Adam Roberts - Stone
Victor Gollancz, 2002, 261pp, £9.99
ISBN 1-0-575-07064-1

See also my reviews of Salt, On and Polystom

Tell me that this isn't a glorious old-style sf back-cover tagline:

ĎSprung from a prison in the center of a star, the universeís last criminal is employed to kill the entire population of a planet. And leave the planet itself intact.í

Put Adam Robertsí name on the front cover and you must, surely, be onto a winner?

Well, yes, actually, you are.

Ae, the aforementioned Ďlast criminalí in Stone, recounts her time spent running amok in the tíT, a utopian society reminiscent of Banksí Culture (but then arenít most utopias influenced by the Culture these days?) The tíT is a distant descendant of humanity and one in which the nanotechnology - or dotTech - inside everyone has lifted the burden of poverty, toil, ill-health and even itching. FTL travel is possible, within limits; helpful AIs abound, again within limits, and most styles of living can be accommodated. Now everyone in the tíT is free to pursue their lives, hobbies, partners and interests to their heartsí content. From the outside it can be seen that the tíT isnít perfect (it is rather static and unadventurous), but itís pretty damn close.

Stone begins (and ends) with Ae stripped of her dotTech and incarcerated in a jailstar, a hollowed out asteroid prison balanced among the outer layers of a small, nondescript star. Between her first and last imprisonment she escapes to travel the worlds of the tíT looking not only to do the murderous bidding of the mysterious benefactors who have sprung her from the jailstar but also to discover their identity and need for her unique, ahem, services. In a perfect world where even a single homicide is rare, why should anyone need to commit genocide?

Ae is not a sympathetic figure: her self-pity, self-justification and often overt psychopathy preclude that; but itís these very qualities and her unreliable narration that render the story as engaging as it is. We can feel superior to Ae in that we better understand some parts of the story , although we come no closer than her to unraveling the mystery of the plot. Add to this the physical (and other) wonders of the tíT, and Robertsís examination of some unexamined consequences of quantum theory alongside it, and Stone becomes a thrilling tour de force of scientific and social exploration.

I really, really enjoyed Stone, itís absorbing, intelligent and, importantly for a relatively hard sf book, lucid. Despite containing any number of familiar elements this seems a very fresh cocktail, mixing some Vinge, some Banks (the perspective rather than the spaceships) and even some Le Guin.

If anything Stone would probably benefit from being another 100 pages longer since thereís a lot more Iíd be interested to learn about the tíT, but even thatís praise rather than criticism.

Buy it from Amazon.co.uk