In Adam Roberts’ THE THING ITSELF, two scientists working and living at a remote Antarctic research station grate on each other’s nerves until one night, one of them acts on dangerous thoughts and the other is exposed to a horrifying vision. Years later, Charles still hasn’t recovered, getting by his minimum wage job using alcohol, and Roy, now considered dangerously insane, is still in jail.
It all started with a strange theory Roy had, which has now caught the interest of a mysterious organization that wants to exploit it using artificial intelligence, as well as the government. This theory, a scientific application of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant, gives unimaginable power to whoever can wield it.
Adam Roberts is one of the most imaginative and fascinating speculative fiction writers around. His books rarely get me in the gut but always hook my brain and reel me in. THE THING ITSELF starts off as really promising science fiction but kind of loses itself. The main narrative is broken up by stories about various people in history having encounters with the “thing itself”–the universe as it really is without human perception shaping it, one of Kant’s central tenets–which are interesting but only loosely tie to the plot, and for me broke up the flow. The Kant philosophy is extremely intriguing, and a strong case can be made he was onto a major truth way ahead of his time, but there’s so much of it even I, who loves philosophy in speculative fiction, found myself skimming. There are so many long philosophical conversations at one point Roberts makes one chapter a series of dialogues written as a play.
So in the end, as much as I love Roberts, I have to say THE THING ITSELF is a brilliant book that should have been much tighter and shorter. Recommended if you miss Philip K. Dick and are looking for some big intriguing ideas, but let the buyer beware.