Thursday, February 04, 2021

Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts: review

4/5 stars on Goodreads

Purgatory Mount by Adam Roberts

Purgatory Mount is a complex and philosophical science fiction novel one would expect from a professor of English literature. It’s also a terrifying image of near future USA and an imaginative vision of far future of the humanity.

This is not a simple read. It presupposes a working knowledge of Dante, medieval Christianity and modern Catholicism—particularly the ideas of original sin and purgatory—the pantheon of ancient Greece, and the Lord of the Rings. It’s not an easy concoction and it doesn’t always work. This could be, as the author tells in the afterword, because the elements from the Middle Earth had to be replaced with the Greek pantheon for legal reasons, but I don’t think it would’ve made a great difference for the reader. What we have is non-Christian entities philosophising about Christianity, which doesn’t make for an easy first chapter.

The story is told in three parts that, according to Roberts, reflect Dante’s vision of afterlife: hell, purgatory and heaven. Of the three, hell and heaven exist outside time, and the purgatory in the temporal world, i.e. is subject to change. This isn’t immediately obvious to the reader—or even after reading the afterword—but time does play a role in the story.

The first and last parts take place in far future on a generation ship orbiting a dying planet that features an enormous tower. It has lured five entities forty lightyears from earth to study and profit from it. They call themselves human, but they have a lifespan of tens of thousands of years, bodies that are more machine than organic, and the ability to bend time to their will. Consequently, they consider themselves gods. They are named after Greek gods Zeus, Apollo, Dionysius, Hades and Pan, although the omniscient narrator of their chapters is quick to point out that the names are only for the reader’s benefit. However, apart from Pan, the names don’t really reflect their characters—they don’t really have any personality—and it wouldn’t have made any difference if they had been named after the wizards of Middle Earth as was the author’s original intention, or with numbers even.

Living on the ship are people who also think of themselves as humans. They have short lifespans of maybe forty years, and they’ve been living on the ship for generations. They have a complex culture and religious life that revolves around the gods running their ship, and no true understanding of why they are on the ship—or what is a ship—and what their purpose is. For the gods, they are food. The gods call them pygmies, and the few descriptions of them gave me a notion that they might be some sort of evolutionary form of pigs. Their entire existence becomes under threat when they are told that they have reached the journey’s end. Is it the end of the world? From among them rises B who is the only one curious enough to find out what is going on—for what good it does to him.

The middle part, which is about twice as long as the other two, takes place in the near future USA. It has descended into a civil war between various states, government agencies and private militias, with no-bars-held warfare. It’s technologically far more advanced society than one would suppose of 2030s. There are some interesting innovations, like a system for uploading operational memory into iPhones, which is mostly used for helping people suffering from a grave memory loss due to chemical warfare. And the country is riddled with enormous towers, eSpires, that no one knows what they are for.

A group of teenagers, fed up with the government surveillance, have developed their own private net. But their system holds a secret, which all the warring factions want and will do anything to get. We follow Ottoline who is captured by a nameless government agency and plunged into a journey of survival through prisons and warzones. The secret Otty and her friends are trying to keep took me by surprise, and not necessary in a good way; a bit more information would’ve gone a long way to understanding how a sixteen-year-old would be able to withstand everything that was thrown at her. Once the secret is out, it takes over and the world as Otty knows it basically comes to an end.

I read the entire book trying to figure out how the two stories connected, and failing. According to the afterword, the book is about memory and atonement, which … I really don’t see. The loss of memory plays some role in the middle part, but mostly on the background, and it doesn’t guide the actions of the characters in any way. The pygmies have their collective memory, which has corrupted over the long journey, but it doesn’t really play any role either. And the gods remember everything.

Atonement is even more difficult concept to accept, because as far as I can see, nothing is atoned. The purgatory itself is a system of atonement, but for all the talk about Dante and afterlife, none of the characters really go through the purgatory; Otty hasn’t even done anything that would require atonement when she goes through her ordeal. Pan has a crisis of conscience when it comes to the gods’ treatment of the pygmies, but they don’t really atone either; they abandon the pygmies to their fate.

Instead of atonement, there is revenge: Otty’s collective revenge on humanity for harming her friends and Pan’s revenge on the other gods for disrespecting them. Otty uses an AI as her instrument of revenge, Pan uses the pygmies. If either of them atone their actions, it happens outside the narrative.

What really connects the two stories is the tower. Not as an idea that has travelled lightyears to inspire Dante, as Pan suggests, but a different biblical concept entirely: the tower of Babel, (human) hubris and inevitable downfall.

The towers, eSpires and the Purgatory Mount, don’t have an active role and we never really learn anything about them, but they are why the events of the stories take place. On earth, the fear that the towers spy on them causes the teenagers to build their own network, which eventually leads to an apocalypse of sorts. On planet Dante, the tower is the reason why the ship is there and the cause of the strife between the gods that leads to Pan’s revenge. And it may well have been the downfall of the people who built it too, leading to the planet dying.

Purgatory Mount is a complicated book, but it’s not difficult to read. It’s perfectly possible to enjoy the two stories for what they are without trying to find connections between them. They’re slightly uneven in scope, but both are interesting and good. I liked Otty and B the pygmy who is caught in Pan’s revenge, and if the gods were pompous and not very approachable, their end was satisfying. And for those readers who like to challenge themselves, this is a perfect read.

I received a free copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

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