“The manliness, the swagger and the self-belief – all of it fell away, like sheets and great flakes of ice falling off the end of the world.”
This review contains spoilers.
“This is a book about precariousness,” Adam Roberts remarks in the “Acknowledgements” to On, which presumably explains why it reads like the draft I wrote for NaNoWriMo.
On‘s hero is Tighe, a boy of about thirteen who lives in a tiny, impoverished village stretched out along the crags and ledges of the great worldwall. The wall is all Tighe and his people know; they are never further than a few feet from falling, and as far as they know there is no top or bottom to it. One day, Tighe falls from his village, and lands, miraculously, several miles down, in a city of the Empire, clinging to the worldwall, full of more people than Tighe could ever have imagined, a city making ready to march upon the Otre, a mysterious and brutal people beyond the dreadful confines of the Meshwood. From this point on, Tighe is catapulted into a series of events which lead him, inevitably, to truths about the worldwall and to realisations about himself.
On is essentially a book whose protagonist is helpless. Thirteen-year-old Tighe is the son of a Prince, and very proud of the fact, but when his parents disappear mysteriously he finds himself in thrall to his power-hungry grandfather, watching his parents’ assets being sold or stolen, being farmed out to a weaver who has no use for him each day, knowing that his birthright is being taken from him – and eventually falling out of his world as he runs from his grandfather. It’s a pattern that repeats itself, with variations, throughout the novel: Tighe finds a measure of power, a measure of security, a glimmer of hope, only to fall away again, to be robbed of agency, to find the Real intruding into the comforting fiction of the Symbolic. Ending up in a military hospital after his titanic fall, he forms a bond with the medic there (“He a father to me,” he explains in his broken Imperial), only for this Symbolic, patriarchal bond to be dissolved by orders from on high: Tighe is to join the army as a kite-boy, flying (falling) on thermal updraughts to attack the unfortunate Otre. And again: taking command of his squadron in a disastrous retreat through the Meshwood, flesh-eating caterpillars intervene, his squadron are killed and he is captured. And again: becoming a slave, a “commodity”, to another flesh-eater, this time a human one, he is “rescued” by a sinister Wizard, and taken aboard his flying (falling) spacecraft. On is at its heart a story about powerlessness, about, exactly, precariousness; a story which, as we might expect from SFF critic Roberts, deconstructs and undermines the validity and the consolation of the fictions we create about life, about ourselves; the consolation, ultimately, of art itself.
There is, then, a certain randomness to the plotting of On, best illustrated by the entirely unforeseen appearance of the aforesaid spacecraft, which intrudes rudely into a novel where it doesn’t seem to fit at all. Of course, this is part of Roberts’ point: life is fairly random, and doesn’t much truck with foreshadowing, so why should fiction? But it’s also a structural feature which dovetails neatly with the second of On‘s two major themes: if this is a novel about precariousness, then it’s also a novel about perspective. For each time Tighe falls away from a comforting and defined role in the Symbolic – each time he encounters the Lacanian Real – he discovers something a little more about the world in which he operates. He falls from his tiny, superstitious village to discover two great nations whose existence he never suspected engaged in a great war across a terrible forest; he is captured by the feared Otre only to discover that all the atrocities the Empire ascribed to them are lies, and that their reality is much more complex; he is rescued by the Wizard to find that the worldwall is a globe, our Earth, whose gravity has been flipped through ninety degrees by over-use of vacuum energy. If the plot twists feel random, it’s because our perspective is faulty; Roberts’ point is partly that the truth can be so utterly perspective-altering that we literally cannot foresee it. We’re forced throughout the novel to twist our perspective through ninety degrees, as it were; so our experience of the novel is as disorienting as Tighe’s is.
No doubt this is all very literary, and very clever. But it also feels bleak: like many literary experiments (though not all), its refusal to console becomes one-note, shrill, its repeated violence to readerly comfort seeming like violence for its own sake, rather than for any literary point. There is no nuance to temper Tighe’s repeated losses, and no build-up of hope to make them tragic. As a result, I found the novel interminable, and was mainly glad to finish it. Though On is an early and a minor work of Roberts, I still hoped for better.