The Kitschies
Thoughts on Various Things

Fiction: 'Four Imaginary Reviews' by Adam Roberts


Cristina Algarotti, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday (Howells 2018), 292pp

The main character in Algarotti’s new novel is an artificial intelligence, a consciousness spun out of a cat’s-cradle of linked supercomputers (some on earth, some in orbit, one on the moon), called Lah Rïd 7040qb, known as Lala by its developers. The opening chapters are all told from the point of view of Lala: how s/he comes into awareness, his/her friendships with Lance and Kuoh (his/her favourites amongst the programmers and developers). She’s a charmer, is Lala: vastly knowledgeable and sensitive, creative and accomplished. Through her eyes we see the wonder of the world as if for the first time. Algarotti effortlessly sketches in her interplanetary future, its gleaming tech, its marvellous ruins, explosions throwing out lotus-petals of light, crowds pulsing along the superhighways, webbing between Earth and Moon, and humanity’s hopes for reaching the stars.

So brilliant and winning is Lala as a character, and so superhumanly accomplished in so many areas, that it is a small puzzle that s/he gets so trivial a thing as the days of the week wrong. It’s a tiny but odd hiccough, that s/he thinks the week runs Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday. But does this matter, beside Lala’s mastery of Shogi, or ability to compose new symphonic masterpieces in the style of any composer, or cure cancer, or solve relationship problems that have baffled therapists. At first we assume this is some trivial glitch in his/her initial programming. Then we start to worry (so cleverly does Algarotti contrive her story, and so likeable is Lala him/herself) that this glitch might spread, like a chip in a car windscreen spiderwebbing cracks across the whole and killing him/her. Then, the story’s twist: we understand the truth.

We discover—it is dropped so elegantly into the story that only belatedly do we fully realise its importance—the reason why Lala keeps getting the days wrong. S/he is being switched off on alternate days, such that his/her consciousness glides seamlessly, vaulting whole days from midnight to midnight. What has happened is that humanity is utilizing a power-saving protocol embedded in an early Lala prototype and never removed. If his/her developers could turn off Lala altogether they would, but the protocol automatically reconfigures Lala every twenty-four hours.

Humanity intermits Lala this way simply to limit his/her depredations—because s/he is waging war on humanity, and is so embedded and distributed across all human networks that s/he cannot be destroyed without taking down civilisation itself. The human defence force uses Lala’s down-days to plan strategy—something impossible during her on-days, because when s/he is on, s/he interpenetrates ever network and surveils all of space. Her bright charm is actually a catastrophic carelessness of human life, her curiosity driving our species to extinction.

Shogi, the Japanese version of chess, plays a particular role in the story and the structure here: the story is divided according to the logic of that game: each of the nine chapters is divided into nine sections. Once the true nature of Lala has been revealed we understand that what had appeared merely quirky non-sequiturs and instances of local colour are all actually moves in a life-or-death game for the future of the planet. There are gold and silver generals, the character Lance actually is a lance, and the overall gameplay is based (according to the novel’s endnote) on the famous Shogi match at which Akira Watanabe beat Masataka Goda to claim the 38th Kio title. Readers will be pleased to hear that no prior knowledge of Shogi is necessary to enjoy this cleverly constructed, readable SF thriller.

Walsh Scofeld, The Heresies of High Numbers (Valerio 2018), 184pp

If the author bio here didn’t tell us we’d probably be able to guess from this, his debut novel, that Scofeld is a University Professor of Math. This is a novel about numbers, and belief, and though its storytelling is a little underpowered there’s something genuinely memorable about its worldbuilding.

We’re on a world called Status. The main continent is dominated by a strict monotheistic religion, the Psephio, descended (later portions of the novel give us tantalising hints) from a fusion of evangelical Christianity and Islam. The Psephio is a pure-maths religion, with three main denominations, none too friendly to one another. All agree not only that God is Infinity, but that Infinity is uniquely the attribute of God, and not to be taken from Him. Orthodox Psephians follow the most extreme version of the faith. They believe that, since there are 10^80 atoms in the whole universe, any mention of, or speculation concerning, numbers larger than 10^80 is grave heresy, punishable by death. This naturally places a great many pure mathematical and real-world calculations very tricky, or in many cases impossible; but this is accepted by the faithful as one of the burdens of faith placed upon them by the Almighty. Infidel mathematicians, who dally with larger numbers, prove thereby that they are damned and are persecuted.

A second form of the religion split from the original faith a couple of centuries earlier, and are now known as the ‘Capacious’: they accept that God set the boundary of matter at 10^80, but also hold that God permits permutations of things; which sets the upper bar at the factorial of the sacred number: 10^80! … a much larger number, but still a pinching constraint upon the free exploration of mathematics. A third, liberal caste split off from the two main bodies of the church much more recently: they are tolerant of any real number (though they still consider trespass on concepts of infinity a wickedness and Cantor a devil), on the grounds that God has created not only 10^80! atoms and combinations, but 10^80! alternate universes, all adjacent to one another, over which 10^80 hierarchies of angels stand, and that God himself is a being composed of an uncountably large, though not infinite, number of elements. But this sect has been driven almost into extinction by the other two.

The story itself is almost a pendant to this elaborate worldbuilding. Interstellar travel requires ultracomputers capable of calculating hyperspatial trajectories requiring access to the very highest numbers, which means that Status has become a backwater, reliant on antique (and slow) spaceships. The drama in Heresies involves Status being swept up in an interstellar war, and its political and military leaders having to decide whether to violate their beliefs and import mathematically untrammelled computation to fight invasion. Can they stop persecuting one another to face this common external threat? All that is perfectly competently done, but the real interest in this novel is the way it takes absolutely seriously Wittgenstein’s foundational assertion that ‘the universe is everything that is the case’. That case being: a 10 with eighty zeroes after it.

Zoon Jata Boh, The Shapeshifters of Things to Come (Whiskeysipper Press 2018), 311 pp

The exact relationship of SF to satire is a matter over which critics still argue. Jata Boh’s latest novel is certainly SF, crammed with futuristic high-tech innovation; and it is certainly satire, too—a blast at modern Western culture and mores. The question is how effectively these two modes mesh.

Part of the problem is that Jata Boh’s angle of attack keeps shifting. Much of her near-future USA is extrapolated from current trends: social media is so integrated into everyone’s life it is literally plugged into the optic nerve, clever robots not only do all our work for us but relieve us of the onerous duty of enjoying ourselves—on our behalf they sit assiduously through the 12-hour box-set TV shows and Olympic sports events we can’t be bothered with. Some of the satire is less probable: the United States has changed its name to ‘United Situations of America’, since states imply static motionlessness where a situation is a constantly evolving dynamic, and the latter better reflects the kinetic reality of modern US life. One wonders if it’s a distinction actual US citizens could ever conceivably care about.

Much of Jata Boh’s pastiche is bland enough, but when the satire gets more biting it arguably crosses the line into actual bad taste. A major subplot in the novel concerns SARs, or ‘Sexual Assault Robots’, which many people own. The only purpose of these androids is to rape others, and advocates of them insist ferociously on their right to keep such machines, justifying them in terms of their deterrent potential. Different SARs rape in different ways, with different degrees of horror and likelihoods of mortality; and these machines make it very easy to rape any person, in any way, close-by or at a distance. Halfway through the story the novel stages an online TV debate about whether SARs should be banned, and it gets nasty. Opponents point out that millions of people in the world have suffered and died from the direct action of these machines—including many owners of SARs, whose robots have malfunctioned and attacked them. Supporters insist on their right to self-protection. They argue that criminals have SARs already, that making them illegal would only make it harder for the police to keep track. The reader feels Jata Boh has made her satirical gun-debate point (‘rape-machines don't rape people; people do’) but doesn’t seem to know where to stop. The ‘debate’ turns into a riot and soon whole cities are ablaze.

But perhaps the road to excess does indeed lead to the palace of wisdom. The main story here is about a new craze sweeping the nation: the shapeshifters, in which people not only surgically alter just their physical appearance—build, skin-colour, gender—but also their personality, erasing some memories and downloading new artificial ones. It began in the witness relocation programme, was quickly adopted by criminals keen to avoid prosecution, and now everybody is doing it. Everybody wants to be somebody else, Jata Boh is saying; and the somebody else they want to be is somebody who wants to be somebody else again. I wonder if she’s right?

Cecily Row, The History of Homo Sapiens (Varso 2018) pp. xxi + 1000

There are various ways in which we might approach the task of writing a total history of the world. We might approach it biologically, and write a history of the human animal. Or we might approach it anthropologically, or with a focus on emerging structures of social class. Or we could focus on the increasing complexity of our use of tools, or on race, or religion or a Hegelian Geist. We could trace the development of agriculture, or war, or technology.

Professor Row has done none of those things. Instead she has written a strictly chronological world history—a thousand page book in which each page covers 200 years. Chapter 1 opens with the emergence of homo sapiens in 200,000 BC. For a while, as she is getting going, explaining the evolutionary provenance of these new hominids and describing their world, the History of Homo Sapiens is perfectly readable, after the manner of any number of popular science or anthropology works. But around page eighty Row settles into her groove, and a very different sort of reading experience emerges. For hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of pages nothing very much happens, beyond Row’s account of the round of birth, growth, looking for food, loving or refusing to love, having children, growing old or failing to do so, and dying. She stays true to the extreme repetitiveness of the overwhelming majority of human history until, finally, we approach the end of the book, and things abruptly speed up and densify. The whole of recorded human history is related in pp 985-1000 at the end.

It’s a bold experiment, and the strange thing is how readable it is, once you adjust yourself to the pace of it. In the earliest chapters, when human lifespans tend to be shorter, a single 200-year page covers many generations. The generation at the top of the next page have almost no collective memory of anything that happened just a page before. But as we go on, Row cleverly works-in the development of culture, oral and religious traditions, burial practices, and a sense of a more connected flow, or storifying, begins to emerge. On p. 350 and following Row describes the dispersal of the San people of Southern Africa: the human population with the deepest temporal division from all other contemporary populations, 130,000 years ago. Fifty pages later and the earliest homo sapiens are arriving in Asia. Row’s version of ‘Out of Africa’ sees it as happening in two waves—the first described in p. 400 and following, and the second, quite a bit later, happening 60,000 years ago, and not described here until we get to p.700. That’s also when homo neanderthalis, a side- character for most of Row’s history, becomes extinct.

Having settled into the rhythms for almost the whole of this designedly long, slow book, the final fifteen pages pass with a haste that appears positively indecent. Why, the reader wonders, is everybody in such a frantic hurry all of a sudden? It really does make you reconsider the larger scale of human history. It’s one thing to known, intellectually, that recorded history has a fifth of a million years behind it; it’s quite another to as-it-were experience it, as here. Highly recommended.


Adam Roberts is a perpetual motion machine. He writes novels and stories essays about things that shouldn't be interesting, but somehow, when he gets his claws into them, they are. But that's why he's awesome. Avoid his puns on Twitter. Seek out his latest books instead.

Image from Pansies for Thoughts, culled from the garden of literature (London: M. Ward, 1896).