“It was all very unsatisfying.
Ange did not find it so, however. On the contrary she found the offkilter non-symmetry of the whole thing actually rather pleasing; pleasing in an aesthetic sense.”-- Anti-Copernicus
Since Mercury is a planet named after a god of language, this is the best place to write about the work's aesthetic qualities. I could write about a number of aesthetic features of the text, such as the way that double quotes are avoided everywhere, blurring speech and thought and telepathic communication and omniscient narrative into a single, immediate but slightly reserved distance. But I may as well focus on the aesthetic concerns brought up within the text itself. The aesthetic concerns within Anti-Copernicus are concerns about story shape. If the piece has an aesthetic effect beyond its science fictional one of presenting us with a decentering idea, I see it in an ironic set of layers around story shape: promising, playing out, denying.
The book begins with a chapter called “The Mighty Adam”. The elemental habitat of humanity is in Western mythology the Garden – the center, from which we are displaced with the necessity of toiling for bread – which is what the Adam reference in the chapter title is supposed to be about, according to the second paragraph of the text. (“Let’s call this first, solitary atom Adam. It is all that exists. [...]—just it, alone in its spacetime Eden.”)
When a text has an in-written authorial interpretation, that is the center around which our idiosyncratic readings orbit. So here we are told in so many words that this is a text concerned with archetypal, primitive Biblical imagery and mythology, but that metaphor is used in the context of three paragraphs all about scientific cosmology. A contradiction, in other words. A throwing off balance.
“First Contact” introduces Ange and a mood of absurdity. Ange was going to be sent to the presumed center of action of the story, the First Contact mission, but she wasn't. We're following a viewpoint character who could have been special, but instead watches events on TV just like us. But it's an anxious absurdity. Here's a part of first contact with the aliens:
Fingers are a mode of madness—and toes! Toes? Toes!
What do you mean? Do you mean you don’t possess fingers and toes? That the sight of them distresses you? Do you have flippers, or tentacles, or do you manipulate your environment with forcefields directly manoeuvred by your minds? We can wear mittens, if you like. If it distresses you. We can wear shoes on our feet and boxing-gloves on our hands! Not that we wish to box with you ... we have no belligerent feelings towards you at all!
This is straightforwardly rather funny; I think of the expectations for a serious, diplomatic Star Trek first contact confounded by the aliens' giddy ramble, the human representatives, under pressure to respond quickly, blurting out more than they meant to say. But even setting SF paranoia aside, it would be deeply worrying to have an entity that goes on like this anywhere nearby. The aliens deny any intent to hurt people, but an accident with an FTL drive could be quite damaging enough.
But Ange hasn't been chosen for the mission, so she goes on an ordinary one. And during that she hears that the aliens seem to have just gone away. Her two crewmates talk about why they would have left, one of them saying that there must be some reason, the other saying that the universe doesn't always give us coherent reasons. And Ange thinks this:
She believed (and this belief was as close to religion as she came) that the universe was not structured according to the logic of the human mind, despite the fact—ironically enough, perhaps—that the human mind is unavoidably part of the cosmos. The billions of buzzing homo sapiens brains craved pattern, structure and resolution; they saw the beauty of a story arc in every rainbow’s bend. The cosmos liked structure too, of course; but of a much less complicated, or perhaps it would be truer to say a much more monotonously replicated, kind. Hydrogen and helium everywhere in varying alternated clumps; the inverse-square-law everywhere in every direction. Everything existent, nothing mattering. And above all the cosmos had no sense of story whatsoever.
And Ange doesn't find this unsatisfying. This is where the quote that I started this section with goes, about her liking the off-kilter non-symmetry of it in an aesthetic sense.
Gareth Rees commented, on “Earth”, that:
The trouble with taking Anti-Copernicanism as your theme is that nearly all fiction (and especially science fiction) is already Anti-Copernican: the hero or heroine really is at the centre of the fictional universe; the events of the universe really are set up just so that they can save the day.
This is true. But possibly because Adam Roberts is a historian and critic of SF as well as a writer, the story is set up to (nearly) metafictionally address these very expectations.
So where is this going, aesthetically? This seems to be going into Stanislaw Lem territory. A large part of the feeling of real science that I get from Lem's work is his explicit insistence that scientific questions usually don't have answers, that the story centered on a particular character is going to end without the reader ever getting the closure of finding out what really happened. It's what many of his major books are based around – Solaris, His Master's Voice, The Investigation, The Chain of Chance (to use the English names). Len undermines himself a bit by giving hypotheses at the end of each work that are a bit too good, so believable that it feels like cheating. But people do create convincing hypotheses without really knowing what's going on.
So that's where the reader – or, at least, me – thinks the work is going at this point. The asymmetric story, the denial of an easy wrap-up, the refusal to center everything on the character in a genre-typical way. I've written about this before. As a general aesthetic for SF, it's one of my favorites – my aesthetic theory, such as it is, being somewhere near Umberto Eco's Opera Operta (The Open Work) rather than his later criticism.
Is that what we get? As Ange's journey goes on, her ship suffers from a series of accidents: one of the crew dies of a recreational drug overdose, a micrometeorite damages the trip and takes off the other crewmember's foot, and ... wait a minute:
At this Ostriker began to weep. I feel faint, she said. Oh my foot! My poor foot! How will I do without a foot? My toes! My foot.
Her toes? Where have I seen that before? The uneasiness for the reader with this implicit aesthetics is starting to take form: things are circling back. And indeed they do. Ostriker dies via another accident, and Ange, alone on the ship, realizes that it is heavily damaged and that she's probably going to die. Ange reinforces the theme:
If I live, she decided, and get home again I will write a work of philosophy, explaining how Copernicus revolutionised our living and dying as well as our cosmology. All those Greek tragedies, all that Shakespeherian to-do about death, the distinguished thing—it all belonged to that Pre-Copernican delusion of our importance. Only an important being can have a significant death! An unimportant entity dies, as she was doing (there was little point in denying it), stupidly, belatedly, unexpectedly, in a downbeat banal accidental way. The modern mode of it.
And then, totally without justification – or if there is one, I missed it – the alien that she lost the chance to talk to at the beginning mysteriously crashes into or contacts her ship. At first I thought it might be a hallucination, but there is all sorts of confirming physical evidence, then and after: a neat circular hole in her ship, the alien ship's detection on many other people's sensors. And the alien answers all of the significant questions of the story for her and us. And then, because people detected the alien ship, a ship is sent that rescues Ange. She lives after all. It's a neat wrap.
Why would the story raise the expectation of a certain kind of aesthetic, talk about it, and then withdraw it in favor of a different one? Well, of course I don't know, I can only give a reading. It could be something as simple as: in Adam Roberts' books characters don't tend to get what they want; Ange wants an off-kilter story, therefore she doesn't get one. It could be the requirements of commercial publishing. But I think – and here perhaps I should read Eco's Interpretation and Overinterpretation – that it has something to do with those toes.
Why do the aliens go on about toes in the first place? Well, here's what the surviving alien out of the original three tells Ange, about their reaction to being near so much dark energy produced by the multitudes of human intelligences:
It has destroyed my two companions.[...] We were giddy. We were intoxicated by the glory and seediness and splendour of it all. When they died I took my craft away, but my own consciousness has been ... poisoned, I suppose you might say ... as well. So I have come back. I might as well expire here as anywhere. Here at the heart of the cosmos.
So the giddy ramble wasn't the aliens' natural state, it was a state of being intoxicated and dying. That's a lot more grim than that amusing exchange appeared at first read. Why toes? Well, traditionally, a child uses fingers and toes to count. The intoxicated aliens are saying that fingers and toes are a mode of madness because they're boggled by our numbers. When Ostriker mourns the loss of her toes later, it's symbolically – for each of us is a civilization, according to the aliens – us mourning the human losses that we're going to take if things go on as they are.
What's the opposite of a story with an unknown ending? A story where, from the start, you know how it's going to turn out. This text is centered around overpopulation. That, I think, is the reason that this aesthetic is raised, celebrated, and then rejected. We all think that we know how the overpopulation story turns out.
Is this sometimes rather funny story really that grim? No, it isn't: Ange's final decision to have a child has its own evident irony, but is optimistic for all that. But the reversal of aesthetics is part of the unsettling that the story seeks to cause. The aliens in the story are concerned that because of human-generated dark energy, the universe won't close its big bang/big crunch cycle, will expand forever and end in entropy. Meanwhile the reader may be conscious that the story has, ironically, done the reverse.