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Gradisil by Adam Roberts
Cover Artist: Stephan Martiniere
Review by Todd Baker
Pyr Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 1591025389
Date: 06 March, 2007 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

Gradisil is a complicated mixture of hard SF satire, political thriller, and family saga, told in a post-modern mélange of traditional narrative, memoir, and excerpts of speeches and the like. The basic conceit of the novel is that in the mid Twenty-First Century, a few pioneering individuals learn to make use of magneto-hydrodynamics (a real scientific discipline developed by Nobel-laureate Hannes Alfven) to alter airplanes so that they can fly into low orbit along the magnetic field lines of the Earth. These individuals then establish a community in low Earth orbit, the Uplands, consisting essentially of large canisters, called houses, made airtight and containing all the amenities of home.

This is the situation that prevails at the opening of the novel when the reader is introduced to Miklos Gyeroffy and his daughter Klara. A satellite consultant, he holds both the American and European space agencies in contempt for their continued reliance on expensive rocket technology. In explaining to Klara the technology that allows them to fly into orbit, he compares the magnetic field of the Earth to Yggdrasil, the great world-tree from Norse mythology; her distortion of this name, Gradisil, resonates throughout the rest of the book.

Always in need of money, Miklos agrees to harbor a fugitive in his Uplands house. This decision costs him his life and propels Klara along a path of desperation and revenge that will consume the next twenty-five years of her life. Taking up with friends of her father, she bounces from one relationship to another and one Uplands house to another until pregnancy finally grounds her in the downbelow. When her daughter is born, she names her Gradisil.

Klara's grounding is prolonged by war between the US and EU. Years pass and she becomes something of a minor celebrity due to her experiences in the Uplands. Eventually asked to serve as a liaison between the EU government and the Uplands community, Klara finally makes it back into orbit, stationed on an EU space station. Reconnecting with friends from early in her life, she also encounters and has the chance to kill the woman who killed her father. Then the US attacks again and her memoir, which forms the first part of the book, draws to a close. The focus shifts to her daughter Gradisil, and her son Hope in the continuing saga of the Uplands.

With its recursive references to hard SF and hard SF authors, Gradisil makes a strong commentary on the kind of technology we could have if we would only, as a society, focus more on ideas. It also indicts our Western society for what we have become. In the words of one of the book's characters (p. 37):

You know for how much money the EU government sold the latest mobile netlink rights? Bandwidths were going for a billion euros, minimum. . . . Think of the gross! So you tell me--is that the best way of spending humanity's money, webbing friends, playing games on the bus? A fraction of a single percent of that money, we could have bases on Mars in five years. Destiny--possibility--glorious, but no, we'll keep frittering our money on games, on cosmetics, on flim-flam, and we'll turn around in five hundred years and still be right here where we are now.
Such sentiments resonate with all those who want a good old-fashioned future. But this novel is not simply a paean to that ideal.

There are also references to Orwell in the text. Indeed, the instances of war between the US and the EU are eerily reminiscent of the wars between Oceania and Eurasia in 1984. These episodes, while integral to the plot, are disturbing and, in a novel marked by its verisimilitude, do not represent the level of geopolitical extrapolation one would expect of the author. For instance, there is no mention of China, which will surely be a major world-player by the mid Twenty-First Century.

Of course, these episodes do serve the satirical motives of the book, which clearly have more to do with present-day international politics than they do with any future struggle for the creation of a new society. The libertarian views espoused by the author would succeed even without the heavy-handed governments used as foils.

The intricacies of the plot, the richness of character development, and the intriguing scientific extrapolation far outweigh, though, the questionable use of satire in this book. It is not surprising that it has been shortlisted for the 2007 Arthur C. Clarke award for best new novel.

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