Jupiter Magnified: copyright 2003
cover art by Edward Mille - 104 pages
Park Polar: copyright 2001
cover art by David A. Hardy - 109 pages
Books reviewed in June 2003
Jupiter Magnified: 8/10 (Highly Recommended)
Park Polar: 7/10 (Recommended)
Reviews by Aaron Hughes
Most of the groundbreaking science fiction and fantasy of the past several years has come from the U.K. Of the many outstanding British authors to emerge in the past decade (including Neal Asher, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, Peter F. Hamilton, Ian R. MacLeod, Ken MacLeod, John Meaney, China Miéville, Richard Morgan, Alastair Reynolds, Justina Robson, Michael Marshall Smith, and Charles Stross, to name just a few), my personal favorite is Adam Roberts.
I was introduced to Roberts through his outstanding novel On, set on a world where gravity pulls everything in a direction parallel to the ground rather than perpendicular to it, so that instead of a vast plain, people inhabit an endless cliff. This is a great setting for an adventure story, and at the same time a wonderful metaphor for the precariousness of the human condition.
In his novellas Park Polar and Jupiter Magnified, Adam Roberts demonstrates the same skills, although not necessarily at the same time. Park Polar has the adventure story, Jupiter Magnified the metaphors.Both of these books were published by PS Publishing, so let me pause for a plug of that small but outstanding publisher. Under the direction of author/editor Peter Crowther, PS Publishing specializes primarily in short books, typically not much over one hundred pages. This is a great service to the science fiction field, both because it creates a new market for novellas, a length very well suited to SF, and because it offers a ready means of sampling many of the hot new British authors, before deciding whether to invest the time in some of their doorstop-sized novels. PS Publishing does a terrific job of packaging its books, so you feel you've gotten your money's worth. They are always signed by the authors and feature beautiful cover art by top artists as well as thoughtful introductions, mostly by people you have actually heard of. Most importantly, the stories are very good. A Year in the Linear City by Paul di Filippo was a Hugo nominee, and China Miéville's The Tain is fast on its way to becoming a serious collector's item. In my view, the fact that it has published two works by Adam Roberts is ample testimony of PS Publishing's high level of quality.
The most recent of the two Adam Roberts novellas is Jupiter Magnified. Like On, Jupiter Magnified begins with a simple yet memorable premise: the gigantic image of the planet Jupiter appears in the sky one night in the near future, and remains there day after day. It is an image only, with no effect on Earth save for the psychological impact of its sudden, unexpected appearance. Our protagonist Stina Ekman, Swedish poet and host of Sweden's most popular poetry web channel (which is not saying much), exemplifies this significant psychological effect, as over the course of the story Jupiter's apparition threatens to drive her to a nervous breakdown. The book ends with a collection of Stina's poetry, in which the last poems, written after Jupiter's appearance, contrast enigmatically with her earlier work.
This premise is impossible, of course, and made even more so in the course of the story, when we learn that the magnified picture of Jupiter in the Earth's sky precisely tracks the cloud movements on the actual planet, with no lightspeed delay. As he did in On, however, Adam Roberts offers up a scientific explanation for an apparently inexplicable situation. In fact, during the course of the story, the world's scientists advance two different explanations, one dismal and one hopeful, for the phenomenon (three if you count their initial response, to insist that everyone was imagining it, including themselves).
Our night sky dominated by the planet Jupiter is a striking image, and Roberts strikes us with it in the very first line of the story. He then proceeds to infuse the image with symbolic implications as layered and textured as Jupiter itself.
First, the swollen picture of Jupiter filling over half the sky gives the appearance that the Earth is about to be crushed. To most of humanity, this is an oppressive reminder of our mortality, and people quickly become convinced that the end of the world is at hand.
To Stina, Jupiter carries more personal messages. It is a bloated reminder of why she has been unable to write any poetry for over a year: "I'm not a shining sun of bright white light the way a poet should be; I'm muddled and brown and red and muddy-lit like Jupiter itself. Like the dirty, banded, great image of Jupiter in the sky." The appearance of Jupiter has exacerbated Stina's problem, because her master work in progress was to be called Poems About Light, and the very nature of light has suddenly changed. The vision of Jupiter similarly galvanizes Stina's dissatisfaction with her relationship with her lover, the round image even reminding her persistently of the man's weight problem: "I did not want the great Balloon in the sky, the oppressive Eye, making itself a feature in my townhouse, in my life."
Stina believes art should be clear and pure, but the murky image of Jupiter reflects a modern world that defies any search for clarity and purity. It demonstrates at the same time the beauty such murkiness can entail. Perhaps the vision of Jupiter is so terrible to Stina because it proves her pursuit of clarity not only unobtainable, but also undesirable.But to attempt to explain what Jupiter symbolizes in this book is inherently fruitless, because part of what it symbolizes is how elusive and ambiguous the most powerful symbols are. The swirling face of Jupiter hanging over the world is a powerful symbol indeed, so for me to claim to understand what it is telling us would only be disrespectful.
Park Polar stands in fascinating contrast to Jupiter Magnified. While Jupiter Magnified has almost no action in it, Park Polar is very nearly a straight action-adventure story.
Park Polar is set in an overpopulated near future, in which all available land has necessarily been dedicated to food production, leaving only the polar regions as possible wildlife refuges. The poles are as cold as ever, but have begun to support algae and animals genetically engineered to live in the arctic.
The story is told from the point of view of McCullough, a scientist who arrives at an isolated polar station – run by one of the huge multinational corporations that dominate the future world – to introduce a population of genetically engineered kangaroos into the arctic wild. McCullough does not blend well with the clique of three amusingly neurotic genetic scientists already stationed at the small outpost, and her only other options for company are the station's reclusive caretaker (apparently the only person there with a first name, but on the other hand, you figure any woman who genetically engineers herself a beard is not putting socializing at the top of her list of priorities) and three of her employer's soldiers, stationed there for security against possible terrorist attacks or corporate sabotage. Just what motivates their employer to devote the resources to operate and provide security for this scientific venture is a question the characters ponder over the course of the story.
Shortly after McCullough's arrival, the three soldiers are murdered, and indications are that one or more of the scientists did the deed. McCullough tries to identify the murderer and to escape. An attempted dash by snowmobile to freedom across the ice goes terribly awry.
In Park Polar, you have a smattering of interesting science fictional scenery, notably the genetically engineered algae and snow lions, hyenas and wildebeest covering the arctic, and you can hunt for metaphoric import to the setting and events of the story. Perhaps the genengineered animals, which seem so out of place in the frozen wilderness, represent the feelings of isolation and detachment that could overwhelm human beings in an overpopulated, man-remade future, feelings which in turn contribute to the characters' intense paranoia. Even if so, this is not at the heart of the book the way symbolism is so central to Jupiter Magnified.
The action is at the heart of Park Polar. Indeed, Roberts would not have to revise the book very much to convert it to a Cold War spy thriller, where the personnel stationed at a remote arctic base try to figure out which of them is a Soviet agent. It is on this action-adventure level that Park Polar is most successful. The twists in the plot are executed nicely and without melodrama. The way the characters respond to the pressures placed on them is believable – absurd lines like, "Oh god. He's dead. I know what that is, it's dead," ring very true. McCullough's distrust of her fellow scientists is infectious, and the obstacles she must overcome make for absorbing reading.Park Polar does much to explain how Roberts is able to write books like On and Jupiter Magnified, so heavily steeped in metaphor and symbolism, without drowning in his own cleverness. These books succeed because, in addition to being genuinely clever, Adam Roberts is also an excellent storyteller.
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|Copyright © 2003 Aaron Hughes|