Gradisil is, to me, the magnum opus of hard, mundane science fiction. The book tells the story of three generations of the Gyeroffy family, set against the backdrop of humanity’s colonization of low Earth orbit, with heavy doses of revenge and revolution thrown in to the mix. First and foremost, the amount of thought that Roberts has expended in building the setting of Gradisil is very impressive. In Roberts’ vision of the future, amateur rocketeers are the vanguard for permanent human presence in space. Foregoing the use of chemical rockets, which are bulky and costly, they instead rely on ships that pull themselves into orbit using the Earth’s magnetic field. The pratical upshot of this being that most launch facilities are placed as close to the poles as possible for the best grip. Roberts uses the Norse idea of Yggdrasil , the world tree, as a metaphor for the use of the magnetic field as pathway to space. And the title of the book, Gradisil, is a young girl’s attempt to pronounce Yggdrasil. This use of Norse mythology fits brilliantly within the confines of the story, giving the reader an easy and memorable way to grasp the idea of ‘climbing’ up the Earth’s magnetic fields.
From this simple premise, Roberts creates a very realistic future where man slowly colonizes low Earth orbit. This colonization proceeds slowly, as more people are able to achieve orbit and choose to stay longer, until, by default, a collection of permanently inhabited habitats is established. Literally above the law of ground based nations, Roberts places the protagonists of the Gyeroffy family squarely in the politics of the ‘Uplands’ as that loose collection of residents moves from weekend residences towards a permanent nation. As the numbers and reach of the Uplands grows, the US and EU square off politically and militarily over control of the Uplands.Gradisil then leads the Uplands residents in a ,mostly, passive revolution against American occupation. This second part of the book is the meat of the story, as Gradisil sacrifices almost everything in an effort to persuade the Uplanders that they do need to band together to form a nation and revolution is the only course to follow. The politics are heavy in this section, following both Upland and Earth based efforts to resolve the issue of the Uplanders.
Everything about the setting of Gradisil is well thought-out, leading to its impressive believability. But the characters are just as believable as well. Gradisil is really three different, but linked, stories in one book. The first section is the story of Klara Gyeroffy and her father at the beginning of the Uplands. The events that transpire here lead directly to the revolutionary ideas of Klara’s daughter, Gradisil. The second, and longest section, covers the revolution fomented by Gradisil and the political and military machinations that are involved in the Uplands trying to become an independent nation. The results of which, again, lead directly to the third section about Gradisil’s sons, Hope and Sol. One interesting technique Roberts uses is to show, via the text, how the language is evolving from generation to generation. Each section is narrated by one of the characters, and, as the story progresses, the language changes, becoming much more phonetically spelled, with extraneous characters dropped off words and so on. It did slow my reading pace down as I am not used to the spellings used, but it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the phonetically spelled chapters in, say, Iain M. Banks’ Feersum Endjinn.
However, the biggest draw back for me was the actual characters themselves. I didn’t find any of them to be particularly sympathetic. Each of them has their own set of drawbacks and obsessions and none of them came across as being likeable. Klara is obsessed with returning to the Uplands and avenging her fathers death. Gradisil is obsessed with Upland independence. So much so that, in one instance, she proceeds to do something (well, actually not do something) that has deadly consequences and cemented in my mind the fact that she isn’t really a ‘nice’ person, but driven by what she feels is a higher ideal to the exclusion of everything else, including her family. Her non-action really struck a chord with me and caused me to revise my thoughts about the type of person she is. Her sons Hope and Sol also aren’t that sympathetic either. Hope seems to be too wishy-washy and Sol is consumed by revenge for his fathers death. For these reasons, its even more impressive that Roberts is able to weave such an interesting story with such unsympathetic characters. I may not have liked any of them, but I was interested to see where everything was headed.
Perhaps the weakest part of the book would have to be the last section, covering Hope and Sol’s story, and the actual ending of the book. This section was extremely short, compared to the rest of the book, and felt rushed in comparison. In fact, events happen so fast that when the ending happened, it was unexpected and abrupt. There was no denouement, no repercussions for the climax, nothing. It felt odd to have the book end the way it did. It was frustrating as I felt there was more that could have been said, but, clearly, Roberts felt otherwise. But this is just a nit in an otherwise excellent story.
Gradisil should be on the top of the reading list for anyone who likes their science fiction sprinkled liberally with realistic science and technology. Certainly, those who are into mundane science fiction should read this book without question.