Author: Adam Roberts
288 pages • £10.99 (also available in hardback, £17.99)
It’s the classic tale: boy meets girl. Boy loses girl. Boy loses head. And we’re not talking metaphorically. Amazingly, all this occurs in the first five pages. By the end of the opening chapter the book’s protagonist, a philandering poet called Jon Cavala, has had his head separated from his body. But on the devout planet of Pluse this isn’t a terminal condition. The headless have their brains transferred into electronic devices grafted on to their spines, and they have to buy electronic appendages to regain their sight and hearing.
From this point Roberts writes a self-consciously mannered moral fable in the style of Gulliver’s Travels or Pilgrim’s Progress. While there is a slight framing plot topping and tailing the novel, the bulk of the story has Cavala on a voyage of self-discovery that satirises war, fundamentalist religion and love.
Previous Roberts novels, such as the superb Gradisil and Salt, have also tackled big issues with audaciously broad, metaphorical strokes. Sadly Land of the Headless, while just as engagingly oddball, often feels too whimsical to be taken seriously and too dour to work as a satire. The formal, flowery language and episodic storyline are clearly deliberate conceits, but they rob the book of vitality and bite. Some clever, thoughtful moments are submerged under what feels like excess padding, while certain aspects of what it must be like to live in a headless underclass are irritatingly glossed over.
There’s actually a great short story in here somewhere. It just needs extracting or a fair bit of chopping.