ISBN13:
978-0575072992
Buy from: Amazon.co.uk
Synopsis:

Tighe lives on the Worldwall. It towers above his village and falls away below it. It is vast and unforgiving and it is everything they know.

Life is hard on the Worldwall, little more than a clinging on for dear life. And then one day Tighe falls off the world.

And falls, and falls and falls ... and survives.

He finds a new part of the Worldwall, a city, more people than he ever imagined existed and a war. A war fought by the Popes and their armies. A war Tighe must join, a war that will take him on a journey into the heart of the mystery behind the Worldwall.

Reviews:

[Reviews To Follow]

Adam Says:

My second novel, On, is set on a vertical rather than a horizontal world; which is to say, the world of this novel is an enormous cliff stretching away upwards and downwards apparently forever. The people who inhabit this world live on the ledges, crags, crevices and platforms jutting out from this world, eking out a precarious sort of existence, with the danger ever-present that they might simply fall off the world and die.

The hero, Tighe, grows up in a small village. His parents vanish, and it is feared they have fallen from the world; Tighe is taken in by his grandfather, a small-minded and cruel old man; in running from his new home Tighe himself falls - but, miraculously, survives -and finds himself caught up in the preparations for an enormous war downwall from his village. This is the start of a great adventure, a journey to the mystery of what it is that lies behind the wall.

On, fairly obviously given its premise, is a novel about precariousness, about the unexpectednesses that manifest themselves in everyday life, in the wobbly uncertainty of other people's emotions (of love, of anger, of attachment), and how abruptly everything can be taken away. Or so it seems to me. Pulp SF, because of - not despite - its populist, kinetic, adolescent provenance, is a powerful genre for the exploration of this sort of concern. I have written On, hopefully, as part of this tradition: to be an onward-moving narrative of adventure including such props as strange peoples, giant man-eating insects, bizarre weapons of war, slavery, escape, triumph and sharp reversals of fortune. Of all my novels, including Salt, it is the one closest to the emotional contours of my own life: a fact which is, almost certainly, of more interest to me than you - it's my life, after all, not yours - but which does give the book a special place in my own affections. I concede that the novel's articulation of this emotional truth is oblique, rather than direct, but nevertheless.

One thing that surprised me about the book's reception was how sharply it divided opinion. Some reviewers and readers did not like Salt, but by and large they expressed their disrespect in respectful, 'it takes all sorts to make a literary world' way. Not so, On. Some readers and some reviewers absolutely loved it, and praised it extravagantly. Others hated it, and tore it to shreds - the amazon.co.uk readers' reports illustrate this nicely. It was all rather startling. I try to tell myself that it is better to provoke reaction, even extremely negative reactions, than not to do so: I tell myself that I must have got something right for people to care enough about the book to hate it so vehemently. But that's poor solace for the sting of the occasional bad reception. The balm, to reread the sometimes very positive reviews, smacks to me of vanity, and so I tread warily.

Some readers have expressed dislike of the book's ending. This (without giving out any spoilers) only baffles me. I genuinely think: how could the book end any other way apart from the way it does? Rarely have I written an ending that seemed so intuitively gut-level right. But, again, that's only my opinion. What can I do, other than invite you to read and make up your own mind?

An Extract:

On Tighe's eighth birthday, one of the family goats fell off the world. This was a serious matter.

The news of this loss, of losing so valuable a thing as a goat, went all round the village. Of course it completely eclipsed Tighe's birthday. Tighe's pas were struck down by the news, his pahe reacting in what was a typical manner for him, sitting gloomily in the shadows of the house; and his pashe reacting typically for her, shouting her anger. Tighe was only glad, as his pashe raged, kicking chunks out of the wall in her fury, that he was not yet old enough to be given the task of tending the goats, or he could have been responsible, and then he would have been on the receiving end of the rage. It was a girl called Carashe who had been paid to tend the winter flock for the moment, until he was old enough to take on the job. A couple of month's earlier he'd gone up (to see how it was done, because a Prince's son ought to know about these things) and watched Carashe tending the animals as they grazed the higher ledges. There was no doubt that goats were the stupidest things ever put on the wall. It was a puzzle why God had created them. They looked sideways at you, with their lunatic eyes, grinding their mouths neverendingly; and then you'd try to come over to them to tug their hair or pet them or something -- and they'd leap to the side, or scatter away like midges evading a swatting hand. They'd leap with no thought to where the edge might be. It was as if their pearl-small brains had not registered that God had put them on the worldwall in the first place.

'It's because they're animals,' Wittershe had told him. 'They have no brains.'

But that didn't make sense, because there were lots of animals on the Wall that never lurched about with such a suicidally myopic sense of where they were. The monkeys never did that, for instance.

Tighe preferred the monkeys in fact. He knew (if only because he had been told so) that goats had a higher status than monkeys. That it was appropriate for the Prince's family to own goats, and that everybody in the Village looked down on an old monkeymonger like Wittershe's pahe. But monkeys looked nicer, nearly human. And they acted smart, and Tighe liked that.

'I guess I've always wondered why goats are better than monkeys,' he had said, a few weeks before his birthday. It had been a bad moment. Pashe was sitting in her chair, reading through her tattered edition of the Sayings. 'Pashe, why is it that goats are better than monkeys?' His question sent her flying into a rage. Sometimes it took the slightest thing to send her exploding with her anger. Even as a little boy Tighe could sense that she was a woman stuffed so full of anger that the merest rip in her outward skein of mood would cause it to come bursting out. She didn't get up this time (which was good, he knew, because it meant she wouldn't get up and smack him), but she sat there screaming. 'This boy will drive us all over the ledge, will he never stop with his questions? Will he smash my head apart with all his questions? On and on and on...'

Tighe's pahe, who had been mending the dawn-door with some mud-patched grassweave, heard the raised voice and came through. Tighe, sitting frozen in his alcove with sudden fear, saw him come in. Recognised the delicate, graceful pad of his walk; the way he lowered his head and hunched up his shoulders, placatory. It was a delicate dance, but one that Tighe had seen so often he thought it ordinary. Surely everybody's family was like this. Pahe would try and calm pashe, would say things in a smooth low voice, would start to stroke her sides. If her anger settled a little, he would stroke her head, and maybe kiss her. If it didn't, then she might well start hitting him, or pulling at his hair, and then Tighe would watch his pahe bend double, bring his elbows up to defend his head, and his own heart would shrink within him. But on this occasion, it didn't take much to calm pashe down.

'It's that boy,' she said, loudly. 'He will drive me to madness. He will drive me over the edge.'

'I think,' said pahe, sucking at his words and letting them out slowly, 'that maybe the boy had better come and help me mend the dawn-door.'

Pahe had taken him by the hand and lead him out of his alcove, and out into the vestibule. But, of course, pahe had no need of his help mending the dawn-door. So, instead, Tighe sat and watched his father work, plaiting the grass-stems together and smoothing plastermud over the mat with a spatula. His pahe was a handsome man; he was certain of it. His skin was smooth, as richly brown as the mud he worked with, his features regular. His eyes were pale, the irises violet like a flame in daylight. His straight black hair was neat. Tighe admired his pahe.

'What had you said,' pahe was asking, 'to get your pashe so riled?'

The question burned in his head now. He wished he'd never asked it. He wished he'd never thought it. He hated the way he couldn't sit still, couldn't think still, the way his pashe did. She could sit and be absolutely motionless for hour and after hour. But he fidgeted, and wriggled, and kept thinking of questions. But his pahe had asked, and so he said: 'I was only wondering why goats are better than monkeys.'

And, of course, his pahe was not angry. It was, he said in his quiet, slow way, a good question. It was a thoughtful question.

'It's only,' Tighe went on, 'that monkeys look so much more like human beings, don't they? They look like human beings. And Grandhe always says that we are humans, and that we are closer to God. He says that God looks like us.'

'I think,' said pahe, pausing between every word to stroke mud onto the wattle, 'that he said we look like God.'

Tighe stopped. Wasn't that what he had just said?

'Goats are better than monkeys,' said pahe after a pause, 'because we get more from goats. We get milk, for one thing, which we don't get from monkeys. And the meat is better eating. And monkey hair is bad at weaving, it's too short and it frays. And monkeys are difficult to keep. Tether them and they pine and grow thin, but let them run free and they scramble all over the wall and you lose half of them.' He was fitting the panel over the broken panel in the dawn-door, fastening it with palm-nails which he pushed sharply into the fabric of the door with smooth movements of his forearm. 'Goats like to stick together,' he said. 'They like to stick with the herd.'

Tighe scratched at his scalp. There was a long scar on his scalp, from an old injury; he had cut his head when he was too young to remember, and sometimes now the line of the scar itched a bit.

Tighe thought of his pahe's words later, on his eighth birthday. One of their six goats had evidently decided he didn't want to stick with the herd. He had danced, skittering and trilling his legs, right over the grass tufts of an upper ledge and over into nothingness.

Months before, Carashe, the goatherd they had hired, had been sitting with him on a tuft and together they had chewed stalkgrass and looked out at the sky. His days were idle, because he was the son of the Prince; so he was mostly bored, and loitered around. But because he was the son of the Prince of the Village, the villagers gave him their time, talked to him, humoured him. Carashe did the same.

'You need to keep an eye on the goats,' she had told him. But she didn't act out the caution her words suggested. In fact she had a thoroughly blasť attitude to her charges. She would sometimes look round to see where the goats had got to, but they were quietly munching and seemed at peace. 'Keep an eye, and make sure that none of them go over the edge.'

Carashe was nine, and was no longer a girl. She had been a woman for the best part of a year now. Tighe could remember when her front had been flat as a board; now she was as ledged and creviced as the wall itself, her breasts standing out from her ribs, her belly folding out over her lap as she sat on the tuft. Tighe found his wick stiffening as he watched the way the fabric of her tunic creased and smiled with her shifting about. Carashe had a man friend down at the middle of the village, and everybody knew that. Tighe had no illusions. He knew she looked at him and saw only a boy, for all that he was a Princeling. But he liked spending time with her, being with her; he liked sitting on the higher ledge, nobody else around but the goats with their straining bulging eyes, listening to her talk about how to tend the animals.

'Why not just tether them together?' he asked.

She shook her head, and sucked a little more on a piece of grass. 'They need to roam about, to find the sweetest grass. They won't get fat unless they get at the succulent tips of the grass. Besides, six is too many goats to tether. They get cross with one another, and fight and butt. They'll end up tearing up the tether-post, or chewing through the leather straps.'

Tighe nodded, and watched the goats again. One was cropping vigorously, stepping towards the edge of the world. It seemed blithely unconcerned. Tighe felt his stomach tighten in sympathy. He hated going to the rim of a ledge; he hated the raw yank of the endless drop, the way the downward distance somehow pulled and distorted the inside of his head. There was something truly terrible about that looking-down. It sucked at his heart, some magnetic yaw towards destruction. Looking up, and seeing the wall stretch upwards and upwards over you into the haze was also disconcerting, but it wasn't as heart-tickling as down.

Down was a terrible thing.

Yet the goat was unconcerned. It leaned its tool-shaped head right over the lip of the ledge and yanked up some of the spikegrass growing over the void. Then it shifted round and started grazing back towards the wall.

When their time was up, Carashe had pushed with her legs and hopped off the tuft. Then she had looped each of the goats in turn, draping the O of their tethers easily round their necks. They barely noticed even this, carried on munching the grass. As Carashe lead them towards the slope that lead down to the lower ledges of the village, Tighe stood up too. He watched as her now-adult body rolled easily from foot to foot. Tighe fell in behind, hypnotised by the pull of cloth across her seat. He expected nothing. He was only a boy, and barely even that (his pashe still called him boy-boy from time to time). Carashe was a woman, with a man interested in her from the middle of the village. But the whisper was that the man was nobody special, only a technical sort of man, a machine-mending man. Tighe knew himself to be better than that; because he was a Princeling, because his father was the Prince. It had dawned on him recently that being a Prince didn't mean a whole great deal, not compared to the splendour of his Grandhe's house (but then his Grandhe was a Priest); or the Doge's house (but then the Doge looked after all the trade, so you would expect her to be wealthy). But Tighe's pahe was still the Prince, and the Prince was notionally the boss of the whole village -- of the whole Princedom. Besides, Tighe's family wasn't poor. After all, they owned many goats -- not the largest herd in the village, admittedly but six whole goats and the carcasses of three more salted and hanging in the store-room dug out at the back of the house. So he watched the beautiful roll and pull of Carashe's body with a certain hopefulness. Surely there would be more of a chance next year, if only his manhood would come on (and eight was about the right age for that to happen), if only he could grow some hair from his face like the monkeys and bulk up his wick a little so that it took on a man's thickness. And it only took that for his imagination to start pressing his own body close against Carashe, to imagine what it would be to put his hands underneath the fabric of her clothes.

But then, on the day of his eighth birthday, things changed. The goat went over the edge; a sixth of the family's wealth. His pahe might be the Prince of the Village, but a Prince without money would starve as quickly as the meanest beggar. Tighe didn't quite understand it, but it seemed that his pas were involved in a network of promises and exchanges, of debts and double-debts with other people in the village, and that the whole thing depended upon goatgoods. On milk, on promises of flax and meat. Losing a sixth of the family wealth tipped this delicate web towards collapse. Pahe tried to explain it to him in his alcove, whilst the sounds of pashe's sobbing shuddered louder, softer and louder again in the main space.

'We promised a salted haunch and fourteen months milk to old Hammerhe at the Dogeal end of the village for the work he did sealing off the cold-store.' Tighe shook his head. His pahe had dug out the cold store with his own hands. He had watched him do it, had even helped him carry away the dirt in grass-weave buckets down the ledges to the allotments on the lower reach of the village.

'But yoyou d,dug it yourself,' he stuttered. His own eyes were sore. He had been crying. Not, he thought, for the goat, because what did he care for a stupid goat? But because his pashe was crying so hard; and because Carashe was in disgrace now, and he wouldn't see her again for a very long time. And because ... well, just because.

'I dug it out,' said his pahe in his soft, slow voice. 'But we needed to get it sealed. That meant plastics, and that meant old Hammerhe. And plastics don't come cheap, so that was a whole haunch. And we promised the hide to your Grandhe Jaffiahe, which is why he's been so good to us recently. If you ask me...' and pahe's soft voice became softer again, soft as a flow of water, and Tighe sucked back his sobbing so as to be able to hear his father's deep-melodious voice, '... if you ask me, we should simply call the debt to Jaffiahe off -- in the name of family. But your pashe won't hear of that. You know she and your Grandhe don't get on. You know how they fight. It's been that way since she was a girl. But that puts us in the difficulties, because if she would only go and speak to him then a lot of this difficulty would go away.' He was whispering very low, now, bending his head towards his son so that the words didn't go astray. 'Don't tell your pashe I said so, though.'

That night Tighe lay in his alcove . He could hear his pas talking in a low, burbling stream of words. He couldn't hear the words themselves, just the mellow burr they made in the air. Like music. Every now and again his pashe's voice would warble and rise, would transmute into a reedy wail; then it would be shepherded by pahe's soothing grumble until it was calmed, and dropped away again. It took Tighe a long time to get to sleep. He kept twisting and wriggling in his alcove. Outside the dusk gale roared. He fell asleep, but woke up again in the dark. Everything was still; no sounds from his pas bed through the wall; no nightwind, which must have meant it was deep in the night. Tighe put both his hands between his thighs and pressed his legs close together, for the comfort of the gesture. Eventually he fell asleep again, and this time he dreamed. The goat was in the dream, but it was bald as a baby, pink hide catching the sun with its occasional stubbly white hairs. It danced, and danced, and Tighe pressed his arms around its neck. There was some sense of familiarity about it all, as if the intense particularity of the pressure of skin against skin reminded him of something. But the goat was right on the edge of the world now, and with a horrible lurch in his stomach Tighe knew it was going over the edge. And he knew that he could not let go of the goat, and that he

--- was over the edge of the world. The whole worldwall arced, and tilted, and slewed round and then he could see nothing but sky. His limbs convulsed, and he was suddenly alone, no goat, with the rushing of clouds past his head

and he woke with a sweaty start. The morning gale was blowing, loud as thunder outside the house. Tighe's hands were digging into the grassweave mat of his bed. His face was cold with old sweat. His heart was thundering.

He tumbled out of the alcove and staggered to the family sink. He drank deeply, and then (looking around, because his pashe got furious if she saw him doing this) ducked his head into the water. His pas were still asleep. The house was gloomy with dawn, and absolutely still with a kind of unnatural vacancy. Only the battering of the gale against the dawn door disturbed the lifelessness.

There was nowhere to go whilst the morning gale blustered outside, so Tighe went back to his alcove and lay down. For a while he dozed, and then his pashe was at the door of the alcove.

He couldn't help himself; he jerked on his bed, jittery with the jolt of sudden fear. But she didn't yell, she didn't strike him, she only said: 'my sweet boy-boy,' and came into hug him.

There was a swift unloosening of feelings inside him. His eyes even prickled with moisture. 'Pashe!' he said, returning the hug.

'You know I love you very much indeed, my little boy-boy,' she was saying, her voice woven through with tenderness. And she was crying a little bit, and hugging him so hard it pressed his breath out of his chest.

'I'm not a boy-boy any more, you know, pashe,' he said, his voice warm and breaking. 'I'm a proper boy now.'

'Oh I know,' she said, holding him back at arm's length to have a proper look at him, her eyes dawn-red with crying. 'In another year you'll not even be a boy, you'll be a man. But you'll always be my little boy-boy in my heart.'

And -- as miraculous as the sun appearing from nowhere on a cold day -- everything was alright. After the broken, bruising mood in the house the day before, this morning was golden. He was eight now, grown-up, and that was what was important about his birthday, more even than the gift-giving. His pas and he took their breakfast milk; and when the morning gale had died away they all three went out onto the ledge and started downways towards the village.

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