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He turned to the back of the paper, and studied the advertisements. For sale, one Lilliputian, good needleworker. For sale, two Lilliputians, a breeding couple; one hundred and fifty guineas the pair. For sale, stuffed Lilliputian bodies, arranged in poses from the classics: Shakespeare, Milton, Scott. For sale, prime specimen of the famed Intelligent Equines, late of His Majesty’s Second Cognisant Cavalry; this Beast (the lengthy advertisement went on) speaks a tolerable English, but knows mathematics and music to a high level of achievement. Of advanced years, but suitable for stud.
My first exposure to Jonathan Swift was not Gulliver’s Travels, but his satirical essay A Modest Proposal, an attack on the view held by the English that the Irish were a barbarous people. Let’s just say it spoke to me. When I saw the title of Adam Roberts’ book I was intrigued. How would he go about writing a sequel of sorts to Swift’s most famous work? As it turned out his objective was a broader one than that, touching on several authors during the course of the novel.
Abraham Bates credits himself as a moral man, moved by Christian mercy to plead the case of the Lilliputian people enslaved by the British Empire. It is over a century since Lemuel Gulliver returned from the lands of the so-called ‘Pacificans’, his tales leading to an occupation of those wondrous countries by European nations. The ‘little people’, are now reckoned to number only in the thousands across the whole world as a result of this invasion by ‘big folk’. The British Empire owes their great successes since the invasion to the technological skill of the Lilliputians, gifted with powers of invention due to their miniature size that have led to clockwork wonders. Even still Bates is dismayed by their enslavement and is contacted by an agent of France. In exchange for his assistance, he is promised the swift liberation of the Lilliputian slaves and the overthrow of the British Empire at the hands of an alliance between the French and the Church of Rome.
This is also the story of Eleanor, sold into marriage with an industrialist who business thrives on Lilliputian handiwork. Her mother made the match in order to secure her own lifestyle and Eleanor becomes resigned to her fate. She buries herself in the study of the natural sciences, with reading her sole pleasure, a retreat from the cruelties of the world outside her door. One night following her marriage to Mr. Burton, she witnesses an event that she feels might be turned to her advantage, but shortly thereafter the French invade London, with an advance force of Brobdingnagian Giants laying waste to everything in their path.
The French have yet another weapon to hand. A calculating machine, perfected by one Charles Babbage. When Eleanor and Bates meet, they learn that whoever should control this computational device, could decide the course of the war. Together they race across England, unaware that their world is being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s.
If that’s not a broad enough hint, it soon becomes apparent that Swiftly uses its relationship to Gulliver’s Travels as a skin. In reality the book is a parody of H.G. Welles’ War of the Worlds. Through this comparison Roberts draws out the similarities between both writers, equal in their criticism of the British Empire and the brutal hidden histories of civilization. The Brobdingnagians marching across the Channel resemble the Martian Tripods of Welles’ book; there is also a sudden outbreak of pestilence across England.
My one complaint is while the period detail is excellent – religion and the fear of committing some social impropriety are straitjackets to each of the characters; the evolutionary theories of Lamarck are rejected as the ‘Pacificans’ are seen to be proof of God’s plan – I am frustrated with hints of condescension towards the views of sex held by these characters. One of the pleasures of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle of books is that he made the thoughts and actions of historical figures from the 17c seem modern. Here there’s a mocking tone to Eleanor’s discovery of sexuality (she takes out a book from the library of the mating habits of pigs) and Bates’ tortured excitement at his own desires.
While that made me think less of the overall project, the book is gifted with an excellent premise. In keeping with its Anglo-Frankish conflict it swings from Swiftian to Rabelaisian satire. Fascinating.