Book review: Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts
Interstellar space travel, the discovery of new planets, evidence of ancient alien civilisations and first encounters still remains one of the more fascinating sides of science fiction. The apocalyptic and environmental catastrophe perhaps not so much at the minute as we seem to be rapidly heading towards living in a J. G. Ballard novel - not that Ballard's genius and vision has diminished at all. It remains fascinating because it's still largely a journey into the unknown and there are many technical advances that have to be achieved or imagined to get us there, advances nonetheless that can also be used for other purposes back on Earth.
Purgatory Mount opens with a journey to the planet y, the third Earth sized planet in the V538 Aurigae system, a mere 40 light years away. The five-man crew of the Forward are there to explore a tower that is not a natural phenomenon, but a vast pillar that extends 142 kilometres above the surface of the planet. The crew think of it like a structure that resembles the mountain of Purgatory in Dante's The Divine Comedy. Up to now there has been no evidence of alien civilisations, so the team intend to study it, discover its purpose - is it a space elevator or a spiritual structure? - and just as importantly discover whether any new technology can be learned from it.
Technological advancement is of course what has enabled the crew to get there and study. The most important advance evidently being the means used to enable humans to travel such distances. They use a kind of temporal cryogenics that slows down the human body, allowing each light year to pass in a week, travelling in fast forward while to all intents and purposes they move about the ship in infinitesimally slow motion. It's this ability to manipulate time that will also permit them to spend almost as long as they like studying the planet's strange structure.
Like every advancement in technology, there is a downside that has to be considered, since although the body can be enhanced to endure thousands of years in this state, the impact on the mind is rather more dangerous, so its use has to be exercised carefully. That's one issue, but Roberts also has a few other intriguing elements to bring in relating to the living food supplies of pygs, cows and chickens that also make the journey, as well as of course the ships hal, its AI intelligence.
Meanwhile back on Earth, things don't look particularly great. The United States is effectively a large police state, with riots erupting in New Jersey and there are some neighborhoods that are too dangerous to go venture out at any time of the day or night. Some of the technology seen in space, principally in relation to memory enhancement, is also deployed on Earth, where drones and robot mechanics are also used but with more sinister implications. It doesn't stop 16 year old Ottoline Barragāo, known as Otty from taking her chances scavenging for copper wire for a clandestine off-grid encrypted network she is building with some friends; a project that is getting unwelcome attention from the authorities.
Purgatory Mount is curiously laid out with two distinct parts. You think you know where it's going from the space travel opening, when suddenly it abruptly moves to Earth with little obvious connection. In fact it then practically forgets about the structure in space for a good two thirds of the novel, and makes no further reference to it. What we discover about what is happening back on Earth is potentially interesting but the perspective we get from Otty and her friends is restricted by their age and circumstances, and you only get hints of the huge upheaval taking place in the world outside. There are some fascinating surreal descriptions of future war, violence; the twists on technology all pointing to worrying developments, but it all seems less interesting than the promise of the early part of the novel on a distant planet.
The clincher is going to be how and even whether Roberts can meaningfully connect the two distinct parts of the book. He does of course, raising interesting questions on the nature of gods, spirituality, religion and where it intersects with science, morality and society. As a novel it's a little frustrating that it keeps you waiting so long for a twist or punchline and the in-between isn't always compelling, but when we get back to Purgatory Mount, the revelations, the impact of them and their meaning certainly make this worthwhile.