Or at least that moment in Kubrick's film 2001 when an ape man throws a bone high into the sky and the camera follows it as it spins and spins higher and higher before gravity starts to pull it back only for Kubrick to suddenly cut to a space ship – long and thin like the bone – falling through the darkness of the universe.
"It seems to me kind of beautiful and eloquent and moving in a way that it is hard to rationalise," Roberts tells me, by phone. He is sitting in his home in Ascot as he does so. We have spent the last half hour discussing science fiction, what it has in common with poetry, the importance of Aberdeen in his personal story, his mother's love of whodunnits and his love of Vladimir Nabokov. But now we've arrived at the nub of our conversation. The idea – his idea – of SF as a kind of rupture in the imagination. "A lot of the appeal of science fiction," he continues, "isn't in the science. It's in something that makes a leap.
"You can sort of see the parallels between a bone and a space ship. A bone is a tool and a space ship is a sort of tool. A much more sophisticated tool. So it is possible to come up with a rational analysis of why that jump-cut works. But I still don't think that rational analysis accounts for how startling and powerful that is. The moments in science fiction that endure, I think, are the endings of Asimov's Nightfall or Arthur C Clarke's Nine Million Names For God where the ending just pushes you into .... well, the sublime's as good a term for it as any."
At 47, Roberts has been chasing his own version of the sublime now for the last 12 years and 12 novels (in conjunction with his day job as professor of 19th-century literature at Royal Holloway University of London). His latest is Jack Glass, a book that is emblematic of the appeal of its creator's work. It's full of a sense of play and a deep love of the genre. Or in this case two genres, as it is an SF version of his mum's whodunnits, based as it is around three locked room mysteries. In space. "I'm puzzled that so few writers have tried it," Roberts admits. "Asimov was fascinated by whodunnits and he wrote a few, but apart from him it's hard to think of people who've really done this; quite clever whodunnits set in a science fiction world. I wanted to see if I could come up with a new wrinkle on the whodunnit form."
He does, while also getting to use the novel as a vehicle to discuss realpolitik and as an aside theorise on possible future theologies. That widescreen vision suggests Jack Glass qualifies as an example of the literature of ideas – always the classic defence of SF. But speak to Roberts for any length of time and it's clear that's not really what he is interested in.
"I'm kind of conscious of coming to science fiction from an arts-humanities background. I did English and classics at Aberdeen and a PhD in English history and classics at Cambridge and I teach English literature, whereas most of my friends in science fiction come out of a science and engineering background typically. They know all the science. And there's a kind of science fiction where that's the point of it – to make sure that everything is as plausible as can be. That's not the kind of science fiction I write. And it seems to me that's not at the heart of what makes science fiction cool actually. Science fiction is about imaginative extrapolation."
He recognises his idea of science fiction is not the norm. "My view of the genre is kind of eccentric but I align science fiction with poetry." The reason, Roberts suggests, is in the way they use metaphor. "There's a kind of leap, a kind of knight's move in the action of metaphor. You say 'Achilles is a lion'. What you mean is 'Achilles is very strong and brave and terrifying'. But calling him a lion you're also bringing into play all this stuff that has nothing to do with Achilles. Four legs, a tail and a mane – that hovers around the way the metaphor works and science fiction at its best opens that up and makes all that possible. It's a rupture with the world we know because science fiction gives us things that are not in the world.
For some people that's enough to be a definition of science fiction. But I think it's more than that. I think it's a rupture because it involves a conceptual jump out of what we're familiar with and it's that possibility to estrange, to make new, that is a unique ingredient of science fiction, I think. "
The genre is beginning to receive more mainstream acceptance these days, it seems. "Most writers have at least toyed with dystopias or near future fantasies so there's not the stigma attached to it that there once was and I suppose that's a good thing. I don't know. Part of me regrets that almost. I like the stigma. It gives it a flavour."
Then again, what he loves about science fiction can be found in literary fiction too. Even in Nabokov, Roberts argues. "Nabokov is a God to me; a powerful, extraordinary writer who generates many of the affects of science fiction because he's so good at making the world seem powerfully, beautifully strange."
Time to talk of the beautiful strangeness of Aberdeen. When he was a teenager, already in thrall to the appeal of SF, Roberts left home in Canterbury to study in Aberdeen because "it was as far as I could get from home".
"It was a culture shock, but in a positive way. There was something refreshing about being in Scotland. The vibe was different. I only got beaten up once for being English. Otherwise people were very friendly. I loved Aberdeen. I came alive when I was there. I didn't do very well at school and then I went to Aberdeen and I did very well indeed. I blossomed. It's partly because I was having sex, which counts for a lot. Don't put that in the interview, obviously."
It set him on his route to academic achievement. Writing fiction came later. But now it would appear he can't stop. Next year will see the publication of a collected edition of short stories and an illustrated novel entitled 20 Trillion Leagues Under The Sea. "It's a riff on the Jules Verne title. I think I was disappointed when I read that they don't actually go 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. They go half a league and then travel 20,000 leagues horizontally."
All these stories, all this rupturing of reality. That's quite a work rate. "I suppose it is. HG Wells was very prolific and contemporaries asked him 'why do you write so many novels?' – and I can't do any better than this – and he said 'I'm an indolent man and I'm sitting down anyway'."
Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts is published by Gollancz, at £14.99.
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