This is an odd one. Adam Roberts’ Swiftly announces itself as a 280-year-delayed sequel to Gulliver’s Travels, that immortal satire which aims its scattershot wit at every aspect of human society from academic hubris to the absurdities of economic inequality. It seems reasonable therefore to expect a similar brand of overt satire from Roberts, but while Swiftly has a lot to say, it unfortunately forgets to keep its reader entertained.
Set a hundred and twenty years after Gulliver’s last journey, Swiftly posits a world where the great European powers have done precisely what they did so well, when presented with an alien culture: moved in and exploited its resources for everything they’re worth. Tiny Lilliputian and Blefuscan slaves produce fine embroidery and clockwork, while regiments of berserker Yahoos and ‘sapient cavalry’ serve in the armies of France and England.
The hero of the novel, Abraham Bates, makes his first appearance as an advocate of rights for these ‘Pacificans’, as the varied inhabitants of Gulliver’s travelogue are collectively known. Yet Roberts immediately goes out of his way to deny Bates the moral high ground; it isn’t with slavery as a whole that Bates disagrees, but that the tiny workers are white. ‘God has allotted slavery to one portion of his creation, and marked that portion by blackening their skins…’ (p.11) he tells an owner of Blefuscan slaves, before being ejected from the premises. Bates’ is a pompous, moralising twit, whose attack-dog religiousness disguises a deep-seated self loathing. So disgusted is he by his own sinful thoughts and deeds that he wields his religion against others in a kind of masochism by proxy.
This first chapter, pitting Bates against the factory owner Jonathan Burton and detailing Swiftly’s England, is superbly written. The characterisation, as described above, is excellent, and Roberts does a decent job of extrapolating a functional world from the fantastical elements of Gulliver’s Travels while deftly satirising the moral elasticity of Bates’ Christianity. Even as the man betrays his country and French-allied Brobdignagian giants march on London, he’s convincing himself with every thought that his actions are righteous.
Then the focus moves away from Bates, skipping back in time and introducing another main character: Eleanor Davis, soon to marry the industrialist Burton, whose Blefuscan slaves Bates objected to. As with Bates, Eleanor is a fascinating and flawed character who draws and keeps the interest, reminding us in her naivety of nineteenth-century heroines from Eliot through to Austen, but bucking the trend with a streak of cold, clinical curiosity quite at odds with the usual Victorian stereotypes of the emotional, unreasoning woman. As with Bates, the reader’s sympathy is tested by her calculating coldness, as she resolves to ‘pin one down and bring an enlarging glass over them and have a proper look’ (p.72).
Roberts continues in the same vein, building on the undercurrent of sly satire winding through these two lengthy character studies, but the strong realist grounding of the first half gives way to a stream of metamorphoses in the second; now a war story, now a twisted love story, now farce.
All this tonal fluctuation weakens the sense of narrative and lessens the sense of consequence felt from the characters actions. Bates in particular seems a different man every time we meet him, as Roberts refuses both hero and reader the time between dramatic, life-changing events they require in order to reflect upon and internalise the lessons learned. As such Bates’ character arc seems jagged and broken, developing arbitrarily from tightly-wound moraliser to coprophiliac adulterer to war hero (of a sort) with little more than token gestures towards introspection.
Instead, as Roberts’ careful character-building falls by the wayside, we hurry through something of a grand tour of nineteenth century fiction. Brobdignagian giants striding up the Thames evoke the alien tripods of H. G. Wells’ War of the Worlds (or the artwork of Jeff Wayne’s musical version, at least to me); Eleanor’s conflicting attitudes towards her husband remind the reader of Middlemarch’s naïve Dorothea, while her mother’s venal attitudes towards the same evoke Pride and Prejudice’s Mrs Bennet; even Jules Verne’s moon-shooting cannon makes an appearance.
Yet this isn’t just a series of throwaway references, but thoughtful intertextuality which brings an additional dimension to the work. Mrs Davis, for example, might seem superficially similar to Mrs Bennet, an object of gentle (or not so gentle) mockery, but just as in Pride and Prejudice that surface layer is deceptive; both women understand the harsh realities of the world far better than their families. As a widow raising her daughter alone on the fringes of nineteenth-century London society, the lengths Mrs Davis is forced to in order to provide for both her daughter and herself are a logical extension of Mrs Bennet’s compulsive desire to ensure her daughters’ financial stability; a powerful condemnation of the way rigid societal structures force individuals to debase themselves. Yet while Swift condemns with satire, and Austen with irony, Roberts plays it more or less straight.
The result, unfortunately, is that Swiftly isn’t really very funny. Gulliver’s Travels wore its learning lightly, and however biting its satire it never ceased to raise a smile. Swiftly, by comparison, is heavy going and frequently drenched in gloom. Bates self-loathing permeates those chapters he dominates, while Eleanor’s detachment casts a chill over hers. Roberts’ Lilliputians and Blefuscans are inscrutable, cruel and alien; his giant Brobdingnagians are similarly alien, viewing the workings of mankind with a ponderous, philosophical melancholy. Only the cocaine-addled Dean of York, who accompanies Bates and Eleanor thorough an England increasingly resembling something from the book of Revelations, provides a streak of broad humour (at the expense of the church).
Despite the meandering second act, things pick up again towards the end of the novel, particularly in a stunning sequence where Eleanor watches a battle between French and British troops as if from the viewpoint of God. There’s also much to admire in Roberts’ world-building, as he extrapolates a fully-functional reality from the tools of satire. He extends the implications of Swift’s creations with precise, sometimes terrifying logic, and the philosophical arguments regarding man’s place in the grander scheme of things are thought-provoking. The novel simply seems to lack any real pleasure in the reading.
Perhaps I’m looking at this the wrong way, analysing Roberts’ work in terms of its illustrious predecessor, but a book calling itself Swiftly creates certain expectations of social comment and knife-edged wit. The former is present, but the latter? Perhaps it’s just too tiny to detect.
All page references are taken from an uncorrected manuscript proof.
This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com