I recently finished The Thing Itself (2015) by Adam Roberts. I don’t want to reveal too much about this book because one of the pleasures of reading it is being surprised by the plot twists. And when I write ‘plot twists’ I don’t just mean revelations about the characters or developments in the order of events, I mean actual twists in the plot; moments when the plot twists into a new form or setting whilst adhering to an overall structure (albeit a structure which doesn’t become fully apparent until the end). Reading The Thing Itself feels like tracing your finger along one side of a Möbius strip: you go inside out and upside down, but eventually the twists connect together seamlessly.
The main plot follows Charles Gardner, a ‘Reading born and bred’ astrophysicist, and his experiences with Roy Curtius, a Kant-loving sociopath. There are other plots as well, which I won’t spoil.
Roberts knows how to use the perfect image to convey setting and character. Take this description of the sun in Antarctica, for example:
The sun loitered near the horizon. A cricket ball frozen in flight.
– p. 8
As a day lasts six months in Antarctica, it does seem – from a non-polar perspective – as if the sun is frozen in time. The cricket ball analogy conveys both the colour of the sun and the isolation of the speaker: the ball, an item from a social activity popular in the speaker’s country, contrasts with the emptiness of Antarctica, where there is only one other person nearby. I also like the visual contrast, between the red ball and the comparatively-bland surroundings (for other examples of how aesthetically pleasing this can be, see the red buoy famously added to Turner’s Helvoetsluys; the repeated mentions of the red spots in the snow and maiden’s cheeks in Peredur son of Efrawg; this cover for The Last Unicorn; and this painting of Arthur and Mordred by N. C. Wyeth).
The same character describes the sun later on in the novel:
We crossed a courtyard, and the sun flashed his arse at us before veiling it again in cloud.
– p. 122
Less beautiful, perhaps, but by this point in the novel the speaker’s situation has changed: he’s no longer so isolated, but he’s sexually frustrated and has spent a lot of time in crass company, so the journey from ‘cricket ball’ to ‘arse’ makes sense. It’s also very funny.
Many reviewers of The Thing Itself compare Roberts to other writers: ‘Swift, Orwell, and Atwood’ (The Times); ‘Philip K. Dick, Douglas Adams and Robert Ludlum (SF Reviews.net); Kim Stanley Robinson, Greg Egan, Stanislaw Lem, and John D. MacDonald (Locus Online); and David Mitchell (Andrew Cameron). However Kevin Power probably puts it best, when he states that Roberts ‘isn’t like anyone else.’
The descriptions of the sun illustrate this: maybe one of them reminds you of another writer (Douglas Adams springs to mind for the cricket ball), but I don’t know any other author who would have both descriptions from the same character, in the same novel. Perhaps it’s the mark of a true original to be compared to everyone else; we’re looking to anchor our thoughts to something familiar, as we hurtle along the edge of the Möbius strip.
I’d like to bring two other authors into the discussion: Charles Williams and C.S. Lewis – two of the Oxford ‘Inklings’ group – not because I think Roberts is particularly like either of them, but because Lewis and Williams attempted to do some of the same things Roberts attempts.
Williams (1886 –1945) wrote what Humphrey Carpenter described as ‘spiritual shockers […] even if you consider yourself unspiritual and immune to shock.’ His novels are gripping thrillers that tackle spiritual and philosophical concepts, told from multiple – sometimes opposing – perspectives, including those based on a different plane of reality.
The combination of complex philosophical and spiritual concepts with clear narratives and well-rendered characters can’t be easy to pull off (just look at Dan Brown. I mean, just look at him), but Williams and Roberts manage it.
One of the ways they do this is by warping perspective within narrative vignettes, encapsulating the complexity behind the philosophical or (in Williams’ case) spiritual idea they are trying to communicate.
Near the beginning of War in Heaven (1930), Williams describes a character called Adrian cooking chicken, buying food, and traveling on a train before his mother accidentally kicks the train across the floor: Adrian, we now realise, is a child who has been playing with his toys. This twist in perspective – a twist in the Möbius strip, if you will – demonstrates how two realities can exist in one place and sequence of events. Readers have no reason to doubt the first literal reading of events until that reading is replaced by a second, but at the time the first reading is as valid as anything else in a novel; it is a ‘reality’ as much as anything can be a reality in a fictional account.
As the novel progresses it becomes apparent that what is commonly considered to be reality is as fragile as the reality of Adrian’s shopping and train-travelling: just as Adrian’s actions are not as consequential as first assumed, neither are the actions of the adult characters in the context of the demonic and heavenly powers they are contending with; just as Adrian’s status as an adult is shown to be merely imagined when he is understood to be a child, Adrian’s status as a mortal human becomes trivial when he is understood to be an immortal soul.
In The Thing Itself, Roberts also captures his big ideas in smaller moments before their significance is fully expressed. Early in the novel, Charles, fresh from a dental procedure, looks out at the night sky:
[…] and something in the starved, drugged lightness of my head made the direct connection between the tingling of my face and the pinpricks of the stars. For a moment there really was no barrier between the curve of the night sky and the curve of my swollen jaw.
– p. 63
So far so mystical, but as Charles admits this is all very ‘mealy-mouthed’ and he’s ‘lightheaded from hunger and residual anaesthesia,’ it doesn’t seem especially important. Not yet, anyway.
In the next scene Charles is in a car with a female driver:
She began tutting, presumably rebuking me for my impertinence. Her tut-tut was surprisingly loud and resonant, and was issued with a clock-like regularity. Only when I looked back at her did I connect the noise with the intermittent orange light that was coming on and going off outside the passenger window
– p. 70
The confusion between the noise of signalling and the imagined ‘tut tut’ of the woman captures the state of Charles’s generally confused mind – he has just been unexpectedly taken from his home by a stranger – but also demonstrates how Charles’s revelation about the interconnectivity of all things translates to the mundane and personal; just as the jaw and the sky blend together, so too does the signalling noise and the woman’s voice, until he realises that they must be separate things.
Both moments encapsulate parts of a bigger, more complicated idea that is yet to be explained. A couple of chapters later, Charles hears about Kant’s theory of reality. Put very simply, Kant argues that what we see and feel is a refraction of reality shaped by our perceptions, and that objective reality exists outside space and time, unknowable to us because we are confined by our own spatio-temporal categories of understanding. As one of the characters says, ‘we don’t just perceive space and time, we perceive space ordered in a certain way, time structured in a certain way’ (99). Objective reality – that is, ‘the thing in itself’ – is outside our perceptions, and looking at it would be like someone trying to see the world in full colour when his cornea has been stained orange, to use another example from the novel (91).
In other words, when most people speak of reality they are actually referring to how we perceive reality, not reality itself. This idea is easier to swallow if we’ve experienced, through a character’s perspective, how optical or aural perception creates one version of events and the mind determines another. Through Charles we’re looking at the night sky; then we’re looking at the jaw and the sky together, as one thing. We’re hearing the woman tut; then we’re hearing the car signal. Two events, two versions each time. In the context of Charles’s experiences, which is the only context we have in a first-person account, what is real and what is perceived as real are two separate things.
Later in the novel this is taken to a greater extreme. Charles is looking at a police-officer through a window in a door:
He unclipped his holster and took out his sidearm, but as he did that he began, weirdly, sliding over to the right […]
In fact the whole world was slipping away to the right. I watched […] the whole scene move away, like a theatrical backdrop being hauled offstage on rails.
– p. 221
‘In fact’ the world isn’t moving; the speaker, inside what he thought was a stationary building but was actually a container winched on the back of a lorry, has unexpectedly moved when the lorry did. But by narrating events exactly as they happen from the confused perspective of Charles, Roberts conveys the idea, through events in the plot, that reality is shaped by perception and what we call reality may as well be ‘a theatrical backdrop.’ Neat.
C.S. Lewis (1898 – 1963) is another writer who discusses the concept of reality in his work. In his sermon ‘The Weight of Glory’ (1942) he refers to ‘The Thing Itself,’ but in a different way to how Roberts and Kant use the phrase:
These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.
Lewis is drawing on the theories of Plato rather than Kant. For Plato, we can gain understanding of objective reality by recognising that everything we perceive with the senses is an imitation of a ‘form’ that exists outside space and time. By philosophically studying something that is beautiful, but knowing that it is not beauty itself, we understand what beauty really is; what ‘the thing itself’ is.
Roberts – following Kant – has written a novel about ‘the thing itself’ when ‘the thing itself’ is outside all perception and cannot be understood. Lewis, following Plato, doesn’t need to skirt around his subject, as Roberts is forced to, with moments that demonstrate how unstable perceptions of reality are; he can just show us the thing itself!
Except, of course, it’s not that easy: although Lewis doesn’t need to describe the indescribable, he still needs to describe something that is distinct from anything we commonly experience; something that is different to the physical world as much as a table is different to a painting of a table.
Lewis attempts to describe something of a different kind of reality in Perelandra (1943), the second of his theological science fiction novels. The supernatural beings known as the ‘Oyéresu’ appear in a variety of guises to Ransom, the main character, before settling on the form of human-like figures. These are ‘only’ appearances, but Ransom thinks the appearance works by directly forming an impression on his brain and bypassing his retina. They belong to a more meaningful reality, making Ransom understand ‘the real meaning of gender’ by seeming inherently male and female without the physical characteristics of either sex (253).
The Oyéresu are composed of indescribable but not unknowable colours: Ransom ‘could in a sense remember these colours – that is, he would know them if he saw them again – but that he cannot by any effort call up a visual image of them nor give them any name’ (251).
This sort of works. We understand that the Oyéresu belong to a different plane of reality because their colours aren’t like anything Ransom can see using his eyes. However, because the events are narrated after they have occurred, and Ransom can’t remember the details, Lewis absolves himself of having to describe them, whilst still– unlike Roberts and Kant – insisting that they could be understood, and therefore, in theory, described.
I say ‘sort of works’ because this solution feels unsatisfactory in the form of a narrative novel. Narratives tell us things. They can be unreliable or mysterious, but they should tell us something, otherwise they wouldn’t be narratives: just lists of things we can’t know. We’re told about aliens and landscapes on other planets, so can’t we at least get an idea of the colour of the Oyéresu as well? If not, isn’t this a failure of the author, whose job it is to describe everything in the story?
Lewis tries again in The Voyager of the Dawn Treader (1952), when a magic story feels to Lucy ‘as if it were real’ as she reads it. Like the Oyéresu’s colours, the story can’t be remembered after it has been experienced, and Lewis doesn’t describe it. But I think he gets away with it here, because it’s a magic story, and magic must be performed according to strict conditions by a magician, not an author. Lewis also gives us some details: Lucy remembers the story ‘was about a cup and a sword and a tree and a green hill,’ so we’re not as clueless as we are about the colour of the Oyéresu. We also know that the story is comparable to all other stories, as ‘ever since that day what Lucy means by a good story is a story which reminds her of the forgotten story in the Magician’s Book.’ It was just better than anything else she’d ever read. It felt more real.
In The Thing Itself, Charles, like Ransom and Lucy, encounters something that is closer to reality than anything else he has ever experienced. This is how the encounter is described:
There was a hint of – I’m not going to say, jaws, claws, a clamping something. A maw. Not a tentacle, nothing so defined. Nor was it darkness. It made a low, thrumming chiming noise, like a muffled bell sounding underground, ding-ding, ding-ding. But this was not a sound-wave sort of sound. This was not a propagating expanding sphere of agitated air articles. It was a pulse of the mind. A shudder of the soul.
– pp. 25-6
In Lewis, the real thing can be understood but not described. In Roberts, the real thing is described but cannot be understood.
Roberts describes the experience of encountering the Thing rather than the Thing itself. It’s not composed of jaws, claws, tentacles, but this is what it makes Charles think of. It’s not darkness, but it’s not light either. Taken too far, the approach of ‘it’s this but not this’ can be farcical. Here it gives us just enough to form an impression of an impression.
The one detail that is directly attributed to the Thing is a sound, but this (like the appearance of Lewis’s Oyéresu) bypasses the senses, and the bell underground must only be metaphor. It wasn’t that – it can’t have been, if it wasn’t heard – but it is one way of bringing ‘a shudder of the soul’ into descriptive language and a spatio-temporal perspective.
Altogether, this feels more satisfying than Lewis’s non-description of the Oyéresu quoted above; at least the speaker attempts to put the experience into words.
Lewis makes another attempt to describe something more real in The Last Battle (1956), when the characters reach a new version of Narnia that seems ‘more like the real thing’ than the old one (158).
It is as hard to explain how this sunlit land was different from the old Narnia, as it would be to tell you how the fruits of that country taste. Perhaps you will get some idea of it, if you think like this. You may have been in a room in which there was a window that looked out on a lovely bay of the sea or a green valley that wound away among mountains. And in the wall of that room opposite to the window there may have been a looking glass. And as you turned away from the window you suddenly caught sight of that sea or that valley, all over again, in the looking glass. And the sea in the mirror, or the valley in the mirror, were in one sense just the same as the real ones: yet at the same time they were somehow different—deeper, more wonderful, more like places in a story: in a story you have never heard but very much want to know. The difference between the old Narnia and the new Narnia was like that. The new one was a deeper country: every rock and flower and blade of grass looked as if it meant more.
– p. 160
Lewis doesn’t say ‘they knew it, then forgot it, so I don’t have to describe it.’ He actually attempts to explain what a deeper level of reality looks like, albeit in a way that acknowledges the difficulty of doing so, and doesn’t aim to give anything more than ‘a sense’ of what it is like.
It’s a smart set-up, as it manages the expectations of the reader and establishes the type of clarity Lewis is aiming to achieve: a clarity of feeling, not a clarity of language. Words describe things within our own perceptions and therefore aren’t suited for anything beyond the reality of the physical universe – as Ransom says in Perelandra regarding his experiences with the Oyéresu, ‘the reason the thing can’t be expressed is that it’s too definite for language’ (33) – but words can describe feelings that can, in turn, help us understand the experience of a different kind of reality.
Personally I’ve never seen the view of a valley in a mirror, but I think I know what Lewis means: a feeling of the potential significance of another world or a different story; a feeling that the grass is greener on the other side not because the soil is more nutritious, but because green means more.
Of course, no matter how hard you try, it still ends up being quite mealy-mouthed, as Charles might say. It has to: we’re still just using words and our own experiences to think about something that is beyond both those things.
Roberts makes an attempt to describe a different plane of reality in The Thing Itself. It’s not entirely clear where Charles is when he describes this. It’s probably not somewhere more ‘real,’ in the sense that the second Narnia is said to be more like the real thing than the first Narnia. It’s just very different from our world as commonly perceived:
I began to look again, and I saw – it’s hard to put this into words – a pattern of light in amongst the light. It was not that these intensities were brighter than the surrounding wash of illumination, exactly. It wasn’t that. There was some difference in valence, though, and the more I looked, the more I saw a great constellation of brightness-within-the-brightness, a star map white-against-white. A bright way passed around my head and swung round behind me. Looking at it, I began to realise that it was a kind of dullness of perception that had led me to think that white light is a single thing. I knew light could be prismed into a rainbow of colours, of course; but I’d always looked at ‘white light’ as just white light. Now I saw that it could be inflected a million ways, a symphony of intensities and aspects and accidents and particular beauties, all expressed without the whiteness of the light being anything other than white light. And each point of intensity in this extraordinary panorama was a galaxy.
‘Light,’ I said.
– p. 334
As before, we know what the thing is not – areas of the white are not brighter than others – before we get a sense of what it might be. That sense is imparted in the word ‘valance,’ which means ‘the quality that determines the number of atoms that will unite’ or (in psychology) measures the attractiveness or aversiveness of an event, object, or situation.
The word is both precise and impossible to understand in this context. Does Charles mean that some areas of the white have different levels of atomic cohesiveness? Or that some parts of the white are more emotionally attractive than others? The answer isn’t important: the word is enough to suggest some kind of difference; we don’t need to know what that difference is.
Knowing there is some difference is enough for Charles to realise that white light is not a single thing. This does not mean that Charles understands a quality of The Thing Itself; it only means that he understands that his perception has been hitherto limited and misleading.
Roberts ends the moment by focusing on the complexity inherent in ‘light,’ and the size of the universe, rather than (as in Williams and Lewis) spirituality or God.
But in a sense all three writers are describing the same thing, whether they see that thing as God or not: the thing itself is the thing all writers are crawling towards when they try to describe anything. The thing itself is reality itself.
In 1956 Lewis responded to a child who had sent him a story:
Thanks for your letter of the 3rd. You describe your Wonderful Night v. well. That is, you describe the place and the people and the night and the feeling of it all, very well — but not the thing itself — the setting but not the jewel. And no wonder! Wordsworth often does just the same. His Prelude (you’re bound to read it about 10 years hence. Don’t try it now, or you’ll only spoil it for later reading) is full of moments in which everything except the thing itself is described. If you become a writer you’ll be trying to describe the thing all your life: and lucky if, out of dozens of books, one or two sentences, just for a moment, come near to getting it across.
Crucially, the new Narnia in The Last Battle is only ‘more like the real thing.’ Lewis does not say it is the thing itself. The characters must keep moving ‘further up and further in,’ travelling through layers of different versions of Narnia, each one ‘more real’ than the previous one (165, 169). The final line of the book phrases this using a book analogy: ‘they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before’ (172).
Except it’s not the final line of the book, at least not in my Collins edition from 1989: there follows four blurbs from works by John Masefield, John Gordon, Robert Leeson, and Alan Garner.
The Thing Itself, also, does not end on the last line of the novel. An extract from Roberts’ next novel follows.
These are marketing ploys, of course. But I also like to think of them as reminders. The Thing Itself is not the thing itself. Neither is The Last Battle or War in Heaven.
Reading these books might help us get closer to something that feels real, whether that’s found in a description of whiteness within whiteness or the image of a cricket ball suspended in the sky, but no writer can hope to describe something in such a way that everyone agrees perfectly captures whatever that thing is.
So, we keep reading and writing.
Further up and further in.
Lewis, C.S., ‘The Weight of Glory,’ preached at the Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, on June 8, 1942. First published in Theology, 43.257, 1941.
Roberts, Adam, The Thing Itself (London: Gollancz-Orion, 2015).
Williams, Charles, War in Heaven (London: Victor Gollancz, 1930).
The header image is an aerial photograph of Princess Elisabeth Station, Antarctica.