Although certainly the exception and not the rule, science fiction is sometimes viewed as little more than the American western set in space. It tends to stem from placing characters with an independent streak as pioneers or settlers in new frontiers. If you imagine this trope placed in the hands of a British professor of 19th century literature, you have a taste of Gradisil.
To be fair, Adam Roberts invokes and utilizes elements of Oresteia — a trilogy of Greek tragedies — as much as the American western. In fact, the book is told in a trilogy form like Oresteia and explores its themes of murder, revenge and justice in society. Yet the setting — private individual colonization of near earth orbit in the period from the 2050s through the first third of the 22nd century — is as far from Athens or the American west as you can get. There are no great debates or oratory in the Pnyx just as there is no saloon, school marm or even a sheriff.
The first part of Gradisil serves largely as prelude to the main tale. Klara Gyeroffy relates her story in the first person, explaining how various individuals, largely wealthy, used new “magnetohydrodynamic” aircraft to gain and put living quarters in the magnetosphere. Many of these people are extremely individualistic and, in fact, there is a strong libertarian streak throughout the book. Klara analogizes the Uplands, as the colonized area becomes known, to Yggdrasil, the world tree of Viking myth. Although the metaphor tends to be overused a bit, the waves of the magnetosphere the aircraft use to reach space are the branches of the tree and the individual homes are the leaves. Although ostensibly the tale of the death of Klara’s father and her efforts to seek revenge for it, it serves as the back story for her daughter, Gradisil, named in honor of the mythological tree.
The second and largest part of the book tells Gradisil’s story but never in her voice. Rather it tends to alternate between a first person recounting by her husband, Paul, and a third person account of a U.S. military officer assigned to the Uplands. This is a relatively near future in which the U.S. and the European Union are at odds. The U.S. battles Muslims in an alliance with near eastern countries. The U.S. is by far the strongest military power and is not afraid to use it. In terms of the western, the U.S. is the gunslinger that comes to the peaceful town of the Uplands. The second half of the 21st century is marked by a variety of wars, including an E.U.-U.S. war and, at the end of the century, a U.S. war against the Uplands. In the latter, Gradisil is the recognized, although unelected, president (or town mayor) of the Uplands. The run-up to, strategy, execution and resolution of that war — one in which courtrooms are as important as battlefields — are the heart of the book and its namesake.
The final and shortest part of the book is told only from the third person and lets us see the Uplands some 30 years after the cessation of the war through the eyes of Gradisil’s two sons. Not only does it give a view of the post-war Uplands, it directly raises the issue of justice versus revenge for Gradisil’s death after the war. The arc from Klara’s actions in part one to steps taken by Gradisil to help forge a nation to a trial in the third part that invokes a similar setting before Athenian citizens in Oresteia clearly evidences the influence of the Greek myth on the book.
Although this is, at bottom, a tale of nation-building, it is not told with great, broad strokes like most space opera. Rather, this is character-driven fiction, a story told entirely from the standpoint of a handful of individuals. That may also be part of the problem with the book. There is no hard and fast rule that the fictional characters, particularly mythic ones, need be moral, heroic or even likable. Yet it is hard to care whether the Uplands survive when none of the people telling the story is particularly likable and the nation seems constructed as much on dislike of the story’s bad guy as the interests of the good citizens of the town. Undoubtedly, some western movies utilized just such an approach. But when it is the characters who must drive virtually the entire story, film and video do not require as much as the printed word – well more than 500 pages of it here – to keep the audience invested in the characters telling the story.
Some of the science may raise the hackles of readers who pay attention to such things (particularly the outcome of what seems to be one of the longest death scenes in years). Roberts also uses some rather annoying devices to apparently reflect cultural change. For example, beginning in the second part of the story the letter “c” is dropped from words that contain “ck.” At first you think these (and at least two similar devices in the book) are typos but even once you realize it is intentional, the brain stumbles over words it says are misspelled.
Despite these and other flaws, Gradisil is an interesting variation of the space opera of today. Roberts plainly utilizes some of the American western themes that inspired the subgenre decades ago. Yet by melding elements of Greek myth and contemporary politics, this is a space opera of a near-future Earth, not one writ on an intergalactic scale.
Justice is the seedbed of freedom.
Adam Roberts, Gradisil