First off, let's be clear - Adam Roberts writes high-concept sf. In the past, he's written about a universe where it was possible to fly to the moon in a biplane, and a world where gravity operates at ninety degrees... Gradisil is a story of do-it-yourself homesteaders living in tin cans in Low Earth Orbit, struggling to remain free of the bickering nations of the Earth beneath them. His style is meditative, with sparse dialogue (no scriptwriters in these people's lives). His characters are deeply flawed, and very human. His scientific conceits are sometimes pretty far-out and sometimes fascinatingly practical, but I think there's a deeper level where the relationship between his characters and their surroundings rings true. And I love it.
What's sad is that Adam will always be a niche author, because he embodies all the qualities which people assume science fiction doesn't have - fully developed characters, human-centred bittersweet stories, a deliciously innovative literary style - while still building his stories around crazy scientific and technological ideas. The best comparison I can make is with Stanislaw Lem, who died a few weeks back (very sad) - some of you might have come across 'Solaris'. If you haven't... it's the sort of style you might get if Kafka and Solzhenitsyn ganged up on Isaac Asimov and beat the crap out of him in a darkened alleyway. That's my best attempt.
What makes Adam stand apart for me, though, is his characters. They're not the emotionless, super-rational cardboard cutouts that often crop up in the genre. They are always deeply human: they're emotional and passionate, often giving to uttering non-sequiturs, or doing stupid things and not regretting them until much later. They're making their way as best they can, in a world where baffling, unfair, Kafka-esque things happen to them. And the worlds in which they live are both the same as ours, but different - physically, they might be completely different (flying to the moon in a biplane?), but on a human level, they're still populated by people making selfish, stupid, emotional, deeply familiar decisions.
I don't know how Adam approaches his work; I've never read any interviews, or seen anything about him. But one theme I see coming out of his books is the idea of our relationship with technology being difficult, almost abusive - technology mindlessly making things more complicated while we struggle to live our lives in a way we can still understand. It's not about consumerism, or corporate evil. It's not about any sort of conscious will at all. It's just about how we get ourselves into a mess, and then have to live with it. And whereas with most books things can be neatly squared away at the end, Adam's stories never seem to fit into our neat, shrink-wrapped preconceptions. That, for me, is his greatest skill and his great triumph.
I'm still only halfway through reading this. I know the ending will be sad, or at best bittersweet - that's Adam's style. But it'll be great: I am utterly, totally confident that he won't let me down. Two things I am sure of; I'll be ambushed by weirdness a few more times before the end of the book; and I will feel these characters for every moment of it. I can't wait