Our further transportation took the form of three mule carts. Adam Kaganovich, giddy (I suppose) with the fear and the excitement, pretended to take offence at this. "Carts! Donkeys! You cannot expect us to put up with such rusticity, comrades! Comrades, remember that we are science fiction writers!"
"That you are science fiction writers," said the Lieutenant in charge of us, "is precisely why Comrade Stalin wishes to see you."
The fifth entry in my Arthur C Clarke Award reading takes us to Soviet Russia, with Adam Roberts' funny and perfectly formed satire Yellow Blue Tibia. It has attracted quite a bit of favourable attention since its release (Niall collects numerous links here), most notoriously from Roberts' fellow Clarke shortlistee Kim Stanley Robinson, who declared last year that Yellow Blue Tibia should have won the Booker Prize (Robinson's original article is here, for anyone who has a subscription to New Scientist). On the minus side, Catherynne Valente recently excoriated Roberts for some distinctly cavalier errors of fact and tone in the book.
She also hated the fact that the title is a pun (on which more below). But, then, if you don't like puns you're onto a bit of a loser with Adam Roberts, as pretty much anyone who's ever met the man - or, egads, seen his Twitter stream - will attest. (The puntastic title of this post also comes from the book; it made me laugh, and seemed appropriate.) Yet even for this most irreverent of author-critics, Yellow Blue Tibia displays a real relish for silliness. On a shortlist well-endowed with books that are deeply interested in the writing and taxonomy of genre fiction, in the process of fictionalising - I'm thinking particularly here of The City & the City and Galileo's Dream - Yellow Blue Tibia stands out for a meta commentary that is both playful and insightful. Neither Miéville nor Robinson, after all, have nearly as much fun with farce.
The story begins in the late 1940s, with a group of science fiction writers travelling to a deserted dacha, in response to a mysterious summons from Stalin. Watched closely by guards, they crack tense jokes, make nervous observations (one notes that "the sunrise resembled a frozen explosion: clouds strewn about the sky like shreds of raw meat") and try not to speculate on what their fate is to be. Stalin greets them in expansive mood - at which their anxiety abates not at all - and informs them that they are to remain at the dacha until such time as they have created a politically useful science fiction: "an extraterrestrial menace" to "inspire" the people to greater efforts in support of Communism:
"I have learnt many things in my time," said Stalin. "And there is one thing I have learned above all. Nothing is so efficacious in advancing the cause of universal Communism as struggle. When the people have an enemy against which to unite, they are capable of superb heroics. When they lack such an enemy they become slack, they fall prey to revolutionary elements, and generally backslide. The Great Patriotic War has surely taught us this above all! We all remember the thirties - do we not?"
We murmured in agreement. Each of us, I am sure, trying hard to make our murmurs as non-specific as a murmur might be. Remember the thirties? The difficulty was not remembering the thirties. The difficult was ever being able to forget the thirties.
After some debate about whether Soviet Russia could ever be at war with space-faring aliens - any race that journeys among the stars, they reason, must be a socialist one, or else how would they be capable of the collective effort required? - they duly dream up an outlandish alien invasion plot, egging each other on to ever more spectacular episodes. An American rocket destroyed; "some portion of the Ukraine" blown up. "Writers, you see," Roberts has his narrator Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky say, in the first of several observations about the writing of science fiction,
daily inflict the most dreadful suffering upon the characters they create, and science fiction writers are worse than any other sort in this respect. A realist writer may break his protagonist's leg, or kill his fiancée; but a science fiction writer will immolate whole planets, and whilst doing so he will be more concerned with the placement of commas than with the screams of the dying.
It is a game to them. Then, without warning, the project is wound up, and the writers - sworn to secrecy - are returned to their lives. After almost forty years of silence, an apparently chance encounter with Frenkel, one of his fellow veterans of the dacha, leads Skvorecky to wonder whether what they wrote might be starting to come true. It's a brilliant premise, and Roberts explores it through what is in retrospect the only right way: by dragging his hero - the sort of narrator who describes bright sunshine on a bitterly cold day as "sarcastic" - through a series of unfortunate events and running jokes, each more farcical than the last. Toegther with a dash of scientific romance - whence the title, a pun based on an English-speaking character's mangled pronunciation of the Russian phrase for "I love you".
Much of the farce, alas, depends on cumulative effect and so is rather tricky to show in action; my particular favourite was the sequence where Skvorecky is interrogated by a local policeman who prefers to turn the tape recorder off when making his increasingly elaborate threats, then back on for serious questions (you can see, I imagine, where that one ends up, but it's still funny). While I don't doubt that Yellow Blue Tibia has much more to do with comedic stereotypes of Russia than with actual Russia - which, as Valente points out, raises issues of cultural appropriation - these scenes of petty officials' absurdity escalating into the outright surreal did put me in mind of some of Gogol's short stories, in terms of both tone and tools.
At various times, he has two sidekicks: American love interest Dora and OCD taxi driver and nuclear physicist Saltykov. While Dora is a charming character - a kindly soul with a "melodious and rather attractive" laugh, who bonds with Skvorecky over stargazing and (naturally) the joy of the imagination - she gets rather less to do, existing solely in relation to our narrator. I also share some of Valente's misgivings about the repeated references to Dora's considerable weight. While the crueller jokes at her expense are undoubtedly more of a reflection upon the limitations of those who make them - the narrator, immediately enchanted by her smile, not among them - than on Dora herself, it does get wearing, and the plot point that relies on Dora surviving a stabbing because of her layers of fat is a step too far. Saltykov comes off rather better; the humour at his expense - his many foibles include a pathological unwillingness to run red lights, even with the KGB in hot pursuit - is gentler (and intended to be funny), and there is more of a sense that he has a life that goes on when Skvorecky isn't around, even if it probably consists mostly of locking and unlocking his car door the correct number of times.
"Walls have ears," Saltykov said brightly. "Or is it: walls are ears? I forget. The latter would imply that we are inside a gigantic ear. Either way it would be foolish of me to blurt out a name like Project Stalin, or to mention the impending alien attack upon Chernobyl." He stopped. A troubled look passed over his face. "I have," he said, "said more than I meant."
But whether he is unexpectedly onstage in front of a bunch of UFO true believers, captured by the KGB, or recuperating from an accidental lobotomy, Skvorecky is the central figure: the plucky (and lucky) little man against the system, underestimated by the many forces in pursuit of him. At every turn he talks satiric circles around his dimmer, more powerful persecutors, managing to annoy the crap out of them just enough to break their concentration so he can slip out of their clutches:
"One thing I hate in this world and you are fucking it. You are an ironist."
"Fundamentally, you take nothing seriously. You believe it is all a game. It was the same in your novels; they were never serious. They had no heart."
And here the meta is, as Niall argues, more personal: this isn't just about the writing of science fiction, it's about the writing of Adam Roberts' science fiction. Because on the evidence of Yellow Blue Tibia, it's not that Roberts doesn't care - nor, I think, is he out to use humour (or science fiction) purely as a literary game, as vehicles for making 'serious' points. Rather, he and his not-so-alter ego alike are hugely invested in the silly, the arch, the wildly made-up for their own sakes - in the exuberant imaginative enterprise of fiction as fiction. Or, as Skvorecky puts it, as he finds himself ever further down the rabbit hole:
Let us say that science fiction is a kind of conceptual disorientation of the familiar. Of course if that were true, you'd think I'd be more comfortable with the sensation.
Not entirely surprisingly, Skvorecky gets beaten up quite a bit along the way. (It's tempting to suggest that this stands for negative reviews...) But the more he unravels what is going on, the more Roberts draws in the ways that dreams shape the world, often quite out of proportion to their literal reality. Forever looming over this, of course, is Communism, the "dream of a whole people" that the bad guys are so anxious to prevent people waking up from, even after it has been so comprehensively betrayed by barbaric repression; a collective reaching after utopia that changed the world.
This being science fiction, Roberts can play with the very concept of literal reality, and show us imagination altering it as part of the plot. Dora has the ability to change perceptions and collapse possibilities into reality - although, rather irritatingly, she appears to exercise this skill entirely unwittingly. Skvorecky's ever more implausible survivals are accompanied, perhaps, by the death of selves in alternative timelines. And whether or not the aliens are real, and whether or not the writers created them, is a question bubbling throughout the latter half of the novel. Science fiction: making the world:
"We were just writers."
"Not realities, though. Only fictions. Science fictions."
"What you have to do," said the creature that I knew as Nikolai Nikolaivitch Asterinov, "is consider the total spread of realitylines. That what you need to think of as reality is the whole spread. Reality is a matter of probabilities. Likelihoods, and possibilities. That's the idiom of fiction. That's what we artists are good at doing. What were we doing? We were laying a line about which actual realities, coral-like, could grow."
Or, as the meme would have it: In Soviet Russia, sf writes you!