The thing is: it's poetry. For me, this is why I found Purgatory Mount such an effortless read. Roberts defines science fiction poetically, in terms of metonymy (one thing after another) and metaphor (the quality of showing one thing in terms of another), and the structure of this novel both embodies and performs the material in the precise terms of this definition. Not that the structural resonances between the otherworldly mountain of the title and Otty's beehives are strictly metaphorical at all times. There is a direct link between these things, in my mind, despite the ultimate origin of the miles-high and seemingly impossible structure with which the minds of the gods are engaged, really never being explained. That remains the central mystery of the novel but because the mapping is so precise in the storytelling, there was really never any doubt in my mind, even before I realised it explicitly (and admittedly, through a second reading of this novel, just to make sure I hadn't missed anything).
But Purgatory Mount touches on a staggering array of issues relevant today, and this also makes it exemplary as both a science fictional exercise in sussing out social implications (as it is the duty of serious science fiction to do), and in installing a sense of dread in the mind and body of the reader in the potentiality of those implications. It is also an exercise in examining religious issues and sensibilities here embodied the character of Otty, this story's main protagonist. Her sensibility points to the fact that there is almost a religious aspect to our devotion to technology but, further, that there is a chasm between our sensibilities and those in powerful positions more able to exploit and shape their potentialities to disastrous ends, for the sake of power. Power is, in the final analysis, what this book is about.
This is clear in the outset, when we find ourselves in a ship made of ice on the verge of a great discovery, and uncover the motivations of its various god-inhabitants, not money but the glory associated with making the find and figuring out what it means. That this quest (and all the book's quests) are ultimately futile is a comment in itself (on the futility of questing), not least on the power that fixed ideas can maintain in the minds of those who should know better (and who often see themselves as our 'betters').
The map of this book moves in moieties, and its halves are halved again as the main metonymies inhabit the middle, which is split into aspects of war and peace. War is demonstrated to be conclusively bad for all involved, and we have a meditation on that badness through both description of the chaos it invokes, and the real effects it has upon characters we have come to care about. Four teens have fashioned a new kind of artificial intelligence almost by accident (by accidentally being so smart and clever that it seems they couldn't help themselves but to do so), and this drives the plot. The US government takes an interest in the recruitment of said teens (Otty, Gomery, Cess, Kathry, and Allie, the latter of whom is the AI in question), using illegal means of detention and questioning, directly resulting in the deaths of at least a couple of them. Thus, the social implications of war being not just chaos but moral and mortal degradation and unnecessary waste of life.
The 'adults' in the room occupy the other half of the novel. They are 'gods' in the sense of being highly and extensively evolved to the extent that they have acquired near-immortality and seeming ability to turn their perceptual speeds up and down/ back and forth as though with internal 'control knobs'. This is a kind of novum that enables a time-dilation device for spatio-temporal deixis in the novel itself, one that again fairly precisely indexes it as science fiction in this mode of telling. These gods are seen by the 'pygs' (a lower form of life that would seem to be actually human so much lesser evolved that they constitute a distinct species) to be gods, almost literally so because their 'speeds' have been so attenuated as appear motionless over the vast timescales needed to traverse the spaces separating earth from Dante (the name of the planet that houses the Mount).
This differential is played to maximum effect to give play to the conflict that arises between the gods, and the leveraging of the pygs loyalty to be exclusively towards Pan, a god more sympathetic to their plight as lesser beings who are actually eaten by the other, non-vegetarian, gods. Thus we have war in the final half-moiety of the book. It plays out spectacularly, and the material in the bookending halves are handled just as well as in the middle, perhaps even better in some ways precisely because they are more metaphorical. There is philosophical speculation in abundance as well and the final section here contains some useful reflections on Dante, namely the time-bound aspect of middle section of Inferno, the purgatory. This section 'requires' sinners to atone through effortful movement from the bottom to the top of the mountain. What the characters of this novel cannot see (none of them apparently) is that this is no metaphor, and that their lives are similarly effortful, though it would take a Dante to make them see. Despite this, and in full knowledge of this work, only the gods do not see. And so we have hubris, and the tragedy of the novel playing out to the final seeming demise of just about all concerned.
So, it is a comment on the futility and overweening pride of those who contemplate war through the unreflective leveraging of war-potentialising technologies such as drones, phones, and guns, but also less obviously even of books. For the latter are surely technologies that when taken too literally, might quite literally result in war. The bible is a case in point. Here we resonate back to Otty, and her strictness around swearing, with which she cannot abide, the utterance of swear-words in her con-freres being utterly proscribed (by her). This is a kind of superstition, one that also bounds in technologically mediated discourse of which the present work is a case in point. And so we come to see how cleverly it is constructed, and how solid that construction is.
Compared to his other novels, Purgatory Mount rates very highly. I think I might even rate it Roberts's best book if I didn't already rate others pretty much on par, including pretty much everything else I've read by him on that par. There is very much an evenness to the effort and result of this body of work, and here I place in top-class The Thing Itself, Bete, The Real-town Murders, By the Pricking of Her Thumb, in other words all recent output in the Roberts fiction-machine. And machine it is, and no less artful, clever, and effective for that. I'm even reading one of his few non-science fictional works (The Black Prince) and it almost seems that historical fiction could be his forte, his metier, if that was his thing. But his thing is science fiction, and it is very much to the advantage of the dedicated reader to realise sooner rather than later the central place this writer will have in the genre's history. This body of work, in other words, is no small fact. On the contrary, it is a big fact, one that keeps growing both quantitatively and qualitatively with each passing novel. I plan to continue this journey, and to keep mapping it both for posterity and for my ongoing and increasing interest. I still have a few gaps to fill (a few unread Roberts), and at the rate he writes, I feel almost asymptotically inclined, but luckily I happen to very much like that kind of thing. Luckily, it feels effortless, and I've already reached heaven.