I first came across Adam Roberts when I read 'On', an early novel that, for all that its central concept was breathtakingly original, was let down by an abrupt ending that left me feeling utterly cheated.
I gave the author the benefit of the doubt, however, and read 'Salt', his first book, which was dreadful enough to put me off sci fi for a while - one of those hackneyed, formulaic colonisation sagas that only appeal to people who read nothing but sci-fi, the only surprise being that it didn't feature a beautiful alien female who inexplicably fell for the central character.
Then I saw 'Stone', and I decided to give the guy another go. And I'm so glad I did, as this is one of my all-time favourite books - in any genre.
It's an intelligently and beautifully written road trip of a book that stands up to repeated readings and that, in 50 years time, I hope will be held aloft as an example of how imaginative, intelligent science fiction can match the best novels in any other genre, in terms of quality of prose, narrative drive, and emotive power.
The plot is deceptively straightforward, with a destination that's spelled out from the opening chapter, but which, thanks to a masterful build-up of tension teased out over a number of superbly-written episodes along the way, doesn't disappoint or feel contrived. As the central character, Ae, stumbles inexorably towards a genocidal destiny that ought to make the reader hate and fear him, we instead come to sympathise with him, seeing him for what he really is: a tragically suggestible and mentally unhinged human being who, because of a genetic anomaly at birth, is the last known living being in the universe who is still capable of murder.
Even when he's driven to kill, through his confusion and inability to interact with other people - in what is one of the best-written murder scenes I've ever come across in a sci-fi book - we're not repulsed by him or hateful of him, and by the end of the book, as he's on the verge of annihilating the entire population of a whole planet, we're positively rooting for the guy.
And for a writer to be able to carry that trick off, while creating exotic yet utterly believable alien worlds, pacing the novel beautifully, and writing with a raw intelligence that never detracts from the tale, is almost unique.
This is not a comfortable read, but it is nonetheless a book that you'll want to read again and again. It's high-concept, but don't let that put you off. It's written with a story-telling skill that is, in my experience, hard to find in serious science fiction novels. No sci fi writer I've ever read comes close to being able to write a story as moving, challenging and satisfying as this. Only Iain Banks can, for my money, write fantastic science fiction that's as intelligent and imaginative as this, while still being utterly readable and not at all cliched or lacking in emotion.
This is head and shoulders above anything else I've read by Adam Roberts, but for this novel alone he deserves to be remembered as a true story-telling master.