In the BSFA Award–winning Jack Glass: The Story of a Murderer, British author Roberts turns the science fiction whodunit inside out and upside down.
How did you plan this particular book?
I sat down to plan out the whodunit element, to think about the form it could take. The default mode is: a murder, a dozen (or so) suspects, and the least likely is revealed to be the murderer! But that’s a bit vanilla. So I thought about the games crime writers have played with that template: Murder on the Orient Express, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, Police at the Funeral, There Came Both Mist and Snow. After cogitating, I could only think of two permutations left: one, a whodunit in which the reader turns out to be the murderer (I’m working on how to write such a book) and two, the conceit that informs Jack Glass. It’s not a spoiler to say this, since I declare it on the first page. I wanted to write a novel in which the identity of the murderer is revealed at the beginning, such that the crime is committed and investigated and the identity of the murderer is revealed at the end and is still a surprise to the reader. Then I decided it would be fun to do that three times, one after the other.
What drew you toward “Golden Age” SF and mysteries?
I try and work something different with every novel I write. I’m assured that this is commercially obtuse of me, and I don’t doubt it; but SF is such a capacious toy box for a writer that it seems to me daft not to explore it widely. So I was drawn to Golden Age SF because I’d never properly written an old-style rocketship SF yarn before. And there’s something about the form of the puzzle-whodunit that really appeals to me: the way it puts a premium upon ingenuity and form, two things I prize highly. I liked mashing them together because “crime” (an epistemological mode) and “SF” (an ontological mode) are supposed to stand orthogonally to one another. Now, my usual approach to writing is to work through conventions or forms or tropes of SF, but to find ways of creatively disarranging them. Whilst there’s no escaping the weight of literary tradition, I like the idea of introducing a creative swerve into familiar material. This is what SF does as a mode: it represents the world, but does so with a cognitive or imaginative swerve. Telling the truth but telling it slant—exactly what mimetic fiction struggles to do.
The praise you get from mainstream reviewers seems condescending—“As I live and breathe! An SF novel that meets ‘literary’ standards!”
It’s as much a curse as a blessing: my novels are, I fear, too ”literary” for many core SF fans and much too SF-y for the mainstream. Accordingly, lowering my middle-aged weight into a sitting position, I settle firmly onto neither stool and instead fall floorward with a slapstick clatter that does nothing to enhance my dignity. So it goes.