Swiftly by Adam Roberts


Swiftly by Adam Roberts

Published by Gollancz UK

Published March 2008

539 pages (ARC); 368 pages (Hardback) (ARC copy received for review.)

ISBN: 9780575075894 (Hardback) 9780575082328 (Trade Paperback)


Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit


Contemporary sequels to classic novels are not always the embodiment of critical success. Often sitting somewhere between ‘cheap cash-in’ and ‘publishing filler’, the genre is filled with examples which may be worthy, though not entirely successful.


However, Adam Roberts, lecturer in English literature and creative writing at the Royal University of London, has recently been revitalizing this niche. As well as writing genre criticism, parodies, and traditional SF, some of his latest books have been sequels to seminal stories, evolved from genre classics. Having previously written in a Jules Verne style for Splinter, his latest take is on one of the earliest classics: Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  


Well not quite. Swiftly is set in Gulliver’s world but 120 or so years after the events of Gulliver’s Travels. It is 1848 and the British Empire rules omnipotent; mainly due to the efforts of Gulliver’s people. The diminutive Lilliputians are now used as slave labour, being able to produce detailed miniature work, whilst the giant pacifist Brobdingnagians are used to transport goods internationally, pulling boats from continent to continent.


Perhaps Swiftly is not too far removed from Adam’s previous work. For Swiftly, read ‘Swift-like’. Although Adam is known for his parodies of Tolkien and Harry Potter, this novel can be seen as a logical progression. As Gulliver’s Travels was a parody of human nature and political satire, Swiftly parodies 19th century culture and society. In Gulliver the conflict between the Lilliputians and the Brobdingnagians was meant to mimic relations between England and France. Here the irony is that since Gulliver, there is war between England and France, the French notionally declaring war on the English over the rights of the slave Brobdingnagians.


What this book does more, though, is satirise the culture of the times. This is an aspect of the original often forgotten by those who think that Gulliver’s Travels is all about little (and big) people. Here, like the original, Adam ridicules the repressed nature of the times, and in this case involving parodies of sexual repression in particular. Characters in this novel are revolted by each other yet seem to find opportunities for sex whenever and wherever possible. There is also what I will call a Torchwood moment: a solution to the plague that involves Bates kissing as many soldiers as possible. There is also a glee in coprophilia, that is emphasised at the novel’s denouement.


There is a considerable tension in the book between the bestial and the refined, the veneer of society and the animalistic passion that lies below the surface. This is emphasised through the main characters of the book. The plot concerns itself with a flawed hero. Abraham Bates is a bipolar character who swings between elation and depression. Bates is torn between his wantful lustfulness and his need for keeping a sense of decorum. His sensibilities are further torn between his desire for freedom for the Lilliputians and the fact that to gain such freedom he has to become an agent provocateur for the French against his homeland. He becomes a terrorist and, on the invasion of England, is employed as an Ami de la France.  


The middle section of the novel deals with Bates’ task being a companion for the previously exiled Duke of York. He travels with the Duke north, from London to York, in order to oversee the Duke’s use of a new invention: a mighty cannon which could send cannon balls as far as India, and to transport a calculation device, run by Lilliputian people inside it.


The journey is not without difficulties: the rural landscape is desolate, and whilst the war continues around them, the travellers have to contend with attacks by brigands, skirmishes between opposing armies and the spread of a strange plague.   


Adam also examines the role of women in such an emasculated society. To this, Bates also meets Mrs Eleanor Burton, a strong-willed young lady, a woman of rational science but whose role in society is lessened by the prevailing social conditions of the time. Her interest in science leads her on a strange journey, involving murder and illicit sex. Her role in the book can be seen as, perversely, an empowerment or a parody of female liberation and so fulfils the comparison with the original by highlighting aspects of society.


You do not, however, need to be aware of the original to enjoy Adam’s version. It can be read as an entertainment in itself. There are knowing nods to older science fiction and fantasy: the destruction of London by the French, using the usually peaceful Brobdingnagians demolishing landmarks such as Saint Paul’s Cathedral, read like scenes of Martian demolition, with a knowing glance to H G Wells’ War of the Worlds. The arrival of a comet perhaps brings to mind H G’s In the Days of the Comet; The desolated landscape is like England under the Red Weed; the cannon reminds me of Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon. The use of Lilliputians in a calculating machine created by Babbage reminded me of the steam-punk novel by Gibson and Stirling, The Difference Engine. As the book continues though, the story becomes less fantastical to one more of SF, of fractal universes.


So, if you fancy a steampunk type book, similar to Neal Stephenson or even Susanna Clarke, then this might be for you. Well, perhaps not. For the book deals with the degradation of these characters in such detail that some parts of the novel take some persistence (or at least a strong stomach.) More Rabelais than Robson.


My biggest problem was that I found the characters to a man (or woman) generally unlikeable: indeed, at times, downright unpleasant. This may be part of the point – by highlighting the hypocrisy of the people, you satirise the society – but I found little to endear me to them. Where the book worked for me, though, it worked very well.


Here then is an eccentric book: not a tome (as first expected) of major battles and world changing events; but instead an account of comparatively minor characters with major roles in a relatively limited perspective. The book is not about (as people with a basic knowledge of the original might expect) Lilliputian people in a Victorian world, but a book with an emphasis on bawdy satire, emphasising the strangeness of the human condition.


It is, as the story evolves, a story of mind over matter, not to mention Mandelbrotian fractal singularity.


This is not a cheap cash-in, nor publishing filler. It is actually an ambitious book, well thought out, if rather unusual. At times I feel that it tries too hard to be a worthy successor to the original. However, where it does work, it manages, as Swift did (but is often forgotten), to challenge society, repression, slavery, religion and order. And in that context, it can be regarded as a success. But definitely not for everyone.


Mark Yon / Hobbit, February 2008

Leave a comment