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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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Published By:
Gollancz, UK [2003]
6.99 Pb
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[Synopsis To Follow]


[Reviews To Follow]

Adam Says:

And yes, 'Polystom' is Greek and means multiple-mouthed, for reasons which I hope become clear when you've read the book. Poor old Stom; the lead character of this, my fourth full-length novel. Born into a privileged family in a 1900-ish aristocratic society, he really hasn't got a clue, although he thinks he does. The solar system in which he lives has breathable atmosphere between its circling worlds; it's also much smaller than ours, and it is possible (as characters do) to fly from planet to planet by biplane. Stom takes all this for granted, of course.

The starting-point was transparency. I was thinking about air, about how much we take it for granted (as an asthmatic I've always been very conscious of air); of how it supports us, in a number of ways. I was also thinking of Class, of the blithe confidence of the wealthy, those who may be intellectually aware of the Poor but cannot comprehend the fact of their existence in any deeper manner. Partly because I was re-reading Nabokov's Speak Memory at this time, I extrapolated a 1900-ish society for my steampunky pocket universe, and from that a passage towards a First World war-ish denouement.

There were three stories I wanted to tell that interconnected: a Love story about soul in love (psuche, the Greeks called it, which means breath, which is to say air); a murder story, in which a character breathes his last; and a war-set ghost story, which re-inflects the breath-psuche of the first part (it's always seemed to me that ghosts are scary not simply because they appear, gleaming like TV images, but because they breathe on us; they whisper; they make the curtains shudder as they pass; door's slam; we feel a movement of air on the back of our necks...)

The over-arching premise of the whole followed naturally from those stories, and their interconnections. (What is it the character in The Matrix asks? 'Do you think that's air you're breathing now? Hmm.'). And so I wrote the book, a triptych of inter-related novellas rather than a single novel. Simon at Orion interdicted a title page that called Polystom 'three novellas' on the wholly understandable grounds that people want to buy and read novels, not bunches of novellas. And I hope Polystom works as a novel; but some of the critical dissatisfactions with it stem, I think, from the fact that, if you take it as a formally unified whole, it has a rather odd structure. The final third unbalances the whole, with revelation and climax pitched too late in the overall narrative arc (a fair criticism I think, although less of a problem for three connected novellas).

Polystom appeared in mid 2003.

This was a novel that, as they say, divided the critics: some were extravagantly and possibly overly generous with praise; some disliked it very much (either because they found the premise risible, or they found the treatment pretentious. Difficult that: it is clearly a Bad Thing to be pretentious, but on the other hand it may not be an altogether bad thing to have pretensions, even if you're not entitled to be called Great Pretender. Still, it was an ambitious project). John Clute said some very nice things in New York Review of Science Fiction; SFX thought it 'postmodern', which is a word I tend to use as a term of praise but which is, it turns out, the strongest term of dispraise in the SFX lexicon. Some you win, some you lose.

A couple of other things. Two Royal Holloway colleagues of mine, Professor Andrew Gibson and Professor Robert Hampson, both brilliant scholars and excellent humans beings, appear in thinly veiled form in the postscript. I should have asked their permissions first, although they have taken it in good spirit.

And then there is the poetry of Phanicles, poetry that so moves young Polystom (he thinks poetry is breath, poor soul; but then again his reality has no experience of Derrida's Of Grammatology and its bracing deconstruction of the supposed primacy of the oral over the written...) -- well, the novel required that I quote some Phanicles. When drafting the book I used some poetry by a contemporary poet I admire very much, Gillian Allnutt, to stand in at the relevant places, telling myself that I would write my own stuff for the final draft. But final draft time came, and nothing I scribbled was anywhere near as affecting as Allnutt's flawless lines. In the end I wrote to her, and she responded gracefully and kindly, allowing me permission to keep her work in the book. I think it's effectiveness in this book derives from the way I've taken it out of contrast: the contrast between the cool, adult, spiritual spaciousness of Allnutt's verse and the rather frantic, adolescent, overheated SF idiom of the rest of the book. But the poetry is much more effective in its natural ground: go buy Allnutt's latest collection Sojourner (2004) from somewhere like and you will not regret it.

I set up a website,, to accompany the book, on which I posted various philosophical bits and pieces. It may have been the least visited sight on the web, and I think it's now out of commission. Some of that material is preserved here, on the offchance that you're interested...

An Extract:

[Extract to Follow]

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