Volume 25, Number 3, Spring 2007

Space is a Harsher Mistress


By Adam Roberts

Pyr, 2007

Reviewed by Anders Monsen

In his latest novel, Gradisil, Robert Adams has created a modern libertarian sf epic. Taking his title from a young character’s mangling of Yggdrasil, the mythic Norse tree of knowledge, the basic premise merges an unusual method of leaving Earth’s gravity with a generational story and the birth of a new nation. Instead of using the much derided rocketry employed by NASA, which brings only a handful of individuals into space each year, Roberts’ private space farers launch a new space age via slightly modified aircraft. By adapting these planes to take advantage of Earth’s magnetosphere, which extends up and outward like the branches of a great tree (hence the Yggdrasil metaphor), moderately wealthy private individuals begin to colonize what they call the uplands. A government agent later comments, “No proper government could run a space programme or patch-up-and-mend…the way you uplanders have been colonising the area. No, for us it’s got to be design-from-scratch, great gleaming spacebirds.” Indeed, the opening act of this novel reads much like Victor Koman’s paean to private space travel, Kings of the High Frontier, enthusiastically describing the ascent into space by these new pioneers and their creation of mini-space stations.

Gradisil is a generational novel spanning nearly a century in scope, focusing on the Gyeroffy family. Beginning with a young Klara helping her father set up a house in the uplands and extending to Klara’s daughter, Gradisil (aka Gradi), and rounded out by her two sons, this is a vastly ambitious book. Yet it is also highly personalized, with each of the three parts told from the perspective of different characters, taking on their perspectives and motives. Tragedy strikes quickly for Klara, whose father is murdered in space by one of his clients. Klara seeks both revenge and return to the uplands, yet questions whether either goal really is satisfactory. Still, she embodies a spirit of freedom that is extended by her daughter. Klara during a stint as uplander ambassador to the European Union (EU) explains, “The more I think about it, the less I think that colonization of new lands should be in the province of governments at all…that’s just oppression. People should do it themselves.”

Gradi fights for freedom, open space for all, “provided only that they build their own homes and arrange their own transport.” In this utopia there are no taxes, and every uplander is willing to defend their own freedom and their neighbors’ freedom. She proclaims in one her many meetings where she tries to radicalize the disparate uplanders, “I am interested in freedom. Freedom! Svoboda! Liberté! Eleutheria!” Gradi is singularly minded, a passionate long-term planner, who according to her husband even foresees her own death as critical in the birth of an independent “Liberty” in space. (Gradi at one point calls the governments of the uplands a Liberty, amending her original label of an anarchy, which she states is the “ideological principle of no government.”) The middle part of the novel’s narrative, which is told by Gradi’s much abused and betrayed husband is far more focused than the first part detailed by Klara. Whereas the first section often delved into quotidian and boring details, the actual battle for the uplands fought by Gradi is a tour de force of planning and action.

At the outset of his narrative, Gradi’s husband talks of his planned act of betrayal to her fiercest enemies, the United States government. Perhaps he wrote his story as a justification for his actions, a way to expiate his sins. He cannot foresee, however, the consequences of his actions will bleed over into the lives of his sons, who feel compelled to act out an Oresteia type revenge against their father.

By Gradi’s lifetime, in the mid to late 21st century, the population of the uplands has grown to the point where the two dominant government entities, the EU and US (where are Islamic nations and China/India in this future?) Both want a piece of the action. The US government eventually sees the need to police the uplanders, who of course will be taxed to pay for the military occupation, or “defense” as one military official euphemistically states. When they inevitably refuse this police force, war is the inevitable outcome, a war that will either mean the death of free space, or a liberated and viably independent upland community. These two governments fight both each other and the uplanders in a very expensive quest for control over essentially the money of the billionaires in space. Gradi, and many of her associates, seek freedom.

Along the way we encounter the crazed and bureaucratic thinking that is part of all governments. The EU government designs its planes with side docking tunnels, whereas the uplander homes were created with nose hatches in mind. This, the government tells Klara, is a design flaw on the part of the uplanders, who had been up there decades before the EU thought about any presence in space.

In her new role as ambassador for the EU government in space, Klara meets resistance from the uplanders, many of whom used to be close friends. One resident who used to welcome her now refuses even to meet, saying “I’ve learned to become more and more suspicious of governments the longer I have lived up here.” In the vastness of space, it can often be hard to track down people living in small floating boxes, and exact coordinates are required to find people. So, invitation is virtually required, although at one point when the Americans seek to take over the uplands, they methodically try to plot the location of as many inhabitants as possible.

Virtually every sf novel with some trace of libertarian theme has been compared to Robert A. Heinlein’s classic novel, The Moon is Harsh Mistress. Roberts’ Gradisil is no exception. The locale may be different, but the theme similar. Heinlein derived the template for his novel from the American Revolution, whereby a government followed a period of salutary neglect with quickly imposed laws to re-establish control. These laws were perceived as onerous by the inhabitants, who rebelled and defeated their former masters. Roberts’ novel deviates somewhat from this template, as the inhabitants of the uplands—essentially private space stations in low earth orbit—ascended into free space, and later suffered under the governments who tried to conquer that space.

If Adam Roberts is not a well-known name in sf here in America, this novel should by all rights render that issue moot. I have read few novels as challenging, literate, and invigorating as this one. Gradisil is like the water of life, and anyone captivated by the desire to get into space, or convinced that individual liberty goes hand in hand with our future, should find visionary solace in this excellent book. Roberts is certainly a gifted writer, comfortable with language and style, and the pull of the story itself is nearly irresistible. The British invasion continues apace with writers who discuss libertarian themed ideas with challenging questions and compelling story-telling abilities.

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