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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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Stone

Published By:
Gollancz, UK [2002]
6.99 Pb
ISBN10:
0575073969
ISBN13:
978-0575073968
Buy from: Amazon.co.uk
Synopsis:

[Synopsis To Follow]

Reviews:

[Reviews To Follow]

Adam Says:

My third novel is called Stone. It's a sort of whodunit, set in a far-future interstellar Utopia. The novel's narrator, a broken-down holy-fool and sociopath, is employed to murder the population of an entire planet, and whilst accepting this commission tries to discover who is behind the request; in other words he is both the whodunit 'murderer' (in that he commits the crime) and the whodunit 'detective' (in that he is trying to uncover who is really behind the crime). It was published by Gollancz in 2002.

I started the novel with the idea of writing a crime story in which the 'detective' is also the 'murderer' in this way. I liked the generic complexifications that notion involved. As I worked on it I found myself working through a much more detailed critique of Iain Banks's Culture novels - which, I might add, I love to pieces - than I first thought. It also turned out, on a symbolic level, to be a much more religious novel than I anticipated. It's funny how things turn out: usually I plan my novels to a fair degree of detail, and writing them does not involve me in surprising myself too profoundly. But in Stone, because the whodunit idiom required the plot to be more carefully patterned out than usual, I found my writer's subconscious working through the task in a more than usually independent-of-conscious-control way.

Now, as I look back on it, it's hard for me to say what this novel is about. I consider it, rightly or wrongly, one of my most successful books, technically: I think there is a good-enough mystery there, I think the character is complex and persuasive enough, I think there are enough SF spins to build the world. But looking back I realise that it's a book much more obviously about choice, about the narrowing down or the opening up of possibilities, than I had planned to write. So, just possibly, the conventional whodunit begins with a wealth of possibilities (the murderer could be anyone, from Lord Salmon down to the scullery maid...), and as it progresses it narrows those possibilities until at the end there is only one reading (the detective reveals the murderer as... whoever it is). Stone, I think, works the other way. You know in advance who the murderer is going to be; but the 'solution' involves an opening up rather than a closing down. 'About', then, choice; about the things that are behind the veil for us, the merits of uncovering them; about diversity and singularity; about the inner and the outer.

Greg Johnson at sfsite.com reviews the book very positively, calling it "a novel that completely succeeds both in its world-building and its character study. Pick up and read Stone, or, for that matter, any of Adam Roberts' other novels. It's past time for everyone who appreciates fine writing and first-rate science fiction to discover this terrific writer and his work." Which is a very gratifying sentiment for me to read.

An Extract: From Chapter One - The Prison

Stone, dear Stone:

The doctor has suggested that by writing letters to various objects and natural phenomena I may be able to come to terms with some of all this badness, this illness, this upset (upset? downset, rather). I ought to register my dubiousness about this project right away. There is an issue of empathy here, isn't there? Empathy - that's right, isn't it? I have to assume that she is eavesdropping this communication between you and me. My doctor I mean. Or why would I bother to compose it at all? I do have something important to say about the nature of the universe, but I'll come on to that in due course. Later on, a little later on. To communicate to her through the stone is rather like using the language of the stone, isn't it? Don't you think? Are you listening? Hey! Hey!

Doesn't hear me.

I am a bad man, I've done some bad things. I beg your pardon, stone, in telling you these things (do you like that politeness? You're an ancient object, and I've got a whole store of ancient cultural habits to deploy if I feel like it). I am a bad man. I still think of myself as a man, in fact, although there's little biological evidence for that fact. When the nano-technology abandoned my body the default biological settings reasserted themselves. I had liked being a man, in fact. I'd been a man for so long I'd acquired the mental habit of calling myself male, of thinking it at a deep level. I still think that way, even though my male genitalia have long since shrunken and wizened like drying fruit, grapes turning to raisins and finally shrinking to nothing at all. Then the whole area itched, and I couldn't help but scratch. You won't know what itch means, stone. There's something you have in common with the rest of humanity, that's something their nanotechnology protect them from. But let me tell you, to itch, it's a strange thing. It's a torture and a pleasure at once. I scratched my whole body raw. I scratched my new genital smoothness so hard it opened up lips. So I suppose I am she, except I'm not so in my head, it somehow hasn't percolated through to my head. I haven't grown breasts either. But maybe that's because I'm not eating. When I first came to prison, my first prison, I was in a state. I tried starving myself, but the nano technology kept me alive. I'm not sure how. Perhaps it picked up nutrients from here and there, drew them through my skin as I lay asleep on the soil - I don't know. Nano technology, dotTech as it is called, is an astonishingly clever thing. It really is. I have battled against it, trying to kill people when it is designed to keep people alive. I know my enemy. Better now than ever. Listen to what I have to tell you, dear stone, and you will know it too.

***

Let me get straight to the point. I have to tell you a story - my story - about a terrible crime. The worst crime ever committed, maybe; murder (which is the worst of crimes) and murder on a scale you can barely conceive.

Let me take it down to its basic level: I was in prison. I'm in prison now, but this was before. I was in prison for different reasons then. I didn't have you then, my dear stone. There were other stones in that other jail, but none of them were as close to me as you are now. Does that make you feel special? You are special. Does it make you feel loved?

Well, let's not get carried away.

They contacted me inside prison, inside my first prison. Stay with me, for a few moments, and I'll explain how difficult a thing that was that they did; I was inside a prison so well-made that it was impossible for me to get out or anybody to get a message in. And yet they managed both these things. Who were they? Yes, well, that puzzled me too: they were, as they proved themselves, the enemy of t'T. We lived in a kind of paradise, in t'T, and thought ourselves immune, but enemies gathered at our borders. There were the Wheah, ancient enemies; but also the Palmetto tribes, mysterious peoples. Which of them offered me this deal? Which of them is at the root of this problem? I thought I knew; I thought it was becoming increasingly clear to me, but I was wrong.

I apologise for my awkwardness. I'm not used to this.

They offered me a deal. They would break me out of prison. And you understand, dear stone, that the prison I was in was impossible to break out of. Not difficult, or challenging, but impossible. My prison was surrounded on all sides by walls of superheated fire and plasma kilometres deep. But they promised me they could get me out. When I was out, they said, they would make me rich. In the worlds I have travelled amongst money means little, and there are philosophies that teach even information is of no fundamental importance. But they promised me compacted information that would have sped me through fastSpace at four thousand times the speed of light; that would have built me palaces in space, genie-like, at the other end. Of course, the most attractive thing they offered was escape from the inescapable jail. Wealth and freedom - how could I not be tempted?

In return they asked me to do one, simple thing: which was, to destroy the population of an entire planet. To kill nearly sixty million human beings, and that was all, nothing more. I was not (they said) to destroy the planet as such; I was to leave as much of the ecology and architecture and all the evidences of civilisation as I could. But I had to kill off all the people. I was to litter the world with corpses. I am a bad man, and have done some questionable things in my time, but I was startled and rather frightened by this deal. They didn't tell me all in one go, of course; they approached me a number of times and insinuated the idea in my head. I would be wealthy. I would have help. I would be free. The people on this world, they - they would be dead, and once dead past caring.

So I thought to myself: these people, that I am asked to kill. Are they real people?

Now I suppose I could have turned down this deal they offered me, and gone on living in my prison. It was a spacious prison; green hills covered in plastic grass, a river and a lake fluid with real water, fake plastic trees. Artificial stars dotted the false sky like bit-lights, sharp-edged five-pointed icons of stars that glowed in the artificial night. The light that shone through these imitation faux-stars was real light, if modified and filtered a little. The light and the water in my prison were real. But everything else about the place was artificial: the grass, the landscape, the trees, everything a simulated medium in which a few real people observed me as if I were a scientific specimen. And, of course, these people, the air, the very water - all of it was full of billions of dotTech machines. I could go anywhere I wanted in this space but there was nowhere to go. I could lie on my back on the chilly turf when the artificial light faded to artificial night, and the faux-stars glinted with a yellow, moist-looking light over my head. I could have lived the rest of my life there if I'd chosen.

I said to them, whoever they were, Palmetto or Wheah, foreigner or closer-to-home, I said: Take me out of here. I'll do it, I said, I'll kill all these people.

And so they did; and so did I.

As a stone (I'm presuming here) you don't know anything about morality. Stones are proverbial for their moral indifference. But somehow I have to convey to you the enormity of what I have done. My doctor, wherever she is (hello! hello!) will probably understand this as me trying to convey to myself the enormity of what I have done. I don't wish to argue with her.

In fact, this whole affair put me in a very peculiar position. I committed the crime, so I was the criminal. But I was acting on behalf of somebody or somepeople others, and I did not at the beginning know who those people were. I decided early on to try and uncover who it was who had so secretly commissioned me to do this terrible thing. Even though I was committing the crime, I intended to solve it. I was both murderer and detective.

Curious.

Even before I escaped from that first prison, I was wondering, and worrying, about the rationale. I tried to think who would want to do so terrible a thing. To kill a whole world? Why do such a thing? Who would it benefit? And why would they employ me to do it? To go to all the bother of helping me escape from prison, the impossible-to-escape prison. Why not employ somebody else? Why not simply commit the crime themselves?

It is true that in the many thousand light-year wide and deep realm of t'T, the confederation of worlds in which I grew up, the concept of criminal was so rare as to be the object of study of only the most specialised scholars. I was a human in trillions, a freak so rare and fine as to occasion horror and fascination. It was possible that in all the half-hundred worlds of t'T they, whoever they were, could not find a citizen as criminal as me - that might have been the reason for my election to this role. But outside t'T - what of the various Palmetto tribes of starwayers in the broken space turnwards? There were pirates and murderers enough in those realms - they furnished the stock characters for a thousand t'T romances. And rimwards, there was the barbaric realm of the Wheah. If stories were true, there were warrior-families in that space who would have gladly wiped out whole populations, and for less reward than I was being offered.

But the offer was made to me, not them. And the person who accepted it was me.

2nd

Dear Stone,

I'll tell you about my execution. What do I remember? I remember that I was nervous. Perhaps that goes without saying. I remember too that everything I have to tell you about in these letters began after my execution. How did it happen? Let me tell you how it happens.

It is a form of dying. You're a stone, I can't expect you to understand. You are not born, and don't really die. Or do you? I can pick you up and feel the ellipsis that you make of my palm. It's like cradling a cold breast; and then I close my fingers around you and its more like gripping the forefinger of a mother when you're nothing more than a wine-coloured baby with skin as scrunched as red silk that's been worn too long. That feeling of grip, it feels good. If I could throw you out of the prison, into the body of the sun, then you'd disintegrate - would that be a kind of death from your point of view? Or if I contemplated a more realistic throw: from this bank of putty-mud and green grass into the river over there. Do you see the river, there?

Of course, you have no eyes, being a stone.

But let's say I threw you in there. Given some thousands of years you'd be ground down, you'd be rubbed away. Skeins of atoms brushed off you every day, until you became nothing more than a piece of grit on the sandbank down the way. And maybe even less than that. Would that be some sort of death to you?

How does one reason with a stone?

Well, I approached my own execution in poor style. This is how it went. I woke up, and here I was. I had been brought into the prison. It's only a prison to me, naturally. The gaoler and the gaoler's mate can come and go, of course they can. The nano-machines themselves can come and go, of course they can. I'm the one who can't go anywhere. For me the sky presents as complete a barrier as the inside curve of my own skull. I could no more pass through than I could step out of my own skin. It is a spacious prison, I grant you. The ground space, with its up-and-down landscaping, its flowing water as clear as air, the river-path looping seventimes like a thrown away cord, all about and round the seven hills. So much green! So much artificial blue, with the stars burning now as day-stars, bright yellow against the azure, letting carefully controlled dribbles of light and heat so that we do not freeze. Photons and agitated gas.

The executioner was also my jailer, a large woman, with a lemon-coloured droopy face. She had a deputy, a man short and tight-skinned, a man who had adapted himself to make himself a better swimmer. At some point in his past he must have swallowed some adaptive dotTech, that that had swum with its billions of fellows and encouraged them to change his body. He lacked hair, and he had used his dotTech to shrink his nose until it was only a puckered nipple overlaying nick-looking nostrils, like the nubbin on a tomato. His skin was sharp red-coloured, smooth and pert. He spent most of his days swimming along the river, and diving deep in the pool that exists at the bottom of the slightly conical living space of the jail. I assume the water is drained at the base of this dip and re-circulated; I can't be sure. But the deputy said little, and did little, except wait impassively at the elbow of the jailer. He was her pair, it seems; travelled everywhere with her. Listened to her words, sometimes nodding slowly, and then running off to leap into the water to ponder them more carefully. The dotTech in his body converted oxygen out of the water at a rate sufficient to keep him alive. I'm not even sure if he had modified his lungs; he probably didn't need to.

The jailer and her deputy were charged to look after me, to make sure I couldn't escape (but escape was impossible!), that I didn't harm my surroundings too savagely if a mood was upon me. But mostly they left me to myself, and I wandered the little hills and dived into the river and threw myself onto the grass to sleep.

I would happily have drowned myself, if I could. I really would. I was ready to die, bitter in my imprisonment, hating myself. I tried ripping at my skin with my nails, but that is a hard thing to do - have you tried it? I would lie awake, with the artificial sky dark and the stars fuming and shining a few hundred metres over my head, and I would imagine it. Grow my nails, bite them into sharp shapes, and then tear the flesh at my wrists to destroy my life, to kill myself. But it is not easy. The scratching does not penetrate the skin; then it starts to hurt, and your body recoils almost to spite yourself. Then the dotTech kills the pain, and knits together your skin, and you're back where you were.

So I threw myself into the water and tried to drown, but as with the red-skinned deputy, the dotTech kept me alive. Try as I might, the caustic sensation of water in my lungs and all my agonised underwater coughing did not prevent my bloodstream taking up oxygen and delivering it to my body. It is clever, this nano technology, it can solve any problems presented to it. Its goal, its reason for existing, is to keep us alive, and it kept me alive. Even me, even a bad man like myself.

Then I told myself this as I lay on the bank by the river, looking up at the broad plastic leaves of the trees over me: I told myself that when I was executed, and the dotTech left me, then I would be able to kill myself. Dribbly shakes of light against the canopy of leaves. Wobbling and transcendent, bright and warm. That thought gave me comfort. If you were me, you'd have wanted that death too.

I had brought my dotTech with me when I had first come to the jail. Funnelled through the narrow-gate, which the gravity engines had opened in the body of the star, and dropped from the sky to swoop round and land. The chief jailer, the lemon-coloured woman, had picked me up as if I were a parcel and taken me to the river, to wash the last of the charred and crumbling foam from my body. Then I had been left to myself.

The realisation that I was in prison had been a terrible thing. I had spent days unable to do more than lie on the ground, or cry to myself on the grass. I didn't sleep well. I was used to beds, under roofs, inside rooms. Sleeping on the grass under the sky (even an artificial sky) takes some getting used to. This long, slow, melancholy period was interspersed with my abrupt fits of rage, screaming and running about, dashing myself at the plastic trees and colliding head-first, hurling myself into the river to try and drown myself, ripping off the last of my clothes and doing violence to my hair. I suppose this is why they left the dotTech in my body for these first weeks, to compensate for my self-destructive rages. So that the bruises I bashed up on my face could heal in minutes, the tiny machines in my bloodstream mending the rips in my capillaries, ferrying away the dead dark matter, making everything smooth and pure again. So that the hair I pulled out in fistfuls could come extruding out again, like a magic trick.

And then the morning of my execution came. Of course I knew I was slated for execution. When the day itself came, I knew something was happening because the executioner (as I realised she was) approached me with a serious expression on her face. Her partner came too, his svelte little red body gleaming in the light. I remember thinking how odd it was that he decided to remain a man, given his mania for swimming; why not let the dotTech modify his body to become a woman, to lose that drag-creating tangle of organs between his legs? But he stayed a man. Perhaps it had something to do with the dynamic of his relationship with the executioner.

'Are you ready?' she asked.

This meant I was about to be executed.

'No,' I said. 'By no means.' I think I started crying. It is a frightening thing to contemplate. If I did cry it would have been in a restrained way; little gulping sobs, not great howls.

But she reached forward, smiling all the time. Her big yellow face, with its sagging jowls and drooping nose; the whites of her eyes bright against the sallow of her skin, and then her purple irises starburst with darker lines, and in the very middle of those eyes her pupils, completely black. As black as stones - as black as you are yourself, dear stone, excepting only the vague buried mottling that is just visible underneath your surface sheen. She leant towards me, and I had a long time to study her face, so I remember it particularly vividly.

What she was doing was pressing her finger against my wrist. She took up my left hand with her right, and pressed a finger tight against the skin. She was the executioner because in her body there were nano-machines specially designed to communicate with the standard dotTech in my body. They passed through her skin and through my skin, and into my system. She held my wrist tightly, and I could smell the faint papery, almost dusty smell of her close in my nostrils. She was humming to herself a little. She had been loaded with this charge, and it was a rare responsibility. Human beings will take all manner of adaptive dotTech into their bodies, but this particular adaptation was unique. Who would want to purge out all the dotTech? I'm sure she carried her charge with a due sense of gravity. The machines she had gathered in her fingers-ends were designed to command the machines in my body to quit me.

When she was finished she let go my arm and stood away, looking at me with a certain detachment. I began to feel queasy. Then I had a sharp sense of thirst, and then a pain bubbled up out of my deep insides and spread across all my skin. I started bleeding from my pores. My eyes went dizzy with rheum, and mucus came spurting as if under pressure from my nostrils. I could feel my muscles go limp, and a stream of urine come hurrying out to splatter on the turf. I hurt. More blood came, my whole skin was slick with it. My ears were wet, my mouth filled up with blood. I started screaming, but my fluid-filled mouth bubbled and gargled the sound - perhaps it even sounded comical. I staggered, flapping my arms with the pain. Pain is a rarity for the people of t'T, because the nano machines protect us from the worst of the sensation. I did not enjoy it at that moment, I can tell you. I lurched forward, fell, somehow landed on my knees.

I coughed, wept. The hunger to die, as sharp and tangy as a physical hunger, overwhelmed me again. But I stayed alive. Fluid poured from me; vomit from my mouth, tears from my eyes, rheum and mucus from my nose, urine from between my legs. Even my pores wept myriad little dots of blood. And the stream I produced coagulated and treacled its way down the incline towards the water. Nano machines prefer a fluid environment, although they can exist in dry ground, or even in dead vacuum, if they need to. They are tough; amazingly so.

Then the convulsions passed, and I fell forward. A half-throated gasp was coming out of me, regular as a drumbeat. I don't know how long I lay there. I lay there a long time.

I dragged myself up, eventually, because I was so thirsty. I had lost a great deal of fluid, my skin was hot and my throat felt dusty and burnt. I staggered, my legs wobbling as if they were fluid, but I made it to the edge of the artificial waterway and tumbled in. The cool enveloping of the water was delicious to my skin; I opened my mouth and gulped water. It was half in my mind to sink to the bottom and drown, but to my surprise I found myself swimming to the other side of the bank. Then I lay in the water under the bright light of the star-shaped holes in our blue plastic arched artificial sky. I lay with both my arms stretched out on the dirt of the bank, and the back of my head on the ground, but with my body and legs floating out in the water. I felt drained. That word is insufficient to express how emptied-out and weak I felt.

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