Saturday, January 23, 2010

Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts

In the introduction to This Pen for Hire, John Leonard addresses the problem of praising books written by friends. Mostly, he doesn't see what the big deal is: "If you don't like the way his mind works, why is he your friend?" That's pretty much how I feel, but in this case, even more so: I really like the way Adam's mind works.

Last year, Kim Stanley Robinson wrote a very sharp editorial sort of article on the resistance of the British literary establishment to considering science fiction as having anything remotely to do with the kind of books that receive awards. Digging up a sort of fan letter from Virginia Woolf to Olaf Stapledon, Robinson produces an intriguing alternative history where Woolf did not kill herself and her books gradually grew more and more oriented toward outright science fiction (as, he argues, she was already quite close with Orlando and some of her later work). Robinson implies quite convincingly that contemporary British science fiction has picked up Woolf's discontinued development, and this leaves him wondering how and why recognition from bodies like the Booker jury is not only withheld but not even considered as plausible. They lack Woolf's openmindedness: "there are no Woolves on those juries, and so they judge in ignorance and give their awards to what usually turn out to be historical novels." The article was written before Wolf Hall won, but Robinson suggests in advance what should have won: Yellow Blue Tibia.

He's right. Yellow Blue Tibia is a fantastic novel, and, appropriately for the Booker, a fantastic British novel. That may be a very strange claim, as it is set entirely in Russia and the Ukraine (although I think Roberts implies that the protagonist has some English roots). But the Britishness it creates or embodies is the cosmopolitan variety of H. G. Wells (an explicit intertextual relationship) and of Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and Ian Fleming. (I think there's an implicit intertextual relationship with Greene as well, though I may be pulling it out of thin air—there's a scene that wonderfully recalls my favorite section of The Third Man). It may be that, as an American, I can't help but fetishize Britishness a bit, but I'm not sure that's such a sin—Brits do it too, after all. Which isn't to say that Adam does, but Konstantin Skvorecky is, among other qualities, immensely enjoyable as a very British protagonist.

What I find most pleasurable, though, about Yellow Blue Tibia is the gracefulness of its directness: on numerous occasions, a point is made in very plain language which distills the themes of the novel—why science fiction writers write SF, how belief functions in a modern society, what role utopias might still play in our political imagination, and what the consequences may be (and have been) of utopian thinking. Somehow the novel threads the needle of being pointed without ever threatening to become pedantic—and without relying on metafictional games to get that point across.

Actually that doesn't quite cut it—I'm creating a dichotomy between naturalness and artificiality that Yellow Blue Tibia effectively dissolves. In a passage like the following paragraph, you know the author is making a point, you know that this point is important to understanding the book—and (not "and yet") it appears gracefully, unforced, and true to the moment. Here, five Soviet SF writers have been gathered by Stalin to craft a giant but coherent narrative of alien invasion which will serve the purpose of unifying the Communist nations (after the inevitable fall of the American capitalist empire). They've been congenially discussing the devastation necessary to create this unity, and have decided on wiping out most of the Ukraine:
How could we plan such monstrosity so very casually? This is not an easy question to answer, although in light of what came later it is, of course, an important one. Conceivably it is that we did not believe, even in the midst of our work, that it would come to anything—that we felt removed from the possible consequences of our planning. But I suspect a more malign motivation. Writers, you see, daily inflict the most dreadful suffering upon the characters they create, and science fiction writers are worse than any other sort in this respect. A realist writer might break his protagonist's leg, or kill his fiancée, but a science fiction writer will immolate whole planets, and whilst doing so he will be more concerned with the placement of commas than with the screams of the dying. He will do this every working day all through his life. How can this not produce calluses on those tenderer portions of the mind that ordinary human beings use to focus their empathy?
 Since I'm reading Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? right now, this last question becomes particularly interesting for me, but even apart from the really excellent ideas in this passage, I just would like to note how programmatic this paragraph is—programmatic and great. It's a straightforward statement of an important theme in the book, and it's a really powerful piece of writing. And in a literary climate where it is often de rigeur to refract programmatic authorial statements through a veil of irony, this is really awesome. Just look at the phrase "of course" in the second sentence—I can't remember the last recently published novel I read where something like "of course" actually meant "of course."

I'm not trying to make Adam out to be some Knight of Earnestness, nor to suggest that he has something against irony—very much the contrary in both cases. Irony is itself an extremely important theme, almost all of the best dialogue is richly ironic, and his use of a playful (fake) Wikipedia entry as a sort of epilogue is really genius. It is more that, to borrow a theme from the novel, ideas in fiction are radioactive—they radiate out from and irradiate the rest of the book—and most writers, it seems, don't really understand radioactivity. The most common response seems to have been to find ways to contain it, to insulate themselves from contamination (irony as a sort of lead lining—sorry, couldn't help myself)—and ignore the fact that there are margins of exposure and margins of safety, and that balancing them is the only way to tap into a huge source of power and force. I think Adam plays with those margins better than many other writers—of late, the book I've read that probably compares the best with Yellow Blue Tibia along these lines is one that he and I  discussed quite enthusiastically.

There are also many other disparate sources of enjoyment in the novel. YBT contains some of the most lively metaphors I've read in some time (e.g., "The unspoken answer to his question rubbed a silence into the conversation like salt in a cut." "His moustache lay languid, like a black odalisque, across his plump upper lip.") It's extremely well-paced, and honestly touching. A couple of the characters border on the cartoonish, but then again, some excellent laughs come from that cartoonishness as well. I'm very glad the book has gotten the attention it has; I hope it gets more.

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