Book Review: An Account of a Voyage from World to World Again, by Way of the Moon, 1726, by Adam Roberts

Book Review by Ian Shone

  • Adam Roberts
  • June 2012
  • Novelette Series: #3
  • Softcover (edition of 26)
  • ISBN: 978-0-9571696-3-0

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For a long time now the steampunk genre has seemed to be running out of… well, steam. Its credibility has been all but destroyed by its repeated misuse by Hollywood to reinvent dead franchises—see Wild Wild WestVan HelsingSherlock Holmes, and Three Musketeers. Or rather, don’t. Still, it’s sometimes nice to see a fresh take on the basic concept of period fiction with implausibly modern technology. An Account of a Voyage… is a slim and beautifully presented volume that introduces some new ideas without outstaying its welcome.

The creative anachronism of steampunk is here applied in a more extreme fashion than usual. In this reality, the Age of Exploration is also the Age of Space Exploration. This is made possible by the appropriation of mysterious technologies from an equally mysterious race of extra-terrestrials called ‘Patiens’. The whole of Europe is apparently divided between a northern Protestant empire, ruled by George I of England, and a southern Catholic empire, ruled by ‘Charles of Spain’ (perhaps a mistake, since Philip V was King of Spain in 1726). Similarly, the moon is the object of an imperialist scramble between the two great powers. It is here, in the ‘Selenic Territories’, that the action takes place.

The most striking feature of An Account of a Voyage… is undoubtedly the language in which it is written. The story is related by its protagonist, William Chetwin, in the manner of a captain’s log. Fittingly enough, it is written in ersatz 18th century English, complete with archaic spellings and constructions. This is a brave balancing act for an author to attempt, and for the most part Adam Roberts pulls it off rather well. It’s not a slavishly accurate reproduction—that might be more trouble that it was worth—but it gives enough of a period flavour to maintain the believability of the setting.

Also, Roberts has done himself a neat favour with regard to storytelling by taking this approach. He manages to cram in a lot of detailed and undisguised exposition early on, and it works, since it fits perfectly well with the writing style of that period. It calls to mind Swift and Defoe in particular, and I would not be surprised if that was precisely the author’s intention. On the whole, the balance between authenticity and readability is about right. Roberts plays with the nationalistic and religious prejudices of the time and transposes them into his lunar setting in a way that does not seem contrived. The story is a little formulaic, and the surprise ending is not all that surprising, but it’s still great fun. It’s a tight little narrative, and a bigger word count would probably have made it rather unwieldy. Overall it comes off as an interesting experiment, and a largely successful one.

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