Review: Swiftly, by Adam Roberts


(Gollancz, 978-0-575-08232-8)

(Review first published on the Australian Specfic in Focus website, July 2008)

Adam Roberts’ Swiftly is a sequel to Johnathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. I’ll confess at the outset that I haven’t read Gulliver’s Travels, although I’m aware of the book’s basic outline. In any event, I greatly enjoyed Swiftly.

Abraham Bates is a man with a very troubled conscience. Constrained by his religious beliefs in the humanity of the Lilliputians (and similar-sized Blefuscans) which his native England has pressed into slavery, he finds himself forced into treason as an agent for the French. France, at war with England and aided by an army of Brobdingnagian foot-soldiers, holds an official view on the status of the diversely-sized peoples which is much more in keeping with Bates’ own philosophy. Bates is also stricken by romantic feeling for a young widow, Mrs Eleanor Burton, who is to marry another, older man. And somewhere along the line, Bates acquires a singularly inappropriate Pavlovian response …

 Adam Roberts writes with a zeal and a panache that very much gives this work the feel of authenticity, deriving perhaps from his ‘day job’ as a professor of 19th-century English lit. His choice of phrasing is often deliciously archaic, and the book’s attention to descriptive detail is in keeping with my own (rather hazy) memories of the stylistic patterns of Victorian-era literature. But Swiftly is far from the dusty, earnest story it might have been: Roberts has succeeded in packing a great deal of plot into the work, and it has a rollicking, propulsive quality to it which suggests it was probably as much fun to write as it is to read. (I would go so far as to label it one of the two or three most enjoyable books I’ve read this year.) It’s passionate, tense, humorous and admirably thought-provoking, and it does a wonderful job of reframing many elements of Swift’s original story – most obviously the Lilliputians and Brobdingnagians, but encompassing also the Houyhnhnms, the Yahoos, and several other components. There are shades, too, of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, but it’s Swift’s heritage which is centre-stage.

The story focuses on the characters of Bates and Eleanor. These are richly detailed, but even the minor characters (of diverse shapes and sizes) have a pleasing three-dimensionality to them. They bridge the gulf, too, between the concerns of the nineteenth and twenty-first centuries. For example, there is an exploration of sexuality which falls far outside the publicly-accepted standards of the Victorian era, but this is presented in language which (so far as I can tell) is fully consistent with the dictums of that era. The end result is the kind of novel which might well have seen publication in the mid-nineteenth century, if the authors of preceding years had somehow managed to produce a Lady Chatterley’s Lover or a Portnoy’s Complaint. It’s immensely fun stuff, but not frivolous, and Roberts rounds things off in an unexpected, gauche, but plausibly satisfying manner.

I enjoyed it tremendously. It’s difficult to see what else to say about Swiftly. Except, I suppose, read it for yourself.


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