Adam Roberts, “The Thing Itself” – a Review

by John Holbo on March 14, 2018

Last week I finished Adam Roberts SF novel, The Thing Itself [amazon]. (Adam is, you may have noticed, a regular commenter here. I’ve been friendly with the dear fellow for years.)

The mash-up joke at its heart: it’s The Thing (you know: the John Carpenter film, remake of the 1950’s film, adaptation of the John W. Campbell, Jr. novella, “Who Goes There?“) meets Kant’s Ding An Sich!

That’s a good joke! I like jokes like that. Adam likes jokes like that. I haven’t read as many of Adam’s novels as a good friend should, but the author of a humorous sequel to The Brick Moon, and a little thing called Twenty Trillion Leagues Under The Sea, likes to take an idea, give it a spin. Just drop it. See how low it can go.

Back to The Thing Itself. What if Kant were on to something? Some Thing. What would the possibilities be, for space travel, for sanity, for commerce, for common-sense, if we could sidestep, as it were, space and time? (I don’t think this is going to satisfy sticklers for Kant scholarship, but attempts are made to keep up the conceit. Fiction often involves implausible leaps, as many important writers have noted.)

Here’s what I really liked about this one. It’s bang on the noumenal nose, yes. That’s original, in SF. But it’s also genuinely an original story, and therefore unpredictable. I didn’t see it coming. I didn’t predict the ending. I didn’t predict the middle. I didn’t get what the hell was going on, but it came together. One of the potential defects of an ‘idea’ story like this is that the argument implies an ending. Not a problem in this case.

Since I think the unpredictable plot is one of the book’s finest features, I’m not going to spoil it in the least. (I also am confused as hell by the time-travel bits. Adam, drop me a line and just explain what the hell is going on. I think I get it. No I don’t.)

But now it gets tricky. I was, frankly, expecting some kind of joke story. More pastiche, if not straight-up Lovecraft-meets-Kant-spoof. But this isn’t that. It’s a serious novel, in the paranormal-meets-procedural line. Something weird is loose in our universe. Official police and government response is inadequate. Bureaucracy as uncanny valley. You get the mismatch/interplay between by-the-book-types and by-the-ancient-book-types (with Kant’s critique playing Necronomicon, in a more prim, proper, Konigsberg style.) Again, this has been done – except for the Kant bit – so there was a risk it would be predictable. But I didn’t see the thing coming.

So this was a plan for pastiche that planned to be better than pastiche. And it substantially succeeds. But there are points where maybe it doesn’t quite shrug off certain genre-joke coils. In the author’s note at the end, Adam notes he did some borrowing from De Quincey on the last days of Kant. The ‘Bloomish’ bit. Yep. This is all on the up-and-up, as borrowings go. No issue of plagiarism or unoriginality. But, insofar as the seriousness of this story needs escape from pastiche, there is a certain risk the author runs, looking like he is trying on genre-mash-ups, for size.

The writing is very strong in spots. Good characterization, believable human scenes. And some very creepy bits. Nice atmospherics.

It’s fun. If you think you might like an SF novel in which humans come into contact with Kant’s Ding An Sich, I predict you will enjoy Adam Roberts’ The Thing Itself. But I don’t think it will satisfy many Kant scholars. But then, you have to be crazy to be a Kant scholar, don’t you?

(Adam, sorry to be picking at your tendency to turn philosophy into genre parody. Since that’s, like, the only thing MY brain does. Ever.)



Emma 03.14.18 at 6:09 am

The Thing Itself is one of my favorite novels, although I don’t think it’s quite as good as By Light Alone and I’m less attached to it than I am to Jack Glass, which I compulsively reread with the attitude of a fat woman in an 80s sitcom trying to avoid chocolate before a blind date.

I didn’t know anything about Kant, pre-Thing, except the joke about the village clock. I’m not sure how I feel about the fact that I became so involved in a story that’s actually an inside joke that I didn’t understand. It seems kind of authorially mean, actually, but also charming. I consider that to be the definitive characteristic common to all good British fiction, though, so I ain’t mad.

I do think The Thing Itself is more or less unspoilable; even if you carefully posted a chronological list of every plot event, the story would still be untouchable. I will also say that the novel contained — as is usual for Adam Roberts books — harrowing depictions of sexual assault and the consequences of hard-line social inequity that maybe could’ve used a trigger warning or five. I also thought the language was surpassingly beautiful, especially in the past-tense chapters. I didn’t really think it any of it was a kek fiesta.

I would be here all day (and most of the night) for an Adam Roberts seminar.


Maria 03.14.18 at 5:10 pm

I loved this novel so much, too, even though, a bit like Emma, I dimly suspected about 80% of it went over my head. At the end of the first chapter, I put the book down and just went ‘WOW’. It is fabulously exciting and weird. Not crazy about the Ulysses bit, but all the rest I adored. While not really getting the joke, which I also feel is part of what makes it so brilliant.


L2P 03.14.18 at 9:13 pm

I picked this up thinking it would be more John Carpenter’s The Thing than it turned out to be (I was just looking for A Book to read on the plane). It was so incredibly clever I kept reading it after that turned out to be a huge mistake on my part. I was frankly shocked I was interested in a book about how barely comprehensible philosophy could lead to time travel.

Definitely not for everybody, though. The various digressions from the main plot can be super confusing, and although they come together later on they can drag down the book. My wife quit at the first one, figuring she just wasn’t going to get it.


Gabriel 03.15.18 at 5:45 am

I am full-up on mash-ups, and Lovecraftian mash-ups most of all. What if Lovecraft met Jack Dempsey in 1918 and told him that the Necronomicon could win him the title? INSTANT NOVEL, RIGHT? No no no, not for me, thanks.

(…I just bought the ebook. Better be good, Adam, or I’ll buy your next one, too. That’s how it works, right?)


John Holbo 03.15.18 at 5:51 am

“I am full-up on mash-ups, and Lovecraftian mash-ups most of all. ”

This is wrong. You can’t have too many Lovecraft mash-ups. They are all funny. They never stop being funny. Here’s the proof.


maidhc 03.15.18 at 7:14 am

John Holbo: Lovecraft of course, but I hear a bit of Mervyn Peake in there also.

The combination rather reminds me of Spider Robinson’s Callahan’s Place stories. My mother became a big fan of of those for a period (very uncharacteristically compared to her interests during my teenage years) and kept giving me all the books.

Lovecraft is easy to mash up. On the micro level, because he likes piling up adjectives (“the gibbous moon in an eldritch sky”), on the macro level because he’s always hinting about unimaginable horrors that he never gets around to fully explain. That’s perhaps the most original thing about his style. Otherwise he gets quite a lot from Lord Dunsany.


Gabriel 03.15.18 at 8:50 am

John: yeah, OK, fair point.

Also, can we crowdsource a new word for ‘Invent ludicrous example to prove point only to prove counterpoint to oneself?’ Because I would totally read that Lovecraft/Dempsey book.


Bruce Baugh 03.15.18 at 4:26 pm

Well, this thread just made a sale. Thanks for the lead! I love discovering neat things.


Emma 03.16.18 at 3:19 am

It’s not even that the book just went over my head (a familiar sensation), but that I was looking at it as other than it is. I’ve never watched or even really heard of The Thing & I’m not somebody who has the kind of familiarity with Kant that would lead me to chortle over the mashup. I received it as an un-straightforward but emotionally affecting story about various unsentimental things, and here all this time I was meant to be admiring the symmetry/novelty of the pastiche’s components. I’m going to have to read it again, and try to understand it as it was written.

Kind of funny for a novel called The Thing Itself! And when I say “funny” I mean “I’m sorry, Adam Roberts.”


Dave Maier 03.16.18 at 5:01 pm

I don’t think this is going to satisfy sticklers for Kant scholarship

I can confirm this in spades, and I’m not even a Kant scholar. But the book sounds great anyway. Thanks for the tip!


Adam Roberts 03.16.18 at 7:23 pm

Thank you, John, for this characteristically generous-hearted and nimble-witted review of my novel. I’m humbled, and pleased.

Not to go all creakily wounded-amour-propre on you (and Dave M.), but for clarity: are you saying that professional Kantians will dislike the book because its treatment of Kant’s ideas is so cack-handed and wrongheaded? Or because such people are not well disposed to anybody, whoever they might be, treating serious matters like philosophy in an unserious and pulpy mode like SF? (Conceivably you mean both). The second is a question that goes beyond my novel, of course: whether we think that Philip K Dick really was an original and influential thinker about metaphysical matters who happened to choose cheap SF as his medium for expressing himself. Or whether, howevermuch they enjoy rayguns and monsters, proper philosophers are only ever actually going to take philosophy seriously if it conforms to the discursive conventions of their tribe. (On the first question I’d at least like to think I thought seriously about Kant and put some of my thoughts into this novel, but I daresay I’m fooling myself on that score).


Dave Maier 03.17.18 at 2:27 am

Sorry, Adam, when I quoted John saying “I don’t think this is going to satisfy sticklers for Kant scholarship” I took his “this” to mean “this mere sentence of exposition I’ve just given” (i.e. not the book) and I agreed with that. Without having read “The Thing Itself” itself I can’t judge its treatment of Kant, though I look forward to doing so. (There are indeed cack-handed and wrongheaded readings of Kant to be had, but it would be premature at best to assume that yours is one of them.) I certainly approve of philosophy in SF, and John does too, he’s made that clear I think.


John Holbo 03.17.18 at 5:59 am

“are you saying that professional Kantians will dislike the book because its treatment of Kant’s ideas is so cack-handed and wrongheaded?”

Not cack-handed, just entertainment-oriented! It’s not bad on Kant, just stretching some points – in ways no finicky scholar would countenance – to bridge the noumenal/phenomenal gap, for purposes of getting the damn story running. Kant scholars would bog down intolerably. No sense of dramatic pacing, that lot.


Gabriel 03.17.18 at 12:40 pm

Having finished and found the book enjoyable in many ways (for instance: as a diegesis concerning the ways in which Archetypal Philosophy Nerds are viewed by those who are perceived, internally and externally, as slightly lower in the Western Intellectual Hierarchy, and how this maps onto the struggles of SF writers in regards to their literary brethren), allow me to add that, at some point in the first three chapters, David Mitchell began narrating the first person bits in my head. Which was amazing.

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