Review of ‘The Thing Itself’ by Adam Roberts

I was drawn to this book by its association with John Carpenter’s The Thing, whose alien is a uniquely visceral nightmare. Its physical distortions suggest unknowability, as if it is trying to find a form to express itself, which is a theme picked up on in Adam Roberts’s novel.
While The Thing Itself is not a version of or direct meditation on the film, the novel does explore some of the same themes, especially terror in the face of the inexplicable and paranoia about the monster behind a human mask. Roberts cleverly weaves the work of two other writers through his narrative: Emmanuel Kant, who coined the phrase ‘the thing itself’, and that most extra-terrestrial of poets, TS Eliot; particularly The Waste Land. Like The Thing Itself, The Waste Land looks back on past trauma and forward to some future apocalypse, with each state refracted through a disintegrating intelligence.
The novel blends elements of these texts to create a believable sense of perceptions beyond our own. At no point does this complex, challenging subject overwhelm the narrative, which despite its philosophical rigour remains gripping throughout.
Roberts employs increasingly battered everyman Charles to examine the novel’s central idea that space and time are human constructs. These limitations enable us to see one reality but not ‘the thing itself’; which by its nature is undefinable, but may in fact be God. Charles is a great character: a scientist forced to work as an alcoholic bin man after a life in free-fall following traumatic events at an Antarctic research station. He retains his scientific intelligence, a mournful snarkiness, and the kind of practicality forced upon an older man who no longer has it in him to get really angry.
Perhaps one way we can get close to this numinous other is love. Romance is an element of the author’s writing he doesn’t get enough credit for; it was a key motivation in Jack Glass and Bete, and is even more so here. The effects of the ruptured time continuum see-saw back and forth, with relationships movingly impacted at either end of the chronological footprint.
Even the demonic Roy needs Charles. The two men have an eerily intense, often horrific relationship but, the novel seems to say, the whole point of existence is togetherness. Our understanding necessarily relies on separation, but now we have an opportunity to move beyond such reduced comprehension. It’s a beautiful idea, brilliantly rendered. The only other book to have expanded my mind in a comparable way was Philip K Dick’s The Man in the High Castle. Truly, this is fiction as LSD.

Buy The Thing Itself

Adam Roberts Website

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