Thomas Strittmatter: Raven

Strittmatter, Thomas (1990), Raabe Baikal, Diogenes
ISBN 2-357-22507-5

[English translation: Strittmatter, Thomas (1997), Raven, Chatto & Windus
Translated by Ian Mitchell
ISBN 9780701147938]

[French translation: Strittmatter, Thomas (1994), Le Corbeau du lac Baïkal, Albin Michel
Translated by Nicole Casanova
ISBN 2-226-06634-9]

This is an odd book, by Thomas Strittmatter, a writer who has been almost forgotten by now, but who, upon publication of Raabe Baikal, this strangely beguiling novel, was on the cusp of becoming one of Germany’s most famous and most praised writers. Between his first play, published when he was only 20 years old, and his premature death at 33, he wrote several plays, a novel, short prose, and won 7 prizes. His first play, Viehjud Levi, remains one of the sharpest, best written texts about the Third Reich by a writer of his generation and it was made into a critically acclaimed movie in 1999. Praise and acclaim for Strittmatter’s work was loud and persuasive enough to engender a translation of Raabe Baikal into English as Raven (by Ian Mitchell, published by Chatto & Windus, paperback published by Vintage) and into French as Le Corbeau du lac Baïkal (by Nicole Casanova, published by Albin Michel), and it died down quickly enough for both translations to fall out of print almost immediately. This is a shame, because Raabe Baikal is a great book, which borrows from all corners of literary history, but is convincingly original in its own right; it is a generous, fair, compelling read, suffused by clear thinking, but at the same time not a difficult read at all. It’s inconceivable for me why this book isn’t more famous or more widely read. I urge each and every one of you to read this book. It may be out of print, but second hand copies are available, and there’s always the chance of the NYRB classics imprint taking pity upon this languishing masterpiece, and getting it back in print, onto shelves and into the hearts of a multitude of readers. Because that is where this book belongs.

If you heard me yap on about Raabe Baikal at the end of this episode of bookbabble, please accept my heartfelt apology. I misrepresented it. It had been some time since I’d read it, and only retained a very distorted memory of the book. It is nothing like I made it sound, but it is a very good book nonetheless. A better book, actually, than I made it seem. Now that I reread it, I was struck by the marvels of subtlety that Strittmatter accomplishes in this book. They are marvels partly because the book, at times, seems rather raw and a bit crude. Strittmatter makes heavy use of repetition, not necessarily of words, but of motifs, and as we move from page to page, we sometimes get the feeling of jumping from one thick slab to another: the book’s dynamic is established less by its plot and more by these slabs of motifs, that keep recurring in flimsy disguises. But, we soon find, these are slabs of ice, rather than anything else and below them gapes the ice-cold death. Strittmatter, despite the funny, picaresque mood of most of the book, is fundamentally serious about his ideas, and his narrative is propelled by necessity rather than whimsy. If he keeps returning to the same ideas, it’s because they matter, because they constitute identities, and a sense of self, of belonging, of personal dignity. Behind every character of Raabe Baikal, an abyss gapes, and this imminent destruction, the looming shadow of nothingness informs all of their actions. Fear, unconsciously, compels them from day to day, from word to word, and from one action to the next. Some sit still, they rest, and we see how they are swallowed up by a diffuse darkness.

That the book doesn’t feel dark, that it is actually a funny and entertaining read, is due to the protagonist of the book, the eponymous Raabe (Raven), who gained this nickname because he looks just like a raven and because “there’s something dark about him” (his fellow students think). Raabe is a wide-eyed innocent, who believes all kinds of lies and tales, who takes everything in stride, whether it’s death, sordid sexualities or serious crime. The openness of his gaze opens up the world of Strittmatter’s novel. The book isn’t narrated by Raabe, but the narrator often leans heavily either on Raabe’s view of the world or on Taubmann’s, another innocent. While Raabe’s innocence is that of a boy, and can, at times, give way to small cruelties and pettiness, to the irritations and the irritable demeanor of the young at heart, Taubmann is an older man, who is much more serene and more thoroughly innocent. While Raabe’s journey in the book is one of discovery, an attempt to understand the world and his role in it, Taubmann doesn’t attempt to bring order to the world, he is content to state its mysterious and complicated nature. Raabe isn’t averse to retaliating against one of his fellow students by taking a dump in that student’s bed, whereas Taubmann accepts other people’s cruelty as one of many odd facts of the world around him, and offers a deep gratitude for every kind act accorded to him. Loss and sadness will overwhelm both in the end, and both will seek means to cope with it. Raabe’s act is an act of emancipation, at the same time a fulfillment of his education and a step away from his past.

It is this final act, this stepping out into the world of adults, that tells us, more than anything, that Raabe Baikal takes up position smack in the middle of the tradition of the Bildungsroman, fusing different kinds of references, from classical sources like Goethe and Gottfried Keller to more modern ones like Jean Genet’s work. I called the book ‘odd’ and it does contain a lot of unusual elements, but the basic structure is quite strict and traditional. It is, without a doubt, a Bildungsroman, or rather, it’s one long Bildungsroman, with numerous smaller specimen of the genre assembled to form a more complex image of his time and society, like a prism. The story starts in a boarding school; once an élite establishment, now full of mediocre students (“Raabe der Mittelmäßige!”, (Raven the mediocre!), one of Strittmatter’s characters calls the protagonist at one point), it tries to keep its students safe and attempts, if not to make of them future scholars and genii, then to enable them to take up with the world without getting hurt. After school, the kids will all take jobs in the real world, becoming hairdressers, stone masons and cooks. But the longest section by far is the one dealing with the school. The surrealistic, dense atmosphere of the boarding school owes much to Robert Walser’s Jakob von Gunten, but transposed into a context where Walser’s pervasive irony is out of place, and Walser’s fine, subtle, dreamy sketches are supplanted by crude (yet complex) images. In the first chapter, the students are made to watch a cow give birth. Unfortunately, the mother dies in the process, in a lake of blood, deeply traumatizing all the students. Death, often violent, is shown to be part of the fabric of growing up, as killing animals and hurting other people becomes inevitable and a necessary part of all the student’s future experiences. In this, Strittmatter’s book shares links with many other texts, specifically, I think, with books like Beat Sterchi’s Blösch (translated by Michael Hofmann into English as The Cow), and in many ways, with Franz Innerhofer’s debut Schöne Tage ( translated by Anselm Hollo into English as Beautiful Days).

But Strittmatter takes care not to stage this violence as a rite of passage, it is not enshrined as socially sanctioned ritual and the necessity isn’t inescapable. Raabe learns to use violence, as he learns to use other tools. In Raabe’s journey, structural violence, and metaphorical become palpable and real, they have to, because Raabe is unable to comprehend structural violence, he needs to be shown, it needs to be demonstrated to him. Thomas Strittmatter makes it impossible for us to mystify and to intellectualize deeply invasive and violent processes of the moderns world, as they are reflected even in words and art. We cannot evade cruelty and the darkness by moving into the realm of words. Strittmatter, through Raabe’s wide-eyed experience, drags it out into the open, where it is now endowed with shape and color. Red blood, the odd sound of a breaking neck, the soft fur of a shaking victim, these are real. Raabe Baikal‘s characters are all living on the periphery of society, and the impact that this status has on their experiences is encapsulated in these small episodes, which combine actual violence, i.e. violence that can be experienced by everyone, with the representative, slightly surreal kind of violence that has a very real impact on the book’s characters. This is a difficult balancing act, but Strittmatter never lapses into pathologizing his characters, or exoticizing their experience on the margins.

The danger of doing that is particularly strong in a work like this one, which makes heavy use of the surreal, of the magical realist mode of storytelling. Drawing both from the Döblin tradition that ran strong in post-war fiction in German, and from the popular and populist kind of writing of 19th century realist fiction (especially the early work of Wilhelm Raabe (click here for a review)), his characters always seem more like caricatures, like oddballs, rather than real, flesh-and-blood people. This is exacerbated by the fact that they are almost never referred to by their names. Instead, we know them largely through their nicknames. A deaf man is called Taubmann, i.e. “deaf man”, a fat boy who likes to pretend he’s sick and feverish is called Fieber, i.e. “fever”, a girl who looks like a stereotypical bimbo, soft-spoken and handed around by men like an object is called Opfer, i.e. victim. But, the dark undercurrent of the book is about identities and popular prejudice, as well as hierarchies of power, and Strittmatter is incredibly careful in his use of these crude (or seemingly crude) elements. His characters are never really defined as persons, they gain substance through their actions, and through a juxtaposition of different kinds of characters who might seem to share a common identity vis-à-vis socially accepted prejudice. The way he fleshes his characters out and lends them some definition, within a clearly defined and understood cultural framework, in order to outline their role, place in society as it is (while clearly critical of the static nature of this situation), is an interesting contrast to the Bildungsroman antecedents of Raabe Baikal.

The Bildungsroman is notorious for cementing the status quo. The most important and most famous novel of the genre, Goethe’s Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre, has always been criticized for supporting a bourgeois class, inimical to real art, blind to any kind of fringe, a club that does not accept any but those who are born into it. Even shortly after publication, the novel spawned a great amount of books and texts written to oppose Goethe’s ideas and writing, from Novalis’ only novel to Robert Walser’s aforementioned one. It is in this critical tradition that Strittmatter writes as well, but he makes more use of the basic tropes and structure of the genre than many of his predecessors; this novel displays a deep understanding of the inevitability of some structures, of dichotomies. He doesn’t turn a blind eye to these realities and the reason for that may be that he writes in the wake of Jean Genet’s stunning body of work. For all the books and references I mentioned, Genet is probably the most important and defining one. Strittmatter’s connection of themes like criminality, sexuality, especially homosexuality, of the obscurity of desire, cannot be read divested from Genet’s work, especially the prose. In Querelle de Brest, Genet writes “À l’idee de mer et de meurtre, s’ajoute naturellement l’idee d’amour ou de voluptés – et plutôt, d’amour contre nature.” This book is written at a turning point in his work, where the sexual openness of the debut changes into a brutal embracing of stereotypical depictions of deviant sexuality and associations of it with crime and violence. As Genet’s work increasingly reflects pressures and dominant social narratives, his language starts to pick up phrases and clichés, and his work, both novels and plays, grow increasingly darker.

This is one of the legacies that Raabe Baikal attempts to live up to. It’s crudeness represents the attempt to precisely render the dominant discourse without falling for it, without buying into it, or letting his readers buy into it. If the explanations above seem a bit confused, it’s because the novel is full of paradoxes, adopts paradox as an artistic principle, which makes it hard to say anything about the book that isn’t also wrong. This is an ambitious kind of writing, and Strittmatter isn’t, at this point in his life, quite ready to pull it off perfectly. There’s much that strikes an off note, much that seems a bit labored, and we the reader are, at times, exasperated with this young, pressing writer, so obsessed with death, desire and darkness. But the book is never less than entertaining and fascinating. If it falls short, it falls short of its own potential. It’s still a masterpiece, a very, very good book that you’d be a fool to miss. If you’re easily offended by frank literary depictions of boyish sexuality, shitting on the bed or murder of innocent animals and people, maybe you should give the book a pass. If not, don’t hesitate. And tell me what you thought of it.


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Wrong about Suicide

Jennifer Michael Hecht wrote a moving, passionate essay about her feelings after two of her poet friends, Sarah Hannah (Click here for a sample) and Rachel Wetzsteon (go here for info & a poem) killed themselves. It’s great to read, informative and moving. But, au fond, the fact remains that she is wrong about suicide. How wrong? Click here for the essay and take not especially of this excerpt:

In the West, in the past, the dominant religions told people suicide was against the rules, they must not do it, if they did they would be punished in the afterlife. People killed themselves anyway, of course, but the strict injunction must have helped keep a billion moments of anguish from turning into a bloodbath. These days we encourage people to stay alive and not kill themselves, but we say it for the person’s own sake. It’s illegal, sure, but no one actually insists that suicide is wrong.

I’m issuing a rule. You are not allowed to kill yourself. You are going to like this, stay with me. When a person kills himself, he does wrenching damage to the community. One of the best predictors of suicide is knowing a suicide. That means that every suicide is also a delayed homicide. You have to stay.

I’ll review a book (Jean Amery’s classic, trenchant, impassioned essay On Suicide: A Discourse on Voluntary Death) on the topic next month that touches on some of these issues. I’ll also review Hecht’s own study Doubt within the next months, a fascinating book I’m not completely sure I know how I feel about. Her home page is, she has a poetry blog dedicated to the Fonz here and a blog at Best American Poetry.

Chick Lit for Men

God. How’d I miss that? Earlier this month, Dick Francis died. He was 89 years old. In the Guardian, Alison Flood offers reminiscences of the great man’s work

I think I was about 12 when I started to get into them myself, and although I haven’t read one for years, Francis’s death yesterday reminded me just how much I used to love them. The thrill, the glamour, the sheer difference of the racing world to my own appealed immensely to me, as did the “lonely hero up against a host of more powerful enemies” theme which seemed to be part of them all. (…) I asked my father if he’d really enjoyed receiving a Francis every Christmas or if they were just grin-and-pretend-you-like-it presents, and he told me they were “always interesting, but a bit in one ear and out the other”. My mother, however, described them as “chick lit for men” and I think that’s a fair summing-up.

Übelst geil

Sebastian Hammelehle stellt bei Spon korrekt fest, was das erbärmlichste an der ganzen lächerlichen Axolotl Roadkill-Affaire ist

Bei Airen hat Hegemann vor allem die sexuell expliziten Stellen abgeschrieben. Einer der Dialoge aus “Axolotl Roadkill”, der, wie Hegemann nun einräumt, relativ wörtlich aus “Strobo” übernommen wurde, geht so: “Ich ficke nicht mehr.” – “Mann, Alter, ich bin übelst geil.” – “Aber warum denn nicht?” – “Ich will nicht.”

Bislang war man ja davon ausgegangen: Wer auch nur einmal auf einem deutschen Schulhof unterwegs war, hat derartige Sätze en masse abgespeichert. Helene Hegemann aber schrieb sie ab.

Adam Roberts: Yellow Blue Tibia

Roberts, Adam (2009), Yellow Blue Tibia, Gollancz
ISBN 978-0-575-08357-8

Here’s the deal. You will have to read Adam Roberts, unless Yellow Blue Tibia, his most recent novel, grossly misrepresents his oeuvre. There is just no way you can bypass this writer, who is so self-controlled, so sure of his capabilities and his craft, who is able to engage both the humorous and the darkly serious nature of his work. Yellow Blue Tibia may not be a masterpiece, but it is certainly an excellent novel and a truly dazzling display of skills. So far, he has ten novels under his belt, a few academic studies (including a regrettable one on Frederic Jameson, in the sense that any study on Jameson is regrettable), some parodies and a few shorter pieces. If any of them so much as approach the quality of Yellow Blue Tibia, you’re in for a treat. Read it. You don’t even have to like science fiction, because one of the remarkable things about the book is that it is as much a literary novel about science fiction as it is a science fiction novel proper. In this extraordinarily funny and smart book, Roberts managed to seize his genre, and put it through the wringer, spinning it around, examining it, without ever becoming too intellectual or too cerebral. It’s also a joy to read, a book that scoops up a lot of the canonical postmodern playfulness of the 1970s, but has, below this, the elegant, moving structure of a more traditional novel. What’s more, Roberts’ playfulness is always in the service of real concerns, real problems, and implies the possibilities of real actions. Adam Roberts is a very serious writer, who likes to use the word “ballsack” a lot. And he excels at both of these kinds of writing. Read this writer. You will not be disappointed.

The plot is hard to describe, mostly because it’s actually quite surprising. It’s not that you can’t see the final twist coming a mile off, but Yellow Blue Tibia, at the beginning, hedges its bets, shows you ways of continuing its tale, before stepping up to the plate and fully delivering its story. It starts off like this: in 1945, Iosif Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, i.e. Joseph Stalin, ruler of all the Russias, asks a group of well-known Soviet Science Fiction writers to convene in a cabin in the woods. They come by train, by mule cart, they are both giddy and elated to meet Stalin, and mortally afraid. Instead of sending them all to the Gulag, however, Stalin asks them to write a story. In what seems to be a very Wag the Dog-ish line of thought, Stalin has decided that the USSR needs an enemy to unite against. Now that the Germans have been beat, and that (in Stalin’s estimation), victory against the US is, at most, five years away, it is time to plan and come up with a new enemy after the US are conquered. And why not invent an enemy? This is what Stalin wants his science fiction writers to do: invent an enemy to rally the peoples of the USSR against, “an extraterrestrial menace. It will be the greatest Science Fiction story ever told! And we will write it collectively! It will inspire the whole of the Soviet Union – inspire the whole world!”. So, this is what they do. After long discussions and deliberations, they come up with a species of “radiation aliens”, and they even imagine some of their early attacks, such as a destroyed US spaceship, and a bomb launched against the Ukraine.

This section is very densely narrated and it contains a lot of the ideas and themes that the rest of Yellow Blue Tibia later pursues. We learn that these men are all tired, all afraid, but they’re all, additionally, Communists. In period novels such as Vassili Grossmann’s Life and Fate, we learn hat even those afraid to be murdered by Stalin’s henchmen, even those in camps and at the front, that there are many ardent Communists among them, because the idea of Communism is unharmed by the horrific political events in the 20th century, engineered by Lenin, Stalin, Mao and their vassals. So it is with the men in that cabin. Their visions, thought, and basic motivation are informed by Marxism even as their faith in the political reality of their country has long gone. These writers are beat, exhausted, they are all soldiers, and they’re tired of war. One of the writers grumbles that, if he were alive today, Tolstoy wouldn’t write “War and Peace but War and War. He would write War and War and More War”.The connection between fiction, and history, as well as individual fates is established in that first section; also, the truthfulness of journalistic nonfiction, as well as, very importantly, questions of authorship. But as soon as we start to enjoy the odd rhythms of that discussion, that creation of an original story, the meeting in the woods is stopped short. Stalin, without offering explanations, dissolves the project, and swears all the writers to silence. For some decades, nothing else, pertaining to these days in the cabin, happens, as the narrator explains. Until 1986, when the narrator is visited by ghosts of his past.

The narrator of Yellow Blue Tibia is called Konstantin Skvorecky, one of the Science Fiction writers from the cabin. Choosing that name was certainly not accidental: in part it appears to be a clear reference to Josef Škvorecký, the Czech writer, who, like Roberts’ creation Konstantin Skvorecky, is a translator from English to a Slav tongue, and Roberts’ use of detective fiction tropes and his use of some elements of the roman noir may also, albeit in a more subdued manner, tie in with Škvorecký’s Lieutenant Boruvka novels. One suspects that all the names in Roberts’ fine novel are fraught with allusions and references, more than one. Is it coincidence that another writer, Ivan/Jan Frenkel shares his surname with a renowned Soviet physicist? That one writer’s surname and the title of his main book are semantically related? These are just a few of the examples and ideas that will creep up on the reader, and that crowd the margins of my copy of the novel. This is part of the method (and success) of this book: it creates a text that is often suggestive of ideas, that implies tangents, and hints at propositions, rather than blathering at length about them. It’s a book, like the best literary novels, that keeps the reader thinking: not just whodunit, but about all kinds of things, more or less connected with the book’s subject matter. And as we make our way through the book, more and more suggestions and ideas accumulate, making us think, not about a specific topic or problem, but making us, in a broader sense, just think. And for every association and loose idea, there is also a theme threaded through the book, recurring in different guises, suggesting different conclusions each time.

One of these themes is the topic of authorship, and, ultimately, of truth, fiction and authorial intent. The book’s subtitle is Konstantin Skvorecky’s memoir of the alien invasion of 1986 but much of the book’s suspense revolves around the question whether the alien invasion is really taking place or not, and in answering (or not) that question, the book makes use of our belief and disbelief in authorizing genres and gestures. An appended fictional Wikipedia entry for Konstantin Skvorecky ties in these concerns with our reading of our own history and how we understand chronology and time-lines. In this, there is an odd connection of Yellow Blue Tibia to the mad work of writers like Anatoly Timofeevich Fomenko. But, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s return to 1986 and Konstantin Skvorecky’s troubles. After decades during which nothing happened that related to the events in the cabin, Skvorecky, a resigned old man, left by his wife, recovering alcoholic, who makes some money as a translator now, is suddenly swept away by a series of events that are all connected to the story he and his colleagues made up 41 years ago. People claim that the fiction has come true, that UFOs really exist and radiation aliens, as well, and that the January, 28, 1986 breakup and disintegration of the Challenger space shuttle was the attack prognosticated in the story. What ensues is a delightfully strange picaresque tale that borrows quite a few elements of the noir, mostly in its setup of situations with shadowy government agents who may or may not pursue their own agenda. In scene after scene we encounter wonderfully warm and colorful images, although some of the events that are recounted for us, are dark and brutal.

Generally speaking, Roberts manages to bridge the distance between a serious, even vicious, kind of story/background and a laugh-out-loud funny tale with great aplomb. Like all great satirists (cf. Tova Reich), he is able to approach a situation like an interrogation in the cellars of the KGB and lace them with a humor that is at times almost silly, as with an interrogator, who, off the record, enjoys threatening his interlocutors with castration, which leads to a dialog that had me wheezing with laughter. This does not take away or detract from the dark history that Roberts engages here. But Roberts wants more than just instigate sadness in his readers, he wants us to think, comprehend, and contextualize this mass movement with others in the 20th century. He does this not by lecturing us, by cloaking non-fictional propositions in the soft cloth of a novel. Instead, what is on display in Yellow Blue Tibia is a genuine interest in the ideas and concerns of the novel and its readers are invited to take part in the swirls and eddies of its thinking. This makes for a very rich reading that does not bludgeon the reader with a disquisition on, for example, mass culture, or mass movements; we are rather presented with different elements that we can connect if we want to and in what way we see fit, although the general theme and focus of the novel do limit us somewhat. That theme and focus is writing, specifically the writing of Science Fiction. We are presented with a handful of categorical statements of what science Fction is, or is not, of what it can do, and what it can’t. It is, again, not a coincidence, that we are reminded of a classic of SF here, L. Ron Hubbard’s Typewriter in the Sky.

L. Ron Hubbard, his dangerous religion and his mediocre writing have often been mentioned in these contexts and they are a great example for mass movements, because in the evolution of Scientology from Dianetics and Hubbard’s work as a writer of science fiction the interconnectedness of fiction and religion becomes most obvious and clear. Hubbard’s pseudoscience, first published in the leading SF weekly Astounding Science-Fiction under John W. Campbell, Jr.’s editorship, is one of Yellow Blue Tibia‘s most important references. Not only does the book feature two members of the Church of Scientology, but its discussion of aliens, its depiction of UFO obsession, and, finally, its overriding theme of how narratives shape our perceived reality share many links to Hubbard’s new religion. The suggestibility of human beings, especially those ‘schooled’ by authoritarian belief systems is repeatedly brought up, with links, perhaps, to Elias Canetti’s brilliant opus magnum Crowds and Power. Crowds, for Canetti, don’t need a leader, they need a direction. Fiction, for both Hubbard and Roberts, provides the possibility of shaping exactly that: a direction that crowds can use as orientation, orientation that is beyond doctrine. It gives direction not just to explicit thought, but to the essentials of perception. In this criticism, Yellow Blue Tibia allies itself with orthodox Marxist thought and its Ideologiekritik, but it exceeds these narrow boundaries as well. Although it is committed to its ideas, it is not settled or determinate. The whole story is pervaded by a thorough ambiguity, an irony, if you will, which does not undermine the ideas of the book, but is part and parcel of these very ideas.

In the end, despite its concern with crowds, it is, I think, in part a rejection of Mao II‘s dictum that the future belongs to crowds. Nonsense, the book says, the future belongs to human beings, but they have to think for themselves. It is crowds and their narratives that are limiting, forcing people onto their narrow paths of thought. In this, Yellow Blue Tibia tars religion and ideologies with the same brush, calling on its readers to emancipate ourselves from hierarchies and structures that are narratives, i.e. fiction (in what is clearly a work of fiction, a contradiction that the book seems very aware of). This is by no means even close to be new, but then Roberts does not employ the gesture of much science fiction that wants to be ‘mind-blowing’. Yellow Blue Tibia is a novel that is very conscious of its antecedents, philosophically and literary. There is Stirner, maybe, Wilhelm Reich, certainly, Golden Age science fiction, 1970s paranoid classics like the novels of Robert Anton Wilson and Philip K. Dick, and many many novels about 20th century’s totalitarian systems. The associative, broad nature of its references and allusions means that its connections extend to books that the author may not have read at all, like the trash of Maurice Dantec and Imre Kertész’ fine meta-novel A Kudarc. Yellow Blue Tibia is conscious of the libraries of books that preceded it and doesn’t even attempt to be full of new ideas. Instead, it opts, surprisingly, for something else. The structure of the book’s narrative, as its ending shows us, is incredibly traditional, and both moving and charming, and it’s Adam Roberts’ major achievement that he managed to ground the story and its ideas in a humane, personal narrative that suggests to us that its concerns are more than fun and games. They matter.

As does science fiction. Yes, the book constantly contrasts fact with fiction, showing how lines get blurred, creating an atmosphere, a sense of undecidability, but it’s not plain ‘fiction’. It’s science fiction. Adam Roberts wrote a paean not just to imagination proper but to science fiction especially. Science fiction is stronger than imagination: at one point, a character exclaims

I only mean – it’s science fiction! If your science-fictional imagination is broken, you can rebuild it with imaginary high technology! If your writer’s soul is amputated, then because we are talking of science fiction you can fit it with a robotic prosthesis. You can write again, write better, stronger, as a cyborg!

Good science fiction offers tools not just to understand history or the present but to change our perception. The ‘cyborg’ bit here is significant: technology does not just provide props (as furnishings in historical novels tend to be), it allows the writer to supplement the imagination. Science fiction does not need to pretend to work from within a fixed, limiting world, its hierarchies and priorities need not be the small, polar ones of what we perceive to be the necessary, inevitable limits. There is, I think, an openness to good science fiction that is more than seeing clearer. It’s not seeing clearer, which is implying an exploration of limits, it’s glimpsing possibilities beyond this table, that wall or that window, without indulging in sloppy metaphysics. Science fiction, dark or light, is a kind of dreamy materialism. Adam Roberts does not attempt to seriously engage these possibilities, instead he highlights the literary genre of science fiction, and its viability as a tool in world building. Science fiction, he says, is worth engaging with, worth writing and reading. As is Yellow Blue Tibia. Read it. You will not regret it.