Roberts, Adam (2009), Yellow Blue Tibia, Gollancz
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.