Andy Weir: The Martian

Weir, Andy (2013), The Martian, Gollancz
ISBN 9781101905005

DSC_1911So I have become a bit of a science fiction fan in the past decade. I mean, I’ve always liked it, but it’s only fairly recently that I started reading more of it. My awakening, if we want to call it that, came when I first encountered the work of Samuel Delany, and so my early reading was more in the New Wave vein, plus contemporary weird science fiction. It took a while to read more broadly, but if you look at my reviews, it’s books by China Miéville, Adam Roberts plus that smelly thing you found behind your couch. It’s no accident that I haven’t read John Scalzi (who is fantastic) until this year. All this is to say that I’m a bit worried I might be a bit of a snob when it comes to science fiction. Not that I’m not willing to call trash what it is, but some books just make me apprehensive. The Martian is one such book. It was recommended on the internet as a ‘scientifically accurate’ book that would ‘make a great movie.’ All the comments on it stressed the accurate nature of its descriptions and the technical obsessiveness of its tale of a Martian Robinsonade. I evaded getting the book for months until I found it among my birthday presents. And as it turns out, I was both wrong and right. The Martian is damn, damn good. A book that I assumed to be movie fodder, it’s surprisingly clever in its structure, deft in its characterization and written in surprisingly effective prose. At the same time, for an exhaustively researched book that makes living on Mars, even just a few hundred days, believable and plausible in a way that even Kim Stanley Robinson hasn’t managed, I was profoundly struck by the novel’s utter lack of imagination and vision. The effectiveness of the prose style is achieved through a kind of sleight of hand – Weir has his protagonist write a diary, in the style that’s current among Internet denizens today. The voice of his protagonist is clear and recognizable – because we know that person. Many of his early readers are, in fact, that kind of person, a white male narcissist. Which, to be fair, is the central character in many Robinsonades. Weir, however, stops there. He makes no use of the form, displays no real sense of the traditions he works in and squanders the potential of both genres he works in, science fiction and the Robinsonade. And yet, despite all this, do I recommend the book? Of course I do. Ultimately, it’s a big bag of fun and you’ll remember all its good parts for a long time. A vivid, exciting read. And smart.

DSC_1914It’s more clever than it is actually intelligent, though. We don’t get the sense that Weir has thought about his form beyond coming up with a fun idea and working out the practical details. A comparison with a similar science fiction novel, Arthur C. Clarke’s A Fall of Moondust shows us both the strengths and weaknesses of his approach. The Martian is much more immediate, and its world unfolds in a much more palpable and believable fashion for the reader. At the same time, Weir’s secondary characters are all cardboard cutout caricatures. Not having seen the movie, I assume that losing the voice of the man stranded on Mars, Mark Watney, and getting more (quite literally) fleshed out versions of the other characters, the overall depth and verisimilitude of the story’s characters is more balanced. Weir’s big sticking point is the science, and he applies it well to create -and sustain- excitement. He is quite excellent at adding new elements to his world, new bits of knowledge, just at the right time to catch falling arcs of suspense and create new ones. Much like classic 19th century works of fiction, this book was written in small installments and you can tell by its structure. A Fall of Moondust is just as technical (although probably not as plausible today as it was then), and just as exciting, but instead of consisting mainly of one character’s ramblings, it’s an ensemble piece, with a large section of moon-inhabiting humanity involved in the accident and the eventual rescue. I’m not totally spoiling the book because, much like The Martian, it’s a story that is predicated on the excitement of following along. There is no abyss of unknowability, no postmodern darkness here. In my Scalzi review I mentioned the push by reactionaries for a more obviously and directly enjoyable science fiction and The Martian is really it. It might seem that Clarke’s book is an obvious predecessor – but that’s only superficially true. If you read Clarke’s work you know he doesn’t shy away from the difficult questions – so why is this such a straightforward book? I always assumed that Clarke was aware of the genre he was working in and its traditions, the Robinson Crusoe line of writing, and instead of making the easy choice of just transposing the situation onto a different, more spherical, kind of island, he leaned on something that was actually rather common in old fashioned science fiction, contra Puppies, the idea of looking at a future society.

DSC_1918Make no mistake, Clarke doesn’t offer us any kind of grand vision of the future either, but there is a broader sense of community, of where he thought society might go in the time allotted between his time and the time he assumed we’d be living in lunar colonies. Unless I missed a major element (in which place, please comment), there’s really no obvious reason -apart from the actual technology- that The Martian couldn’t happen next year. Drop us the necessary technology under the Christmas tree (please?) and this story could happen in January. There’s no inherent reason why this has to be on Mars or in the future. My complaint here is similar to what bothered me about Charles Stross’ mediocre look at the near future, except it’s a bit more frustrating and that’s because while Stross draws on contemporary traditions that have limited potential as is, and he lacks the punch/interest to push them beyond what they are, Andy Weir is working in a line of writing that has, almost from the moment of its inception, produced interesting and exciting literature. Having man isolated from others, or a selection of humanity separated from the rest, this motif has led to some of the most memorable and powerful books. The ur-text of the genre, Daniel Defoe’s novel, is already much more complicated than you’d think. Defoe already has his stranded man tied into some important questions of his day. The question of owning another human being, selling them, how it ties into wealth and colonial narratives are, unexpectedly for anyone who hasn’t read the book, raised. Crusoe is sold himself into slavery, escapes with the help of a black boy, and then, deliberately declines selling the boy into slavery (but gives in and hands him over for a three year period of enforced labor) because “he had assisted me so faithfully in procuring my own [liberty].” Just a short time later, he is convinced to embark on an expedition to buy and trade “negroes” for rich plantation owners. It is this trip that puts Crusoe on that island. After his escape, he returns to his “colony” which in his absence has become plentiful and Crusoe, almost by accident, has become a rich man. Intentionally or not, Defoe offers us a discourse on freedom, and on the way colonialism was built on the self-interest of the English despite knowing full well its harmful effects. Books afterwards kept adding to the debate. Frequently, they used the situation between Crusoe and Friday to illuminate power dynamics. Michel Tournier’s book is probably the most accomplished take on that. The Martian completely rejects this tradition, and declines absolutely to offer any sort of commentary or context. We even get odd, borderline racist, but definitely contemporary (for us) pieces of slang. Multiple times, a rough construction is described as “ghetto” by the white, definitely not “ghetto” protagonist of the book. If any thinking has gone into his book concerning contexts and futurism, it’s that the near future is just as terrible in terms of racial construction as the present. Harsh pessimism, if so, Mr. Weir.

DSC_1913But there’s more. The central conceit of Defoe’s book is (along the line of many books of his time) that the story is the journal of a real person and the book merely “a just history of facts.” The diary/journal has been enduring as one of the most interesting literary genres. Some takes on Crusoe’s story, like Coetzee’s masterful novel Foe, have examined the epistemological situation. What’s truth in narrative? The diary as a whole is interesting, as it is splayed wide between authenticity and artificiality. A few decades ago, in an essay that still holds up marvelously, Felicity Nussbaum painted a picture of the diary as a pre-modern attempt at constructing a public self. That explains why women, whose writing had been relegated to the margins for a long time, used the diaries to gain purchase for autobiographical narratives. One of the interesting aspects of the way The Martian uses journals as the primary way to record the story is that these diaries are half way between journals and letters. They are written with the express purpose of being preserved for people to find in case Mark Watney’s goose is cooked and his life on Mars ends ignominiously. This method would explain why so much of this diary is a performance. Stranded alone – one thinks of William Golding’s Pincher Martin as a particularly brutal variety – does not bring out the sadness, isolation, alienation of brutality one might expect or fear. In fact, Watney, isolated for hundreds of days, is as upbeat on his last day as he is on his first. This could be due to the performance aspect of the journals-turned-letters, a way, say, of putting up a facade for those coming after him. But there’s no undercutting of this attitude in the later scenes of the book where we see him interact with other people and we are privy to their points of view. In all the research that Andy Weir has undertaken to make his book realistic and interesting – one wonders how much of it was spent looking at anthropology, sociology and psychology. I do agree, as I said elsewhere, that bleak writing has become a tired and tiring cliché in and of itself, but the buzzing happiness in the pages of The Martian can be a bit grating.

This is a book that, carefully, intentionally, thoroughly, has NOTHING to say about people, the future, emotions, society – anything, really, that doesn’t involve the growing of potatoes on a wasteland planet. What it does express is a sense of social isolation of a certain class of citizen and writer today that exceeds the blindness of slave trader Crusoe. Crusoe was aware of how terrible it is to lose one’s freedom when he embarked on his slave trading mission. Defoe wrote this into Robinson Crusoe. Like many Europeans during colonialism, he just didn’t consider the treatment of black people a moral imperative that was more important than developing and growing wealth. Mark Watney – and by extension, Andy Weir – don’t even have that level of reflection. And yet – it’s such an expertly written book. The prose is never great, but always at least serviceable. The book is captivating and fun, and for a week after finishing it, I walked about town, partly living on Mars in my head. The Martian could have been more – but it’s a sign of the times that it is not. And what it is, is quite a lot.

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Charles Stross: Halting State

Stross, Charles (2008), Halting State, Penguin
ISBN 978-0-441-01607-5

These past years, I have recommended Philip K. Dick’s impressive novel Ubik to a number of serious readers of literature interested in Dick and/or Science Fiction literature in general. It’s the perfect introduction to Dick’s work, because it’s both straightforward and pleasantly odd. But there’s more. Several readers have written back to me to complain about how little sense the book supposedly made, how Dick made gross errors in narrative logic etc. This is more than the usual philistine hurry to blame the author for one’s own careless reading. I ‘d suggest that it points to something that is quite typical of the genre of Science Fiction. Dick isn’t the only writer who’s used to infusing a narrative that seems straightforward enough with a dose of the odd or strange. There’s something angular, uncomfortable about many good books of the genre, a sort of basic difficulty, almost independent of the literary skills of the writer in question. Science Fiction demands, like no other genre, that its readers take each book on its own terms. It’s always dangerous to interpret difference as erroneous writing, but with regard to SF, this assumption is more likely to be incorrect. There is no other genre I know of that constantly mixes the tools of experimental fiction with the storytelling of an action movie to produce all kinds of inventive yet readable results. Given the prolificacy of many prominent SF novelists, it’s also astonishing that a great deal of them are greatly attentive not just to matters of literary structure and the like, but also pay extraordinarily close attention to the words they use, to the way they connect to the ideas put forth in the novel. Form is always connected to content in SF, and more often than not, it’s germane to any significant understanding of the book in question. All this means that any work of SF is likely to be less encumbered by conventional expectations of narrative logic, and it’s why Science Fiction is such a worthwhile genre to read. Even so-so works like Tobias S. Buckell’s Ragamuffin contain a daunting intellectual structure; apparent mistakes in narrative logic (as the aforementioned readers thought to find in Ubik) are usually more than that. They are part of a sophisticated, passionate, elaborate literary undertaking that has languished for far too long on the grubby shelves of ‘genre literature’ while the Franzens, Austers and Mitchells of this world reaped critical success and broad public appreciation. This tension between quality and lack of critical success has, on the other hand, led to a tradition in SF that tried to make the genre palatable, relatable, clean, acceptable, slowly draining the genre of everything that made it as powerful as it was. Charles Stross’ 2007 novel Halting State represents a kind of end point for this development. It would be silly and facetious to compare it to accomplished works of science fiction. In fact, the author it most resembles is not strictly speaking a SF writer, it’s Michael Crichton.*

Make no mistake, Halting State is a very good read, a real page turner of a novel; it’s both efficiently written and smartly constructed. Charles Stross is clearly a highly competent novelist, and Halting State is a well-nigh flawlessly executed thriller: in it, Stross displays an uncanny knack for timing, for example. Characters, plot elements, surprises and moments of shock and breathless action are released at just the right moment, a skill that should not be underrated. The book’s sleek efficiency is also visible in the way the characters are fleshed out in just the right amount. There is enough depth to care about the things that happen to Stross’ characters, worry about them, and cheer them on when they fall in love or have an arduous fight to endure, yet not so much as to make readers stumble over potential ambiguities and complexities. To sum up: if you like thrillers and/or Michael Crichton’s work, you’ll love Stross. Another similarity with Crichton’s post-Sphere work is the gentle way that Stross introduces his futuristic technology. Halting State is set in the near future and its technologies are rather similar to ours; the same is true for the kind of social and political structure we encounter. The changes are so slight, so carefully wrought, that they allow any reader to catch up with the author and quickly relate to the events without having to think or re-contextualize. The contexts stay, broadly speaking, the same; additionally, Stross presents a near future with completely believable and utterly dull developments. Nothing is surprising in any way, every single technology in the book is rooted in something that we already use and, in some cases, he uses ‘new’ technology that is already in development. One of the fundamental conceits of Halting State, about the interconnection of private entertainment and the grander world of global espionage, is so banal and unsurprising that it’s been taken up in various guises in pop culture, most recently in an episode of Nathan Fillion’s comedy-drama TV show Castle. Well, I have to admit: this is not necessarily a bad thing. Indeed, what it means is that Stross has utterly professionalized his genre. He has moved away from visions and conceptual difficulties into the realm of professional thriller writers whose books are based on easy emotive access and, ultimately, fear. A fear of that which is still somewhat alien to us, a term which usually means foreigners and technology, i.e. things and people we can’t really understand. That’s why easy relatability is so important – only in a sequence of knowns can the unknown stick out as it does in the work of Crichton. This kind of discourse is of course buttressed by a defense or acceptance of the status quo, of things as they are, of ruling hierarchies and exploitative mechanisms. That this sort of thing, hitherto mainly typical of thrillers, crops up in SF as much as it does these days is sad, but true. Stross is only one of many examples: Cory Doctorow (cf. my review of Little Brother) is another, though less problematic one.

Thus, with a cleaned up language, efficient plot and relatable discussions of future technologies, only one potential stumbling block for readers remains, and it’s one of the few concessions Stross makes towards his genre: he toys a bit with pronouns. The book has three distinct protagonists, each of whom narrates their own chapter. However, the book does not use the first or third person singular, but the second person singular. This trick, which has no further consequences for the way the story is told, does not extend to difficulties of speech and perception, barely engages questions of identity or anything else. Stross could have removed this from the manuscript by copy & paste without damaging the rest of the text except in negligible ways. It’s a nod to his genre, no more than that. Since the novel is concerned with virtual realities, and the ways that our world interacts with the virtual, the use of the second person singular allows Stross to mirror virtual relationships as well as relations that we engage in in dealing with one another (and us ourselves) through online media. As as I mentioned before, using form in order to reflect on content is a commonly used tool in science fiction prose and this appears to be Stross’ main difference to Crichton et al. In most other ways, he follows the mainstream thriller guidelines almost exactly. The similarities to Crichton in particular are both general structural similarities, as well as more specific resemblances. Among the closer ties is an eery similarity to Crichton’s famously racist 1992 novel Rising Sun, which painted the ascendancy of the Japanese economy as a threat to Americans in several garish colors. The apprehension towards dominant Japanese companies had already produced books like Tom Peters’ fun but ridiculous In Search for Excellence (1982), but for Crichton, exalting American values or Americans in general was not enough. His novel contains murderous Japanese businessmen, scheming Japanese officials and two Americans caught in the middle of an intricate intercultural intrigue. Something somewhat similar happens in Halting State. A robbery and a murder have been committed and a police officer, an insurance investigator and a software geek are trying to get to the bottom of an affair that keeps getting more and more complicated. As in Rising Sun, inquiries are quelled or at least hampered by political interference, by executives’ and politicians’ schemes and manipulations. In Stross’ 2007 novel, the Japanese are no longer the bad guys as they were in Crichton’s and other novels of the late 1980s and early 1990s, it’s (as can be expected) Chinese hackers on the payroll of the evil Chinese government that are the enemy now. Actual people of Chinese descent barely make an appearance in the book, but that’s largely unimportant, since, as any racist will be able to tell you, it’s not the specific individual that attracts their rage, it’s the general idea of the foreign culture/race. ‘They’ are different, and ‘they’ are a threat. That’s the name of the game Charles Stross is more than happy to play.

Like Crichton, Stross leaves, of course, ample room for a denunciation of corporate greed. For both writers, this is an important element, because readers are just as likely to reject executives as grossly incompetent, stupid or gluttonous, as they are to reject foreigners as scheming, lazy or destructive, and both writers are engaged in an attempt to build an alliance with their readers built on shared prejudice. Stross even does Crichton one better. Unless I misremember, there is nothing in Crichton’s post-Sphere work that corresponds to what I like to call Stross’ trinity of identification. Stross’ three protagonists are Elaine Barnaby, a woman, who is drawn in a mildly clichéd but not aggressively sexist way, a smart and quirky closet geek. There is Jack Reed, the software engineer, who is the most knowledgeable of the three, constantly explaining facts about the technological background, a nerd who likes to drink, is shy around women, and incredibly smart. The third narrator and protagonist is Sue Smith, a police officer, and representative of a whole strain of elements that crop up all over the book. Thing is, Halting State, a book about the global world of hackers, espionage and online gaming, is rooted in a weird sort of patriotism tinged with localism. It’s set in Edinburgh, and reflects its Scottish background in multiple ways. For starters, there’s Sue, who speaks/writes a mild sort of Scots-inflected English, which stands out among the verbal offerings of the other characters. It is Sue’s point of view that foregrounds most a contrast between locals and foreigners, because in Halting State, only Scottish citizens are truly locals, and Jack and Elaine, the two English geeks, are always slightly out of place. The book crawls with comments about how little the streets and facades of Edinburgh have changed; this is accompanied by comments about the specific/unique relationship that this Scottish metropolis has with the modern world outside. In a way, Stross reproduces the larger discursive concerns that power books like Crichton’s and includes a miniature model of them, localized in terms of references and language. And it’s all so incredibly well made! Halting State is a stunningly crafted thriller, but a mediocre, fifth rate work of science fiction. If the genre did not also contain writers like Gwyneth Jones, China Miéville, Adam Roberts or Vernor Vinge (who, by the way, praises Halting State), I might be worried. There is much to admire in this book, and compared to other, let’s say, thrillers, it would stand out. In its own genre, however, it’s its deficiencies that stand out starkly. If you want a quick, good read by a writer with a good grasp of current technology and excellent command of a certain kind of narrative, this book is highly recommended. If you want something more, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

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*A lot of Crichton’s books can of course be categorized as science fiction, among them probably Sphere or Jurassic Park (incl. sequels). I’d argue, and in a way that is what I’m doing in this review, that Crichton’s main influence and the genre he mainly belongs to is the thriller genre. He may use a SF tool now and then, but they are just props. Crichton’s intentions and visions are those of a mainstream thriller writer, and his approach is the same in Jurassic Park, Next, Rising Sun or any other of his best known works. Finally this: what I take to be the core of the Science Fiction genre I laid out in my first paragraph. It’s a different kind of approach to seeing the world. Iris Murdoch wrote in The Book and the Brotherhood about Marxism: “The only good Marxist is a mad Marxist. It’s not enough to be a revisionist, you’ve got to be a bit mad too – to be able to see the present world, to imagine the magnitude of what’s happening.” I think this madness is necessary for good science fiction, as well, this imagination of possibilities and impossibilities. This is true for space operas, hard sf, cyberpunk, steampunk or the straight madness of Dick’s later novels. The best test for good SF is this: if you take away the odd objects, and the unfamiliar settings, are the texts in front of you still different from mainstream fiction? In my review’s first paragraph I suggest they should be, and any of the authors I mentioned appraisingly in this review have produced works for which that is indeed the case. It is not true for Halting State which is powered by the same visionary black hole that brought forth Michael Crichton’s works. A reader on a literature forum suggested that part of the book were a straight yet awkward pastiche of Ian Rankin‘s books. I would not be surprised to find that to be the case, although I haven’t been able to sample Mr. Rankin’s work yet.

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.

Marcel Theroux: Far North

Theroux, Marcel (2009), Far North, Faber and Faber
ISBN 978-0-571-23777-7

Had Marcel Theroux’ latest novel not made the shortlist of the National Book Award, I doubt I would have looked twice at the book, which seemed to me rather unremarkable, a book in the vein of Cormac McCarthy’s decent The Road and Sarah Hall’s The Carhullan Army (recently recommended by a friend), to name just two of the many post-apocalyptic books published this decade. It’s not that the book is horrible, it’s not. It’s dull, but as a whole decent enough not to throw into the garbage right away although it’s sure as hell not a good book. Its saving grace is not the actual writing or storytelling but its protagonist. Makepeace, who is the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is a fascinating character, and, what’s more, a very well drawn one, whom the reader gladly follows across the rickety bridge that is the novel’s construction and writing. It’s a surprise, really, that, after putting this book down with almost a sigh of relief, I felt a vague but definite yearning for another story featuring the jolly heroine of Theroux’ mediocre novel.

By calling her a ‘heroine’ I have given away a ‘surprise’ that Theroux reveals some twenty pages into the story. As we enter the book, we encounter a lonesome figure, patrolling an empty town. The first sentence of the novel ably conveys the atmosphere of that part of the book: “Every day I buckle on my guns and go out to patrol this dingy city.” That sentence could well belong to a western, but the story is set ‘Far North’, in the vast emptiness of the Siberian tundra. It’s also set in the future, in a world after natural catastrophes have destroyed civilization as we know it. The explanation how the catastrophes came about is, let’s say: interesting.

The planet had heated up. They turned off smokestacks and stopped flying. Some, like my [Makepeace’s] parents, altered the way they lived. Factories were shut down […] As it turned out, the smoke from all the furnaces had been working like a sunshade, keeping the world a few degrees cooler than it would have been otherwise. He said that in trying to do the right thing, we had sawed off the branch we were sitting on. The droughts and storms that came in the years after put in motion all the things that followed.

Theroux, however, isn’t a scientist (although, in 2004, he did present a TV show on climate change on Channel 4) and Far North isn’t a scientific essay on the topic of impending ecological doom. In fact, the ecology of the story, the science, takes a back seat, almost as much as in The Road, where we have no idea what happened, we’re just confronted with the brute facts of post-apocalyptic reality and how to deal with it. In contrast to The Road, Theroux does express an interest in history, both the general history, for example, of the US, and the particular history of Makepeace’s family and people in her time frame.

All this history is so important in the novel because of its overriding interest in Makepeace’s character. Makepeace is an odd character, who dresses like a man and behaves like one. Due to a disfiguring accident she suffered as a girl, she can also quite easily pass for a man, without actually aiming to deceive. This is because she dresses in the most practical fashion possible and that kind of dress is usually, in our time, as in Makepeace’s, read as masculine. Theroux toys with our expectations a bit at the onset of the story, letting us buy into the idea of this tough male frontiersman who, in the opening pages, shoots a thief for making away with some books. During the rest of the book, the revelation accorded to us, the readers, is likewise accorded to several groups or individuals in the novel who find out what or who that man is who can prowl the woods and hunt caribou with the best of them. He could have revealed Makepeace’s sex at the end of the book, but he didn’t, and some of the reasons for his decision go a long way towards explaining why Far North is such a weak book. One of the reason sis that Theroux is a weak writer.

Not just a weak writer in the sense of a mediocre writer. He is weak in the sense that, instead of working through his ideas and assumptions, instead of engaging more fully his concepts and the world he built, frequently opts for easy, weak solutions. The ecological science might be one of them. Another is the world. People, places and objects flit in and out of focus, without anything that is really endowed with depth. Apart from Makepeace, all characters are caricatures, cardboard cutouts, like the Bad Priest, the Evil Corporate Boss, and a few characters which are even tinged with racism. There is The Muslim, but most importantly, the indigenous peoples of the area, whom Theroux called the Tungus people. These days, these people are called the Evenks, the ‘tungus’ moniker gained currency when the Russians conquered and colonized Siberia, but apparently, it will be popular again in the future (here’s an interesting factsheet about the okrug where most of them live). Theroux places them, and this is what’s problematic, as a group, clearly racially defined, into the ideational structure of the book where they represent the opposite of civilization, an Other of sorts, living in a natural state devoid of ‘civilized’ morality, but also devoid of hypocrisy.

Here, as in other places, Theroux holds back, not ready to doff the overcoat he’s brought with him, spread on the floor for the reader to inspect. The Tungus people are not better or superior to civilized people, they’re just not as bad, and regret drips from Far North‘s pages where Theroux extols their practical morality. The book, in the end, ends up with the image of someone cuddling up in a nest of books while the world outside is slowly reclaimed by nature. Books are good and nature, while not bad, is, in more than one sense of the word, outside, as are the Tungus people. Sex and gender are subject to a very similar kind of indecision. On the one hand, Theroux’ heroine flaunts traditional gender roles, she shoots from the hip, rides horses, can catch and corral several caribou at once and is generally badass. She wears men’s clothing, doesn’t care much for so-called feminine wiles and never expresses an interest in make-up or jewelry. Diamonds are not, in fact, her best friends, but the bullets that she herself casts are. A writer herself, she is thus also shown to be at the beginning of a new tradition, with the whole of Far North the self-narrated manuscript she leaves to posterity, thus usurping a role traditionally accorded to men. But, to see it this way is to dismiss the reason why she behaves as she does. It’s the absence of men.

Granted, Makepeace can better all the men she meets, but it’s still their absence that has her fill in for them. And as for looks and the maintenance of them, men, again, have fouled up her looks which has set her on the masculinized path that we then, in the opening pages of the book find her on. And this is not enough. Additionally, Theroux surrounds her narrative with images of birth and rebirth, in such an emphatic manner that I was under the impression that he strained to smooth out any irritation caused by the first passages. Look, she’s a woman after all, he appears to say. Although I did find another, far more subtle reference I thought I saw in the ties of Theroux’ book to Canadian literature. Nothing in his biography or in explicit references supports this, but hear me out. On the one hand, his construction of the landscape is in keeping with a lot of well-known clichés about the north, which have been particular well explored with respect to the Canadian north. In her 2001 study on the topic, Sherrill E. Grace ends an enumeration of typical elements (a disconcerting number of which turn up in Far North) with the sarkastic exclamation: “and…Voila! A northern novel!”

But Grace mentions another novel about the north, Margaret Atwood’s haunting Surfacing, which is also an appropriate reference here, in a more positive way. Atwood’s novel of contacts with nature and awakenings, replete with images of birth and rebirth, too, might be an antetype, conscious or not, to Theroux handling of issues of sex and gender. His cliché idea of female experience. however, demonstrates how sorely, in this, too, his book is lacking. He mentions an idea but doesn’t really follow through with it. This is what I called weakness and holding back. Tentatively, Theroux shows us what you can do in such a radically altered social landscape, the possibilities in such a narrative, but he quickly smooths things over. The impulses I just described culminate in the last fifth of the book, where he tacks on an impossibly saccharine, contrived and far-fetched ending that would not be jarring in any of the hundreds of telenovelas that crowd daytime television in most countries, and that is a fitting conclusion for a messy book that consists of odd pieces and ideas, some of whom work and some don’t. Makepeace, the protagonist, is one of those that work. She’s such a good character that she can almost make the book work and cohere all on her own.

Almost, I said. Of the other ideas, so many are lame or dull that I caught myself pitying Makepeace as I watch her being shoved through Theroux’ story, in effect running the gauntlet. The most interesting of Theroux ideas is his use of early American history. These are not hidden references: after the aforementioned catastrophe, American Quaker families and similarly minded communities move to the Far North, to start anew, to establish communities in the wilderness, on a different continent. Their fate in general and a cartoonish but surprisingly effective depiction of a particularly pious settlement (Makepeace’s encounter with this community really sets the story in motion) will remind any student of American history of the reports and stories that tell us about that time. No-one who’s read sermons from the time of the Great Awakening can be deaf to the echoes of that rhetoric in the sermons and speeches of Far North‘s Christian preachers and believers. It is, of course, part of Theroux’ essentially conservative tropes of rebirth that keep cropping up in the novel, but as a motif, and an idea it is remarkable, and solitary in the novel in that it is complete and satisfying. Using frontiersmen and puritan-like communities appears to me to be quite a common motif, almost de rigeur, in SF, but I have rarely come across a rendition of that particular theme as interesting as this.

An equally well known but infinitely less well wrought motif is that of the ‘Zone’. In the novel we will encounter prisoner camps, with men used as working slaves and other men employed to scout out ‘the Zone’, a huge abandoned city that was used by the Russians, before the catastrophe, as a scientific and intellectual center. Now, however, no-one is alive or reachable who knows its secrets but maps have survived, and rumors of dangers and treasures hidden in it. Not gold, but odd and inexplicable objects created by a science that the scavengers roaming the city can neither understand nor really make use of. The nature of some of the objects recalls Clarke’s famous bonmot (actually I think it’s one of his three rules) that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. If that reminds you of the Strugatzki brothers’ classic science fiction novel Roadside Picnic, or the movie or even the video game that has been made of it, it reminded me, too, and not in a good way. Again, Theroux is content with spreading this coat, too, on the floor, not really committed to wearing it. Theroux dips in and out of the theme, suggesting loads of interesting ideas but following up on few of them. There is a strong undercurrent that is concerned with myth and modernity, and the Zone is part of that, but, as far as its execution is concerned, it’s sketchy at best.

I’ve left the writing for last. Far North is written in what seems to me to be an American idiom or, alternatively, a simple English based upon the American variety of English (I may well be wrong, since Theroux lives and works in London and has barely any connections to the US, according to his wiki). However, although it needs to be stated that Theroux enjoys making Makepeace say trite and trivial aphoristic sentences far too much, the writing is solid throughout the book. The contrast to a book like Paul Auster’s most recent novel Invisible, which is similarly built with a great deal of grandstanding remarks, but written less well, shines a favorable light on that aspect of Theroux’ book, although, by itself, the writing’s not actually good. The simple language and even the flat aphoristic sentences are even put to good use in characterizing the simple mindset and education of Makepeace. As a reader I may have wished for more, for at least an attempt to use language in an interesting way, but you take what you get and with the slim pickings that the book otherwise provides, I’m fine with the writing. But, with all the coats tried on and spread on the floor for inspection, the novel feels quite bare. Not naked in any sensual or interesting sense, more like a mannequin robbed of its clothes. The face may charm you, but the body, in a bland color, with screws and joints visible, is a turn-off at best. Much to Theroux’ credit, the basic idea, the scenario, is a winner, it’s, as Grace would have said, a case of “and…voilà! a postapocalyptic novel!” and while his world-building is perfunctory and cliché-ridden, Theroux is competent enough not to ruin this solid foundation altogether. Far North‘s certainly no recommendation but it won’t make you chop off your own hand either in an attempt to forget the book. It’s really ok.

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