High on concept, (often) low on follow-through.
Adam Robots, a compendium of short stories from the writer with the similar-sounding name, displays much of the brilliance and also many of the problems that characterise his other work.
Roberts is a writer of singular imaginativeness, who creates premises and fictional universes that rival the best in the business with their sf-nal inventiveness, and thematic cleverness. But, having filled out his worlds and explored his thematic preoccupations to his own satisfaction, he seems eager to wrap up his books stat, even in a way that might be unsatisfactory to the more plot-oriented reader. Yellow Blue Tibia and Jack Glass were culprits of this, sporting arresting premises and intriguing universes, but ultimately lacking a sense of completeness and closure.
In that regard, however, the short story medium attenuates this problem because the brevity of the stories prevents expectations from being built up as much as they would in a full-length book. So when the stories fall flat (if they do), the gulf between expectation and reality is not so stark.
That’s not to say that the compendium is a disappointment – the breadth and depth of Robert’s stories is impressive, with the stated goal to write one short sf story in every subgenre. There’s science fiction in there of all kinds – the Asimovean robot-treatise, the Heinlein-esque space opera, stories about time travel, religion, sf fantasy, gaia-sf. Some stories are better than others – some are indulgent experiments; others are serious attempts at self-contained short fiction. Some are truly bizarre – The Cow is a one-page riff on the famous nursery rhyme about a lunar-cresting bovine. But almost all display immense creativity of premise, in the best tradition of speculative fiction.
One other note: Many of Roberts’ stories display an interest in religious themes and imagery. Roberts likes to use the imagery of religion – especially Christianity – to explore and interrogate religious devotion, orthodoxia, and cultural norms. Adam Robots is rife with such stories, some displaying a more sympathetic thematic bent towards religiosity of thought, some less so.
Here are some of the better stories in the collection:
Adam Robots: The title story is about AIs that are placed in a simulated Garden of Eden to see if they will commit the Original Sin. A taut satire of the ways in which hermeneutics can be twisted to justify any self-serving purpose.
Thrownness: A somewhat chilling story about what would happen if you got the power to traverse dimensions, meaning your actions have no consequences from your local frame of reference. Mayhem ensues. Throws up some interesting questions of ethics.
The Mary Anna: I have to give Roberts credit for this story – even though it’s a somewhat pedestrian example of the subgenre of solar system romance, it’s entirely in verse and actually reads pretty well.
And Tomorrow And : What if the witches’ prophecies were taken completely literally, and MacBeth became functionally immortal as long as their overly restrictive conditions were not fulfilled? A wildly inventive piece of speculative fiction that takes us to the near future to solve MacBeth’s conundrum.
Anticopernicus: Interrogating the question of what if Copernicus was wrong, qua what if we are the centre of the Universe? Brings out that ol’ sensawonder so important to the genre.
I give this short story collection: 4 out of 5 clone armies