Review of “The Roberts” by Michael Blumlein from SF Site, 2012

Following my reflections of how I fell out of love with SF/Fantasy as a teenager , here is an example of a sturdy little book review for SF Site of the kind of SF story I can imagine writing myself – note “can imagine writing myself” rather than necessarily “aspire to write.”  A brief story of ideas, taking a particularly idea to a logical conclusion, and with an emphasis on the emotion of the tale . Not dissimilar, I feel, to the spirit if not execution of some of my nthposition stories such as “The World Under Water” or “Inherit the Earth” (link at nthposition broken I’m  afraid)

Why “can imagine writing myself” rather than “aspire to write”? Because I struggled to remember much about “The Roberts” before re-reading this review.


The Roberts
Michael Blumlein
Tachyon, 94 pages

One of the many false dichotomies sometimes posited between speculative and “literary” fiction is that speculative fiction is more concerned with ideas, concepts, technologies and archetypes; lit-fic is more concerned with emotions, lived experience, and the messy realities of individual lives. Whatever broad-brush truth there might be to this caricature, this is a limiting and misleading opposition that does a disservice to the possibilities both genres.

The Roberts is an impressive novella (originally published in the July 2008 issue of Fantasy and Science Fiction) packing an emotional as well as intellectual punch which serves as an example of how speculative ideas and approaches can enhance rather than detract from the emotional core of a story. It tells, in clean straightforward prose, the story of Robert Fairchild, an architect of global renown; his innovative career, personal isolation, the solution he finds to the search for love, and the unexpected consequences of that solution.

Michael Blumlein begins with Fairchild, “first and only child of June and Lawrence, warm and cozy in his mother’s womb. He was two weeks overdue at birth, as though reluctant to leave that precious corpuscular, sharply scented, deeply calming place — determined, as it were, to remain attached.” From this opening themes of attachment, rootedness, loneliness and companionship echo through the prose. Robert’s father, “a physicist, an academic devoted to his work, highly respected by his colleagues and rarely at home,” is the precursor of the elder Robert, an architect whose very success seems to isolate him.

Robert initially seems set to follow his father’s path even more directly by studying mathematics in college. However halfway through, he abandons “the queen of sciences” for art — painting, then sculpture. But “his work was never more than mediocre; some of it, by any standard, his own included, was out and out ugly. And these were not the days when ugly was beautiful.” Robert literally runs into an architecture student called Claire, falls in love, and begins on his architectural career. From Claire “he learned… how sweet and vivifying love could be… she invigorated him and inspired his earliest work.” Despite this, she leaves “citing his self-centredness and preference for work over her… he had poured his love for her into his work, to a fault, neglecting the real live person.” After this, he loses one eye in a freak accident.

Again, the themes of love versus work, love expressed through work, the love of work, the work of love are introduced. Up to now, there have not been any explicit science-fictional elements. They begin to accrue to the story with Robert’s meeting Julian Taborz, a bioengeering entrepreneur. Their collaboration ultimately leads to the creation of Pakki-Flex, a “living skin” or more specifically a “bio-epidermic membrane applied to a matrix of polycarbon activating thread… it was flexible, it was durable, but its biggest selling point was that it mended itself.” Living cells are part of the material: “living cells were needed for it to work its magic. The immunocompetence of these cells, the mechanism by which they protected themselves from harm and guarded the surrounding extra-cellular environment, had been enhanced.” What’s more, the Pakki-Flex structures reflect the emotions of their residents. A dream building material if ever there was one.

A few paragraphs later we read that “the first lawsuit was settled out of court.” Pakki-Flex, like skin itself, turns out to be prone to a range of auto-immune and allergic phenomena; the material goes from being Robert’s signature innovation to Fairchild’s folly, the object of the schadenfreude of his peers. Again Robert is in the slough of despond, lonely, embittered and isolated. The search for love, and increasingly desperate reflections on why he lives with a lack of love, begins to dominate. Finally he meets Julian and discusses his dilemma.

Julian has “followed Robert’s decline with both sympathy and chagrin, offering various well-meaning and sometimes outlandish pieces of advice culled from chat rooms, blogs, immersible realities and the like, where he got most of his information, including information about the opposite sex. Women themselves, in the flesh, were more of a mystery to him. But all mysteries, sooner or later, yielded to science and technology. This he firmly believed. And science and technology were nothing if not concrete.

Julian tells Robert that he “knows a guy”, a parthenogeneticist, who can help the initially horrified Robert pursue what could be called the Bride of Frankenstein solution to loneliness. Overcoming his initial scruples (in the world of the novel, “the process succeeded much more often than not. Though there were no guarantees”) Robert embraces the process, leading to the creation of a bespoke woman, Grace. Beautiful, compassionate, in every way lovely, Grace provides Robert with the secure foundation and inspiration for him once again to scale the heights of his profession. And so a cycle begins again, and a tale of artificial humanity and cloning ensues with manifold ironies and ramifications.

The emotional impact in day-to-day life of speculative fiction concepts is a fertile and, in my view, under-utilised source of inspiration. Michael Blumlein has provided a model with this text that haunts the reader far beyond the brief hour or two required to read it.

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