Saturday, February 10, 2024

Sci-Fi Kant: The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts


The Thing Itself by Adam Roberts has been on my list for years, and a cold snap in January seemed like the best time to read it. As a philosopher and science fiction fan, I was already on board for science fiction with a Kant angle, but the obvious links to Lovecraft and John Carpenter's The Thing made it so much MY THING (itself?) that I'm shocked it took me so long to get to it. I'm sure I would have read it sooner if I realized it was so funny (not quite as outright zany as Douglas Adams or The Illuminatus Trilogy and not quite on an Iain M. Banks wavelength, either, but in some category of hilarity nearby). 

Kant scholars, astronomers, historians, etc. may have their quibbles, but if you can forgive a few authorial leaps and short cuts of a typical science fictional variety, the story is just fun and interesting (not to mention occasionally bewildering, but that's just part of the fun). One stretch: I'm not actually a Kant scholar, but I studied a lot of Kant in grad school, and if I remember correctly the categories are supposed to apply to the experience of all rational beings, which as a science fiction fan I always argued would apply also to aliens and AI, not just humans (Kant maybe did discuss angels, I think?). Anyway, if you can forgive Roberts for having Kantian categories only apply to human experience, then the rest will follow ... more-or-less. There are a lot of other leaps, too, but it's all so much fun and makes for such an interesting story, that I'm all aboard.

Rather than explaining all the plot(s) and ideas, I might engage in a Kantian transcendental deduction and say that I enjoyed that each chapter title included the names of Kantian categories. The "main" story of sorts begins with two scientists in a very The Thing-like Antarctic post in the 1980's. Our protagonist sells a letter to his partner, who seems lonely. Then the partner doesn't show the protagonist the letter in an amusing plot device riffing on the unknowability of the Kantian thing-in-itself (such amusing riffs continue, much to my philosophical and science fictional delight). 

Our protagonist sees... well, he's not sure, exactly, but it may be, wait for it... the thing itself! Or maybe reality not filtered through the regular human categories. In any case, this haunts the protagonist for the rest of the book and drives the plot of that part. I regret to inform fans of The Thing that only that first chapter takes place in the Antarctic, while the rest of that story takes place decades later and involves secret government agencies, godlike AI, kidnapping, teleportation, and more. But even that's only about 60% of the book.

The rest of it? There's a Victorian-era travel story, a 17th-century English magical memoir, a story or two set in the future and/or other universes, and more. It's pretty wild and seemingly random ... or is it? That's all part of the fun.

Honestly I've probably already said too much about the plot and ideas. As Kant might say, we rational beings much each engage in our own critique of pure reason and dare to think! Or at least read. 

I recommend checking it out if you've ever wondered whether what you see is what you get, or whether reality may be radically different than we think it is from within the confines of our human conceptual categories. Whether you enjoy the book or find the thing-in-itself may depend on the categories of your own tastes and experience. But I thought this was among some of the most philosophical/science fictional fun I've had from within my own categories.

See also my Goodreads review.

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