Tonight, we celebrate Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself, a marvelous mindbender of a sci fi novel from the British author of 20 Trillion Leagues Under the Sea.
Two men, together on an Antarctic research base. Alone for months on end. Separated by what they believe. Joined together by Fermi’s Paradox. Are we, indeed, alone in the Universe? How might Kantian metaphysics prove that, maybe, we’re not?
The title is a pun on John Carpenter’s The Thing and the “thing-in-itself” or Ding an sich, a concept introduced by Kant in his Critique of Pure Reason. If that sounds boring to you, it’s not. If it sounds weird, it is – in a really wonderful way! I wonder if he decided to write the book after conceiving the pun because many of his other titles are similarly groan-worthy (or praiseworthy, depending on how you feel about puns): The Dragon With The Girl Tattoo, The Sell-A-Million, and – a most offensive pun on his own name – Adam Robots. Besides the wordplay, common themes in his books include shadowy government agencies, baiting people with technologies that might not even exist, humanity threatening to destroy itself using said technologies, nontraditional romances, and Agatha Christie-esque impossible murders. While one could find enjoyment in his entire canon, The Thing Itself is in a league of its own.
The structure of the novel is both simple and heady: the odd-numbered chapters travel through space, and the even-numbered chapters travel through time. We’re treated to a delicious chase plot, the final days of a dementia-addled genius, a few forbidden romances; and even a prolonged meditation on human suffering, a direct nod to the sixth book of The Aeneid – the descent into the underworld. All of that in just a few hundred pages! Never once feeling overstuffed, it is a perfectly intricate page-turner.
If you enjoy speculative fiction at all, read this book immediately. I think it’s one of the finest novels of the 21st century so far and I would love to hear your opinion. Roberts is a staunch atheist who has, in his own wry words, written a novel on why you should believe in God (don’t worry, it’s not a propaganda piece).
To discover more after you read it, listen to this panel discussion featuring Roberts, author Francis Spufford, author Alan Jacobs, and former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams. In the spirit of The Avocado, it is wonderful to see civil, good-humored people of wildly different backgrounds uniting over a delightful and thought-provoking piece of pop culture.
I hope you all have a wonderful night!