Sophocles in Space
To begin with, letís explain where the name Gradisil comes from: it is a corruption of Yygdrasil, the great World Tree from Norse mythology. As well as being a central characterís name, it refers the reader to the technology Adam Roberts imagines to allow his near-future Earth to have space travel. Adapted aircraft are able to ride the branches of the magnetic tree of the world that branches out from the poles. This eliminates the need for immensely expensive rockets, enabling more ordinary (although generally still pretty wealthy) citizens to make it into low orbital space and construct their own homes. It also neatly inverts the normal geography of space flight where rocket designers prefer to launch from closer to the equator. Here, the closer to the magnetic poles the stronger the branches and the better the grip an elmag plane can achieve to ride into space.
With such a random, scattershot collection of DIY settlers (and holidaying visitors with the orbital equivalent of a weekend holiday cottage) the Uplands, as the orbital region becomes known, slowly starts to build a population; although since it is anarchic, with no government or organization, no-one is sure just how many there are. In fact, since it is a free territory there is no real law. Earth-bound police have no jurisdiction there and little interest in any case, except where wealthy criminals have used the Uplands as a convenient hiding place. Some on the ground see the Uplands settlers as individuals taming a wild frontier, but many others, especially governments in Europe and America, are wary of an increasing population only a few miles above their heads. The Europeans attempt to make diplomatic and economic overtures, not realizing there is no real government to deal with, while the Americans tend towards a more gung-ho, military approach to secure the Uplands. An escalation in tensions between the EU and America, and actual outbreaks of combat between them, lend more urgency to their dealings with and attitudes to the settlers. As in any war, the high ground is a strategic asset ó the mere fact that the Uplands has no army, weapons or even government proving to be as little a barrier to military adventurism as non-existent WMDs provided in the real world.
The novel isnít just a simple tale of innocent settlers of a new land being treated poorly by an arrogant and belligerent imperialist power, however. Twisted into the strands that make up Gradisil is a tale of revenge which crosses generations in a fashion the writers of Greek tragedies would recognize. The story also examines the ways in which extreme circumstances can mould ó and be used actively to mould ó individuals, groups and even entire populations into new shapes. Gradisil herself comes across often as cold and calculating (continuing Robertís brave tendency to often populate his books with characters who are not entirely likeable). She is remote from her children (in one terrible case prepared to put her own agenda over her childís safety) and clearly uses her rich husband (who allows himself to be used but despises himself for it) and the American military threat to push her own agenda of forcing the disparate Uplanders into some sort of nation. Her determined stance may set her up as a freedom fighter and hero, leading the Uplands own version of the War of Independence against a dominant superpower, but it also sets her out as someone I doubt most of us would like to be around.
Gradisilís bitter mother seeks vengeance for the murder in the Uplands of her beloved father, killed by a woman who rented their Uplands home but turned out to be a wanted, murderous criminal. Or is she actually an American agent using the persona of a wanted criminal hiding out in the Uplands as a cover? Is this another reason for wanting to embarrass the worldís remaining superpower? As anyone who has read a Greek tragedy knows, vengeance rarely brings events to a conclusion. Such is the case here, with Gradisilís sons later driven to an act of vengeance themselves in response to a betrayal, although to the reader this betrayal may seem at least partially justified. Just how closely these personal motives of revenge are tied into the creation of a new orbital nation is impossible to describe in detail without spoiling too much of the plot. Letís just say that even noble-sounding motives such as establishing a free nation are not always pure. And as Roberts himself has noted, it allows him to have a family tree story mixed with his world tree, not to mention the metaphor of trees growing from acorns.
Gradisil provides a fascinating generational story paying homage to Classical tragedy that uses political ideologies ó personal and national ó for both dramatic effect and as comment on contemporary events. The science is not too far fetched (Stephen Baxter didnít categorically say elmag planes were ridiculous, according to Roberts, which he was happy to take as endorsement for the plausibility of this device). The characters are not always likeable, but they intrigue us and keep us reading (a Roberts trademark almost ó think on Polystom for example). Others may be on the wrong side (depending on your view) but actually be likeable (Salt is a fine example of this device). Additional literary and historical allusions woven into the narrative include Milton and Tom Paine. Thatís the long version of this rich tapestry. The short version is simply: this is a new Adam Roberts books ó you need to read it.