Monday, June 15, 2009

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

A piece on Adam Roberts' book Yellow Blue Tibia.

"What do you think, Richard? Have the reviewers written useful things about this book?"

"Not that I've seen. Even Clute seemed to go through the ostensible plot, put in a few graceful adjectives--"

"Don't be so quick to say that you know about what you don't. "

"Not that again, John. OK, if we're going to talk about this, let's assume that anyone reading this knows what the book is about, doesn't care about being 'spoiled', doesn't need a plot summary..."

"All right."

"What struck me, right from the start -- you remember the scene where one of the Soviet SF writers is explaining to another that he's plagiarized all his work from Western European or American SF?"


"One of the titles of his plagiarized works was The Grasshopper Lies Heavy."

"OK, that's amusing. I'd guess that most SF readers would recognize that as the name of the book within a book in PKD's The Man in the High Castle. But so what?"

"So what? At first I thought, funny, so the writer within the book plagiarized PKD and used one of his titles. But he can't have, because the conversation happens when Stalin was alive and PKD didn't publish that until 1962. So the writer can't have copied PKD."

"So it's a little joke by Adam Roberts to the reader."

"No! This is a book in which one of the characters later refers to the page count by which he met one of the other characters. It's steeped in ... in ... casual metatextuality. What's the point of it?"

"I don't know, but I think you're going to tell me. Does it have to have a point?"

"Yes! It's a book about fiction, about fiction creating reality, and it's chock-full of references to famous postmodern books. Later on, there's a cop interview scene, and many reviewers wrote appreciatively about the humor in how the cop keeps turning his tape recorder on during the times when it should be off and vice versa. It's funny, sure. But he introduces himself with 'My name is Zembla'!"

"Hmm. Pale Fire was also published in 1962. But this conversation was taking place in 1986. You'd think the protagonist might have recognized the name of the cop as being something from a famous literary work."

"Maybe Soviet censorship kept it out of Russia. Maybe he didn't read anything since he gave up writing. But yeah, there's a bit too much of that; it risks making the characters look too provincial, as if they don't know about the wide world of literature, yet aren't shown as having countervailing knowledge of their own writing that's really worth knowing."

"Can you get back to the point?"

"All right. Look, I read the book while I had a fever of 101 degrees F."

"Perhaps not the best time --"

"Yeah, yeah. So I missed a lot, I'm sure. But I"m pretty sure that Gravity's Rainbow popped up in a reference to ghost rockets, there was probably something from Borges -- or there should have been -- and there were low-culture references too, in that high/low culture blend that's one of the other postmodern signatures. The male Scientologist character is a safety inspector for nuclear power plants. In other words, he has Homer Simpson's job."

"Overreading a bit, maybe."

"There's an argument a lot like the Monty Python 'How to have an argument' sketch. But all right. The two main drivers of the action are the protagonist and the other surviving one of the original group of SF writers, who has become a KGB agent. The KGB agent keeps coming back to the protagonist and insisting on having this pointless discussion with him about whether the protagonist believes in UFOs. And the protagonist -- despite being called, derisively, an ironist who doesn't believe in anything -- keeps coming back, obsessively, in little bits towards the beginning of chapters, to the idea of binary valuation. That there either are UFOs, or there aren't. And he's pretty clearly skeptical about UFOs."

"So if the KGB guy wants to actually convince him, why not show him convincing evidence?"

"I don't know. Maybe he doesn't want to -- or maybe he can't produce it. The KGB guy is a brutal killer and defender of the fading Communist regime who turns out to be right about everything, by the way. The UFOs turn out to really exist, within the book -- as far as we can trust unreliable narration. But they work by using multiple quantum realities, so binary thinking is inappropriate, so, I guess the KGB guy is right there too. And they seem to be malign, so he's justified in trying to warn and mobilize the world about them, you'd think, even if he thinks that would also work to prop up the regime."

"Justified in causing the deaths of thousands due to Chernobyl?"

"Well, let's not go down that path, either. But here's the problem of the book. The UFO believers are all more or less kooks. The Americans involved are Scientologists, and Scientologists have a special relationship to this subject. There we have a religion created by an SF writer whose most famous supposed quote is 'You don't get rich writing science fiction. If you want to get rich, you start a religion.'"

"Who knows whether he really said it?"

"Yes, who knows? It can be blurred -- everything can be blurred. Have you heard of right-wing postmodernism?"

"Oh, not this again."

"Come on, one more time. At the historical time and place in which I'm writing this -- U.S.A., 2009 -- we've just emerged from the Bush years, a time of unbridled right-wing postmodernism. One of the core elements of those years were that it didn't matter whether anything was true as long as people believed it to be true. Their belief created reality. And -- here is the particularly right-wing part -- since people in power controlled belief through mass media, people in power thought that they controlled reality."

"We saw how well that worked."

"Yes. You go along nicely until you slam into a wall."

"So what does that have to do with Yellow Blue Tibia?"

"It makes it -- difficult, I think -- to read the book for its strengths, for me, at this place, at this time. Perhaps this is an English/American difference? Look, this is a very good book in many ways. The excellent, wry dialogue, for instance, that I've clumsily copied the form but not the feel or the style of. The characterization. The initial conceit. But its ending -- love is what's important, uncertainty doesn't really have to be resolved -- just feels wrong for this time."

"But uncertainty of that sort is a tool of the aliens, who are depicted as malign."

"I guess so. But the people against them are so hopelessly doomed by history on the Soviet side, or representative of what I see as a bad part of American culture -- the disbelievers in whatever they don't want to believe, whether that's consensus history about Waco or UFOs or 9/11 or global warming or the Holocaust --"

"Hey! Godwin!"

"I guess it works if you talk to yourself long enough, too."

"Hmm. But aren't there hints the aliens are really supporting the KGB guy with their technology? He takes a fall of four stories, lands on his head, and lives, though with brain damage. Isn't that really only possible if they saved his life in the same way that they saved the protagonist's from being shot? That would mean that the aliens want there to be people against them who are unsympathetic, perhaps so that people won't believe them."

"Maybe so. I don't know. Or maybe it's some kind of reference to "major character protection" -- the way the main villain in a fiction can't ever just die. But let me get back to the thread, if anyone is still following it. Look, this is a good book. But it's the wrong book for me, right now. I suspect that what I need -- what SF needs, if I'm going to generalize my preferences -- is something like what the younger Iain Banks wrote (and hey, may write again). Something from China Mieville in a more confident mood about whether he can depict society after the revolution. Something that overreaches, because the author believes. Where they make all the appropriate writerly gestures towards there maybe being two sides to the story, or more, but in the end you know there really isn't."

"Isn't that a rather childish desire? Getting back to the grandiose, triumphialist SF that Roberts identifies with Stalin (and see The Iron Dream, etc.)?"

"It depends what it's in service of. A sort of leftist humanism? I don't see how that really goes along with genocide... of course, some might differ. But basically, I think that *literary* postmodernism took a big hit from the Bush years, at least in the U.S. Those references start to seem as dated as the Soviet culture in the book. SF, now, has to reawaken to post-post-modernism. Maybe that's what the book means."

"And you missed it because of your fever? You've gone on a really long time nevertheless."

"Oh well. What do you have to say about the book?"

"That it's an amusing book that people should read."

"That's it?"

"And it's also kind of funny that Jodi Dean, someone who parenthetically used to take a generally opposing view on literary-theoretical matters from those on The Valve, a site that Adam Roberts writes on, wrote a book about exactly this subject. Her book was called Aliens in America and it examined belief in UFOs from a postmodern viewpoint without (as far as I know) taking a position on whether the belief was really 'true' or not. Adam Roberts doesn't show any sign of knowledge of the existence of this book within Yellow Blue Tibia, so it's probably a coincidence."

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