The Wise Man of the Desert
Adam Roberts, the award-winning British science fiction author, sure loved his desert settings early in his writing career. He even admits it:
“This is what I’ve been thinking. My last three novels, Snow, Gradisil and [Land of the] Headless, are all–I can see, now–desert novels. A desert of water ice; a desert of orbital vacuum; a desert of the soul; and in all three cases the concomitant mental and emotional sensibilities, and aesthetics. In a way these three novels represent a sort-of trilogy, a thematic trilogy; and they are accordingly and necessarily rather barren. I can hardly complain if people find this offputting.”
Roberts has indeed struggled with some reviewers and readers finding his novels “offputting”, perhaps because the readers and reviewers do not know how to approach his works. Roberts does not write space opera or thrillers, the kind of SF that seems to predominate; he writes what others have identified as Menippean satire. For those unfamiliar with the concept, we will use Northrop Frye’s definition of the genre:
“The Menippean satire deals less with people as such than with mental attitudes. Pedants, bigots, cranks, parvenus, virtuosi, enthusiasts, rapacious and incompetent professional men of all kinds, are handled in terms of their occupational approach to life as distinct from their social behaviour. The Menippean satire thus resembles the confession in its ability to handle abstract ideas and theories, and differs from the novel in its characterization, which is stylised rather than naturalistic, and presents people as mouthpieces of the ideas they represent.”
This means that when Roberts is called “The king of high-concept SF” (that was Jon Courtenay-Grimwood of The Guardian, a piece of praise now used on most of the covers of Roberts’s novels) it is his ideas being lauded and not necessarily his plots. Roberts employs characters that are not often likeable and have a tendency to perhaps stretch the truth, lying to us as well as themselves. The situations in which the characters find themselves can be extreme to the point of the absurd. But that is the point of satire, to call out the ideas and philosophies of our everyday lives in order to highlight their possibly ridiculous nature. So what does this have to do with deserts?
A quick review of the various deserts Roberts used in his novels:
1) Salt (2000) is a novel about warring religious fundamentalists on a new colony world called – obviously – Salt, because the planet is a desert of salt.
2) The Snow (2004) is a novel about the icy apocalypse of Earth, buried under three miles of snow, and the handful of survivors who find themselves under the control of a totalitarian US military government in a desert of snow that may not be snow at all.
3) Gradisil (2006) is a novel about the settlement of Earth’s orbit by the wealthy that have escaped a decaying planet, living in a desert of vacuum.
4) Land of the Headless (2007) is the story of a decapitated (yet still living thanks to technological intervention) poet/criminal who passes through not just a “desert of the soul” as Roberts says, but a literal desert of sand and the desert of the battlefield.
So again, why deserts?
Because it is the barrenness of these landscapes that allow the ideas being espoused to stand in sharp relief. World-building is an extensive part of the SF novum, but it is much easier to build a world of ideas when you do not have to carry on about the biologic and geologic formations of your world. Roberts’s characters are allowed to inhabit their philosophies in the emptiness of a desert rather than being inhabited by the lushness of a jungle. Satire – and especially Menippean satire – cannot afford to be dragged down by descriptions of a physical world when there is a mental world to be explored; chess is played on a plane of only two alternating colours (well, unless you have one of those 3-D Star Trek chess sets) so that you can move swiftly across the board. For Roberts, writing in a desert provides the same advantage, decluttering the environmentally abstract in favour of the philosophically certain. Not that Roberts was necessarily aware of this repetition in setting for his first several novels:
“It might seem a little belated on my part, only now to be seeing larger patterns in the way my books are coming out. But then again, writing is a balance between what the writer plans and what emerges… Perhaps there’s some tectonic shifting happening under my very own feet, and I’m only slowly becoming aware of it. Maybe, and without directly informing me, my creative imagination has had enough of deserts for the time being.”
Roberts has moved on from his desert novels into far more verdant worlds, his satire becoming more subtle in its send-up of our strange human ways. But there is still a wise man lurking in the deserts or the fields of England or the streets of Moscow trying to tell us a truth about what it is to be human, warning us against the fanatical, the dictatorial, and the fallacious.
 Paul Kincaid, “Learning to Read Adam Roberts”, http://bigother.com/2011/03/05/learning-to-read-adam-roberts/
 Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (London: penguin Books, 1957), p. 309.