Review: The Thing Itself, by Adam Roberts

Adam Roberts’s latest novel The Thing Itself begins with a reimagining of John Carpenter’s cult 1982 film The Thing, which was itself an adaptation of John W. Campbell, Jr.’s 1938 novella Who Goes There? Two scientists are at an isolated Antarctic research base. Alone for months on end. And there’s something lurking outside.

Roberts’s forte is revisiting older works of science fiction and updating their premise for the twenty-first century. He delights in playing with the history of the genre, taking familiar concepts and subverting or reinforcing their meaning. Most of his novels from the last few years use an older work as their starting point. The opening pages of The Thing Itself would encourage the idea that he is doing this again, but the novel soon makes a rapid departure from its horror-in-Antarctica starting point. Instead, Roberts uses the plot as a framework to explore the philosophical implications of the Fermi Paradox. In doing so, he encounters a metaphysical conundrum that undermines the very nature of reality. And that’s just the first chapter.

the thing itself adam roberts

I’ve been a fan of Adam Roberts for several years. His critical work The History of Science Fiction (2005) was a major inspiration for my own PhD topic, and I subsequently discovered that he is one of those rare people who can write both scholarly articles and engaging fiction with the same enthusiasm. His interest in the history of science fiction has led him to reimagine some of its most iconic works – his novel Twenty Trillion Leagues Under the Sea (2014) was a reimagining of Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues, whereas Bête (2014) allowed him to expand upon the concept of Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau. He explained in the Preface to his 2013 short story collection, Adam Robots, that he wanted to write a short story in every sub-genre and sub-sub-genre of science fiction. This ambition is certainly carrying across to his novels, as he continues to demonstrate an incredible variety of ideas with each new publication. And The Thing Itself may be his most ambitious work yet.

The novel is an amalgam of intertwining stories, stretching from 1695 to 2350. It demonstrates a stunning diversity of voices, almost reading like a David Mitchell novel as Roberts embraces the languages and dialects unique to each era. Each of these stories has a wonderful charm, from the boy who inadvertently dabbles in witchcraft in 1695 to a wistful romance in nineteenth-century Gibraltar, where the Rock physically grows with each sexual experience of a young woman named Lunita. The framing narrative that holds it all together – beginning in Antarctica in 1986 – reads like a science fiction thriller, with the protagonist acting as the unwitting participant in a power struggle between various forces that are beyond his comprehension. Some of the stories are even set in the future, long after the events of the frame narrative, allowing us to see the repercussions of the main story without spoiling the ending.

All of these stories combine to explore different facets of the main subject of the novel. And this subject was something of a surprise for me. Roberts has always been quick to engage in philosophy, but this is the first time that a metaphysical concept has formed the premise of his novel. The Thing Itself serves as a fictional exploration of the ideas proposed by Immanuel Kant in his landmark work of philosophy, the Critique of Pure Reason (1781).

For this reason, The Thing Itself is the closest thing that science fiction has to a Voltairean contes philosophique. The narrative functions as an imaginative framework for an extended discussion of Kant’s ideas, as Roberts uses the story to poke and pull at various concepts. Along the way, he includes some great homages to older works of science fiction: this is a novel that rewards a deep reading.

The title of the book doesn’t just refer to the Carpenter film – that’s a brilliant piece of misdirection on Roberts’s behalf – but more broadly refers to Kant’s concept of the Ding an sich – the thing as it really is, the reality that is filtered through our perceptions. Kant proposed that reality can only be interpreted through our experiences: concepts such as space and time and causality are products of our mind’s need to structure the universe into recognizable categories. Roberts is quick to engage with the concept – he gives us a crash course in Kantian philosophy in the opening chapter – but goes on to imagine its science-fictional implications. The first of these being the Fermi Paradox: what happens if alien life is standing right in front of us, but the restrictive structure of our human perceptions means we are unable to recognize it?

The most impressive thing about the novel is how Roberts has imported Kant’s philosophies without making the novel stilted, boring, or overly didactic. It remains an incredibly enjoyable read, showcasing his trademark wit. In the acknowledgements to the novel, Roberts admits that he is “an atheist writing a novel about why you should believe in God.” He certainly makes a strong argument, following the basic Kantian notion that there may be things beyond our limited perception of space, time, and causality. But there’s a certain tongue-in-cheek dryness to Roberts’s tone: he is not trying to convert his readers, but point out the limitations of our cognitive abilities. Along the way, he plans to entertain us.

For those of you who are already fans of Roberts, The Thing Itself is easily ranked among his best novels, the equal or better of Bête or Yellow Blue Tibia. This is an author at the height of his powers. For those of you who are yet to discover Roberts, drop what you are doing and find one of his books. This is science fiction at its most engaging, its most thought-provoking, its most cunning, its most intelligent.

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