Tag: Arthur C. Clarke Award

Kim Stanley Robinson, Galileo’s Dream (2009)

This may turn out to be less of a review of a book than a ‘working-through’ of one, because I’m well aware that I haven’t grasped everything that Galileo’s Dream is trying to do, and so can’t appreciate it as much as I would have liked. But I’d like to set down my thoughts all the same.

It would be quite easy, I think, to describe this novel in a way that sounds like a bad movie pitch: Galileo receives visitors from the future, who take him back (forward!) to their time in an attempt to stave off a threat to humanity itself! All of this is accurate, but makes the book sound gimmicky; it’s to Robinson’s great credit that Galileo’s Dream has far more gravitas than that.

Two narratives combine: one a fictionalised account of Galileo’s life and career (beginning with his work on the telescope), which is here punctuated by visits from a stranger who nudges Galileo’s researches along, and later transports him forward 1,400 years, where humanity has colonised Jupiter’s moons and is debating how best to approach an alien intelligence it has found there. Galileo, the stranger thinks, could help sway the different factions towards his preferred solution – but his motives run even deeper than that.

These two settings mesh together somewhat awkwardly, partly because the future society is depicted rather more vaguely; and partly because of a clash of styles – the 31st-century sections are generally more novelistic, whilst those set in the 17th century are typically written more in the manner of a historical biography. That said, all these choices are justified – Gailieo’s visits to the future are episodic in nature (during those times, he appears in Italy to have fainted, so those visits are also dreams of a sort to him); and Galileo’s Dream is framed as a particular kind of text, which accounts for its different modes of telling – and the combination does work well enough to be convincing.

Galileo’s Dream is a long, detailed novel; and some of its passages drag on too long (though it could be that I feel this because I didn’t know all that much about Galileo’s life). But there are also brilliant moments, and some of the best are also among the most dense with information. Robinson brings vividly to life the sheer amount of painstaking work that would have been involved (and that, I’m sure, still is involved) in scientific experimentation; the character traits that could go with it (Galileo is portrayed as well-meaning but difficult to get along with, and as not paying attention to the political landscape, which ultimately proves his undoing); but also the wonder of creating knowledge.

Another aspect of Galileo’s Dream is that (as I read it) Robinson seeks to reflect the novel’s scientific concepts in the narrative itself. So, for example, Galileo learns that changing the past could change the future; and then, each time he visits Rome, he feels that it’s a different place each time, because the political climate keeps changing. For me, the best example of this comes after Galileo is told of the myriad possible time streams that exist and that all pasts, presents and futures are tangled together; in a beautifully written passage, he then returns to his time and wonders what’s the point of doing anything.

I think this last area was where I missed out the most – I sense there’s quite a lot on which I didn’t pick up – and, since it’s so central, that naturally affects how much I took from Galileo’s Dream. I don’t think it’s an entirely successful work, but I am glad to have read it – it was my first Kim Stanley Robinson novel, and I intend to read more.

This book has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here.

Fantasy and Crime Fiction: The Cases of China Miéville and John Grant

(NOTE: As I once discovered after leaving a post on an old message board, China Miéville used to work with someone called David Hebblethwaite. For the record, I am not that person, and have no other connection to Miéville; John Grant, however, has been a friend for the best part of ten years. None of this, I trust, has had any bearing on what follows.) 

The City & the City by China Miéville (2009)
The City in These Pages by John Grant (2008)

Here are two fantasy-inflected police procedurals, or perhaps two crime-flavoured fantasies, or perhaps both. The two texts offer interesting approaches to mixing crime fiction and fantasy, yet in some ways they are polar opposites.


mieville First, to China Miéville’s new novel, The City & the City. (I’ve been reading discussions on this book by Niall Harrison, Dan Hartland, and Adam Roberts; I’ll be referring to them a few times in this post.) Two things you can almost guarantee of a China Miéville novel are that it will have an urban setting, and that it will play games (albeit probably with serious intent) with genre. And here, indeed, we get both: our setting is somewhere in the region where Europe and Asia meet, in the fictional cities of Besźel and Ul Qoma, which are unique in that they overlap in physical reality.

(Technically, this is a spoiler, but I reveal it because it makes the book more interesting, and because Miéville reveals it himself forty or fifty pages in. Actually, it’s possible to work out what we’re dealing with before then, because the very first chapter mentions an area called a ‘crosshatch’. Now, ‘crosshatch’ was coined as a critical term in the Clute/Grant Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997); it means a region where different realities intersect — and, in this novel, crosshatches are the points where the realities of Ul Qoma and Besźel become intertwined. Like Jeff VanderMeer in the comments on Niall Harrison’s post, I’m not sure why Miéville feels the need to employ misdirection over this: if you know what a crosshatch is in a fantasy context, there’s no mystery; and if you don’t, the first-person narrator is happy to spill the beans soon enough, so why does he pussyfoot around to begin with?)

Anyway, the cities overlap, and it’s possible to sense both of them at once. It’s not wise to do so, however, because if you cross the border illegally (and there’s only one place to cross legally), you will have committed ‘breach’, and the mysterious forces of ‘Breach’ (more distinctively different names would have been nice) will take you away and… well, nobody knows, but you won’t come back. So people in both cities try their best to ‘unsee’ the other place.

(Another aside, but I found this ‘unseeing’ business rather wearying. It’s very tempting to read it as a metaphor for the way we ‘unsee’ people in our own lives — indeed, the instinctive ‘pull’ towards this metaphorical reading is as strong as any I’ve felt in a long time — but I don’t think it holds up to close examination. To generalise, the people we may choose to  ‘unsee’ tend to be [so we believe] worse off than ourselves; but the default ‘other’ in The City & the City is Ul Qoma, which is better off than Besźel. And actually, we don’t really ‘unsee’ people in the same sense; we ignore them, we might even pretend that they don’t exist — but that’s very different from actively trying not to perceive something, as happens in Besźel and Ul Qoma.

(My point here is that I’m left unsure whether I’m supposed to take this metaphorical reading seriously, and there are problems either way. If I am, the metaphor doesn’t work; if I’m not, it’s intrusive. Miéville is surely too canny a writer not to know that this reading is possible, but why make it so noticeable if it doesn’t work? Unless he’s making a point about metaphors themselves, in which case, I wish he’d found a less annoying way to make it.)

Back to the story: our narrator is Tyador Borlú, a Besź detective investigating the murder of a young woman who turns out to be an Mahalia Geary, an American archaeology student, working on a dig in Ul Qoma that was looking at artefacts of the mysterious Precursor civilisation that existed before the two cities became conjoined (whether Besźel and Ul Qoma were originally two cities that fused, or one that split apart, is unknown). Mahalia, it transpires, believed in the existence of Orciny, the third city rumoured to exist in the interstices of the other two, and thought by most to be superstition. She also seems to have made enemies amongst the myriad extremist political factions of the cities. Borlú’s investigation takes him not only to Ul Qoma, but on a journey of discovery to the very heart of his reality… but you’d expect nothing less, would you?

Some negatives: Miéville’s prose and characterisation seem… not so much lacking as unsatisfying; these may be consequences of the story he has chosen to write. There are, of course, moments of very effective writing (on the contrast between the office and the crime scene: ‘Black tea and bread and paperwork, the boredom and striplights, all so much not like the peeling back of that wet-heavy, cumbersome mattress, in the yard, in the dark’), but on the whole, the prose seemed so restrained that the individual cities didn’t come to life in my mind. There’s much more spark when Miéville is writing action and describing the intersection of realities; maybe it’s that the investigation format restricts the author’s opportunities to write those kinds of passages.

In terms of characterisation, Tyador Borlú’s voice comes through as a voice, while nevertheless exhibiting Miéville’s signature style. But Borlú and colleagues feel somewhat flat; they don’t seem to have much personality (though this may be because the narrative is so focused on the investigation that we don’t get chance to see the characters ‘in the round’), nor are they distinctive enough individually.

Be that as it may, the real interest of The City & the City lies elsewhere. Between them, Harrison, Hartland, and Roberts raise two related issues (at least, to my mind they’re related) that get at the heart of what I think is most interesting about this novel. These issues are how far it is possible to accept the fantasy notions as existing in the real world; and how well the modes of fantasy and crime fiction work together. And most interesting about the novel for me is what I think Miéville is trying to do with the fantasy: to take something fantastic, and make it part of reality — and not just in the sense of ‘what would it be like if..?’, but in a truly fundamental, formal sense.

Niall Harrison and Dan Hartland both have problems ‘believing’ in the overlapping cities, or at least in the cities’ existing in our world. I was trying to pin down exactly what they meant, when I realised there was an unspoken assumption in their discussion: it seems to me that they assume the conjoined cities are a product of shared delusion, that Besźel and Ul Qoma are one city, and that the ‘boundaries’ between them are just in people’s minds (so are all place boundaries, technically, but I trust the distinction I’m making is clear).

Now, it never entered my head — and still doesn’t — to think that the situation in the book is anything other than as literally described; I assumed, and still assume, that Besźel and Ul Qoma are two places whose realities are intertwined; their inhabitants don’t have to ‘believe’ in the relationship between the cities, because that is how things are. So, from that point of view, I have no trouble accepting Miéville’s basic reality, because he imagines it solidly enough.

Why do I assume all this is ‘real’ and not delusion? Because of the words Miéville uses: ‘crosshatch’ is the clearest suggestion that we’re dealing with physical realities here, but there are subtler hints. The author makes other critical terms into everyday words (I spotted ‘alterity’ and ‘equipoise’, to name two); people talk about ‘invoking’ Breach, as though it’s not clear to them whether that agency is supernatural or not, or whether that makes any difference. This all seems to me an attempt to deliberately blur the lines between the fantastic and the mimetic, at the level of the text itself; and in that respect, I think it works very well indeed.

(This is not to imply that I have no problems with Miéville’s reality-building; I do have trouble accepting his characters’ response to their reality. I can’t believe people would have the discipline to keep ‘unseeing’ things for hundreds of years; the sheer effort would surely be too great, not to mention that it’s impracticable (you have to be able to dodge out of the way of traffic from either city, for one thing). I also can’t believe that the rules of Breach, shown as they are to be absurd and morally reprehensible (Breach will come down on you like a tonne of bricks if you accidentally stray across the boundary, but will leave the most heinous crime untouched if it didn’t involve actual breach), could have lasted for so long without protest. Perhaps this is Miéville’s comment on people’s unthinking adherence to unjust rules; if so, it’s too exaggerated to have real impact.)

Then there’s the issue of crime versus fantasy, and whether there need be a ‘versus’ at all. Roberts in particular argues that the two modes don’t really work together in The City & the City; and I agree with him — but I also think the novel depends on that being so. I’d agree that the fantasy keeps the pages turning more than does the mystery (certainly I was gripped the most when I was reading about the fantastic elements); but the two are bound together as tightly as the cities themselves. The mystery element plays into and, to an extent, subverts our expectations of the fantasy — and, ultimately, eats away at the fantasy until all that’s left is a core.

The City & the City works well enough as a detection: it has the requisite plot twists, and the denouement is as satisfying in its unmasking of the villain — but that’s all. The fantasy element is by far the most interesting part of Miéville’s novel; and his stripping away of the fantasy to bring the crime story to the fore means the book loses some of that interest. It’s a case of a book which is fine at what it does, but still makes one wish it was doing something else instead.


grant John Grant is another writer who’s not afraid to push the buttons of genre to see what happens (and, by coincidence, he was one of the editors of the very same encyclopedia in which the critical term ‘crosshatch’ was coined); that quality is richly displayed in his novella The City in These Pages. As its title suggests, this is an homage to Ed McBain’s ’87th Precinct’ novels — though it soon becomes rather more than that. The basic story is that the boys of New Amsterdam’s 14th Precinct have a serial killer on their hands; they dub him the ‘Humor Guy’ because of the darkly comic nature of his modus operandi (the first sees a local crime boss found inside a giant condom, for example). The killings grow more and more incredible, until the Humor Guy turns himself in, claiming that the world itself is not as it seems…

I’ve read only two Ed McBain novels, but all the same, I recognise enough of the similarities Grant’s novella shares. There’s no need to be familiar with McBain’s work, though. For one thing, the style of prose Grant uses here is a joy to read; rapid-fire, with tongue nicely in cheek (‘[the cops] watched in close-up the stationary back of a truck belching pollution at them. It was in town to deliver farm-fresh organic produce for the health benefit of everyone whose lungs it was corroding’), I’d say it’s more successful than Miéville’s style, in its different way. Characterisation is broad-brush, and sometimes feels awkward (one of the cops occasionally ponders some Big Questions, which proves necessary for later in the story, but still jars a bit with the way the rest of his character is presented), but they’re still engaging, thanks to Grant’s humour.

The crime story is… not really a crime story at all (there is a ‘crime’, in a sense, but it’s not the one you think it is). Certainly it’s not a detection as such, because the protagonists don’t undertake a proper detective process — the Humor Guy calls all the shots. In short, the crime story isn’t the point. What is the point is the fantasy, and here Grant excels. I’ve read quite a lot of his fiction and, enjoyable though I often find it, I sometimes feel that, if I know where he’s coming from, I might be able to see some of where he’s going. Not in this case.

The City in These Pages swings from humorous police procedural to grand cosmic speculation — as I kind of expected it would. But, just when you think you’ve got it pinned down, it wriggles free of your grasp and does something else. Even now, having read it, I can’t decide on a definitive interpretation of what happens. The novella offers many ideas to fire the imagination, of which I’m prepared to reveal one: you know all those brief period of life that you can’t recall in detail — boring journeys to work, and so on? What if those periods of time ‘escaped’ and someone else could live in them? Grant’s skill in juggling ideas like this, and all the other elements of his story, makes for a remarkable novella


Let’s conclude by asking once more: do fantasy and crime fiction work well together? Based on these texts, in one sense the answer is ‘no’, because neither is comfortable with being both genres at the same time: Miéville sacrifices fantasy to tell his crime story; Grant uses crime fiction as a springboard into his fantasy story. On the other hand, the friction between fantasy and crime has produced a couple of fascinating works here, even if those works aren’t entirely successful. Maybe a little antagonism between genres isn’t such a bad thing after all.

The City & the City has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here.

Clarke Award Winner

Well, I only got through two-and-a-bit of the Clarke Award shortlist, which is far from what I intended, but life intervened. Anyway, the winner has been announced, and (gleaned from Torque Control), the 2009 Arthur C. Clarke Award goes to… Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod.

As it happens, this was one of the books I did blog about; you can read what I thought about it over here. I liked it, though I felt it had enough flaws that it didn’t really strike me as ‘award-winning’. Nevertheless, I am pleased to see it win — particularly because a small press book (in this case, one from PS Publishing) has won such a high-profile award (though I must admit, I don’t really follow awards, and this may happen more often than I think it does).

Anyway, the night belongs to Ian MacLeod, so congratulations to him and all concerned!

Clarke Award: Martin Martin’s on the Other Side by Mark Wernham (2008)

I’ve had to make a decision: what to do if I find one of the Clarke nominees unbearable. Do I carry on to the end (I have undertaken to read and blog about these books, after all) or not? I’ve decided not, as I got through 70 pages of Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, and really couldn’t face the other 230. If that invalidates the whole process, so be it — but I will explain myself.

I didn’t get far enough in to gain a full understanding of the plot, but this is what I can gather. Perhaps a hundred years hence, our ‘hero,’ Jensen Interceptor, is a consumer researcher for the government (such research now being an official undertaking, as the authorities issue personalised money-off vouchers). He’s is sent to interview a man named Reg, whose answers suggest he is not toeing the line sufficiently. This leads to Jensen being recruited as a spy to investigate Reg, whom, it transpires, is involved with a group called the Martin Martinists.

That’s about where I got up to, but I gather that Martin Martin was a TV psychic from the early 21st century, who (his cultists believe) really was psychic, and whose death (again, so they believe) derailed the progress of society. There’s some stuff about Martin Martin seeming to come back from the dead, or something like that (apologies for the vagueness, but I would have to have read further to be able to be more specific).

Why, then, did I feel the need to abandon this book? Could it be because of a narrative voice like this:

What you’re about to read is all tru. The incomplete truth is tru, innit? Geddit? Ha ha ha.

I’d quote more, but it’s annoying me already. Actually, it’s not because of this, not entirely; though Jensen’s voice is certainly difficult to tolerate (and I wasn’t overly keen either on Mark Wernham’s narrative voice in the prologue, which seems to rely too heavily on long lists of details). But the whole point is that we’re supposed to find Jensen and his world repugnant.

I think the real trouble is that the author doesn’t make it worthwhile persevering. Wernham labours some of his points into the ground through repetition, and I didn’t find his satire all that great. True, some is quite subtle (such as Jensen’s concern for his score on the entrance exams for his new job, rather than for how much he learns); but I found other ideas unconvincing — for example, people in this future are born with a ‘Life Debt’, and receive payments for that instead of a monthly salary. It’s an amusing idea, but I can’t see that it would ever work in practice, and that lessens its impact for me.

I hear there may be a kernel of a good book within Martin Martin’s on the Other Side, but I’m in no hurry to find out for myself.

Clarke Award: Song of Time by Ian R. MacLeod (2008)


Ian MacLeod‘s Song of Time begins as Roushana Maitland, an aged concert violinist, finds an angelically beautiful young man washed up on the shore near her Cornish home. He has no memory of himself or his past, so Roushana calls him Adam, which becomes, in effect, his real name. She tells the young man stories from her life — memories of her childhood in Birmingham, of travelling to India with her mother to aid the victims of nuclear fallout, of her musical career in Paris. But there’s another point to these recollections (which alternate with present-tense passages depicting Roushana and Adam in Cornwall): Roushana is dying, but has a chance to preserve herself by ‘uploading’ her memories to a crystal implanted in her brain, which will enable her to enter a virtual ‘afterlife’ (wherein she will still be able to interact with the world, albeit non-corporeally). And, of course, Adam has a secret — but so does Roushana.

My journey through Song of Time was a strange one. For the first third, I found the book very moving; I was feeling the emotions while bypassing the words, which doesn’t happen very often. But the remainder of the novel was much less affecting — apart, that is, from the final pages. Much of that opening third details Roushana’s early life, when she was merely a good musician, overshadowed by her brilliant brother Leo. But Leo had contracted ‘white plague’, an engineered virus that caused multiple food intolerances, and did not have long to live. It’s this early part, laced with tragedy, where I found MacLeod’s writing to be particularly evocative and poignant. For example:

‘All I remember is being summoned from lessons at school just before lunch, and finding Mum sitting waitinf for me on the sofa in the head teacher’s office, her face white and entirely blank. The head seemed embarrassed, and mumbled that it was probably better if she left us both alone.’

So what happens to the emotional impact later on? What changes? In a way, nothing — what happens is that, as the story moves on, something comes to the foreground that had been niggling me from early on. It gives rise to my main problem with Song of Time: that I don’t buy into the future presented by the book. Throughout, the prose style is quiet and reflective; this is appropriate, given the nature of the story, but has the effect of ‘muffling’ the futuristic changes. So, when Roushana describes the more extreme weather of her childhood, we don’t feel that weather — it feels as though life carries on pretty much as it does now, however much the author suggests that it does not. And the Paris of her adult years does not feel as turbulent as the text says it is. Even Roushana’s Cornwall, in the closing years of the current century. has a timeless quality about it; only the sequences set in India don’t feel so distant.

But my credulity was most tested with the eruption in the novel of the Yellowstone supervolcano. I may be mistaken, but my understanding is that such an event would be disastrous for human civilisations the world over. Yet even the impact of this eruption, as depicted in the novel, did not feel as great to me as I thought it should. I had a hard time believing that the world of Roushana’s old age could emerge from that cataclysm, because in many ways it doesn’t feel all that different from our present.

The title Song of Time refers to part of a generative symphony that Roushana performs; music is one of the novel’s key themes, though I can’t really say much more about it — I don’t know enough about music to be able to judge what MacLeod does with the subject. But the book has another important theme, and that’s memory. ‘Memories are what you are,’ says the book, near the beginning. In the case of the dead, with their newly virtual existence, that’s literally true; in the case of Adam — well, he has no memories, so who is he?

And Roushana? Although the connection is never made explicitly in the novel, a life composed of memories could be seen as a ‘song of time’, one that can be changed and re-interpreted each time it’s rehearsed. Perhaps, in the end, Roushana is whatever she wants to remember — or be remembered as.

I may have given the impression here that I dislike Song of Time more than I actually do. It’s flawed, no doubt — but at its best, it is beautifully written and moving  (and, though I haven’t touched on this, the characters never rang false even though the world didn’t entirely convince me). In short, the good parts are very good indeed; I just wish there were more of them.

Clarke Award: House of Suns by Alastair Reynolds (2008)

My first encounter with the novels of Alastair Reynolds (I’ll be saying that a lot in the course of these Clarke Award posts, as I haven’t read any novels by four of the other authors on the shortlist, and the sixth author I read such a long time ago that I don’t really remember my opinion of the book), and… well, for a start, he certainly doesn’t lack vision.

House of Suns is set not just in the far future, but in the far future of a far future (as it were) where humans have colonised the galaxy. In addition to myriad planet-dwelling sub-species (some of whom are barely recognisable as human), there are the star-faring Lines, each comprising a thousand clones (or ‘shatterlings’) of individuals who, six million years previously, set out to explore the further reaches of space (they have remained alive so long thanks to various forms of hibernation).

We follow the shatterlings of Abigail Gentian, and two in particular: Campion and Purslane, who broke one of the taboos of Gentian Line by falling in love. They’re late for the Line’s current reunion (at which individuals’ recorded memory ‘strands’ will be shared) when they receive a distress call telling them to turn and flee, for the reunion world has been ambushed, and most of Gentian Line destroyed. Accompanied by Hesperus, one of the sentient Machine People as their companion, Purslane and Campion meet up with the survivors; but they’ll discover that a dark secret lies behind the ambush; and their understanding of the universe — and themselves — is about to change.

The novel is told in the first person, with Campion and Purslane narrating alternate chapters; there is also a recurring plot strand dealing with the early life of Abigail Gentian (which could be narrated by either clone, as all Abigail’s shatterlings have memories of her life). The latter does not seem to add much to the story, beyond setting the scene and introducing some apparatus that will reappear at the end; but, since these sections are quite short, it didn’t really bother me. More problematic is that Purslane’s and Campion’s narrative voices can’t be told apart, which weakens the characterisation and makes it hard to keep track of whose chapter is whose (I suppose this could be explained by the two characters’ being versions of the same person, but it doesn’t excuse the difficulty).

Although it’s disappointing that, in effect, the novel has one narrative voice, that voice is not unengaging. I particularly liked some of Reynolds’ imagery, such as this example from near the beginning: ‘…an outrageous confection of a planet: a striped marshmallow giant with a necklace of sugary rings, combed and braided by the resonant forces of a dozen glazed and candied moons’.

But it’s not the prose that’s the star attraction of House of Suns — it’s the constant flood of imagination. Reynolds’ remarkably busy universe includes not only the exotic humans and the machine intelligences, but also such phenomena as the Vigilance, a vast living library, and the Spirit of the Air, a cloud-shaped higher intelligence who was once a man (both of these latter are beautifully described). Ideas and revelations come thick and fast, the pace builds as the end approaches — and, despite the occasional sense of things being pulled out of a hat (as if to say, ‘ta-dah!’), the author controls it all very well.

However, this approach is not without its problems. In particular, Reynolds’ story raises serious questions about issues like torture and guilt; but I’m not sure that these are explored in all the depth they should have been — indeed, I’m not sure there’s time for Reynolds to do so, given the structure he uses: the plot gets in the way to an extent. But, all in all, House of Suns is a very enjoyable piece of space opera, and surely not the last Alastair Reynolds novel I’ll be reading.

Arthur C. Clarke Award 2009 shortlist

The shortlist for the 2009 Arthur C.Clarke Award (given to a science fiction novel published in the UK during the previous year) has been announced:

Ian R. MacLeod, Song of Time

Paul McAuley, The Quiet War

Alastair Reynolds, House of Suns

Neal Stephenson, Anathem

Sheri S. Tepper, The Margarets

Mark Wernham, Martin Martin’s on the Other Side

I had it in mind to blog about this year’s shortlist, though I’m a little put off by the great length of some of these tomes. I’ll see how far I get, and the titles above will turn into links as I post about the books.

I am not widely read enough to be able to jusge whether these six novels represent the best science fiction of 2008 (though I have read two books from last year — one of which I have yet to post about — that I felt would be good nominees, and both are absent), and have read precisely none of the shortlisted books. But this strikes me as a shortlist which is very much weighted towards the ‘traditional’ end of the SF spectrum, in the sense that five of the books are by ‘name’ SF authors, with only the Werhnam a ‘non-genre’ choice. (The novels themselves may be far from ‘traditional’ SF; I haven’t read them yet, so I don’t know.)

The winner of the Clarke Award will be announced on 29 April. I may not get all six read by then, but I’ll have a good go at it. Stay tuned!

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts (2009)

This is Adam Roberts’s tenth novel, which of course means there were nine before it. Nine that I haven’t read. How on Earth have I allowed this to happen? If they’re all as enjoyable as Yellow Blue Tibia, I have been missing out.

Yellow Blue Tibia is presented as the memoir of one Konstantin Skvorecky, a science fiction writer who was gathered together, along with four others, by Stalin in the aftermath of (what I know as) the Second World War. Stalin charged the writers with the task of creating a new enemy — an enemy from outer space — which the ruling party could claim to be fighting, thereby strengthening the prestige of communism. The authors come up with some outlandish nonsense about ‘radiation aliens’, and hammer out a future history — but the project is promptly cancelled, and the writers instructed never to speak of it again.

Skvorecky sees neither hide nor hair of the others until 1986, and a chance encounter with another of the group, Ivan Frenkel — who claims that the story they constructed four decades previously is now coming true, beginning with the Challenger disaster (caused by radiation aliens!!). Sounds ridiculous, of course: but then Skvorecky (who works as a translator) meets the American James Coyne, who insists something similar — and then dies in mysterious circumstances.

After various turns of the plot, we find Skvorecky racing to Chernobyl, along with Ivan Saltykov, a nuclear physicist turned taxi driver who says he has Asperger’s syndrome (though he never gets to name it in full), and ceaselessly reminds people of the fact; and Dora Norman, Coyne’s hugely overweight compatriot. And, after Skvorecky survives a grenade attack against all the odds, things start to get really strange…

My strongest abiding memory of Yellow Blue Tibia is how much of a pleasure it was to read. Though not (I would say) primarily a comedy, it is nevertheless one of the funniest books I have read in some time: witness, for example, the scene in which Skvorecky is first translating for the two Americans, and frantically trying to think of acceptable ways to ‘translate’ his colleague’s insults.

More than this, the novel also provides plenty to think about. Roberts bases his fiction on a paradox about UFOs: there are so many reports of them, yet such a paucity of evidence for their concrete existence. The author’s fictional solution to this paradox is fascinating to think about; I particularly like the wayhe takes some well-worn ideas and spins something fresh out of them.

Roberts also effectively plays tricks with the narrative. Skvorecky undergoes a pre-frontal lobotomy during the novel, which subtly alters his narrative voice,  and disrupts his sense of the passage of time, something Roberts exploits to extend the mystery of his plot. Skvorecky stresses at the beginning that ‘[t]here are no secrets in this book’, but of course there are — they’re just hidden from the narrator as much as from the reader (reading back the paragraph I’ve quoted from, I also discovered several subtle hints that seem innocuous at first, but change in meaning once you’ve read the book).

Another strand of Yellow Blue Tibia concerns parallels between science fiction and communism; but lacunae in my knowledge of history and politics prevent me from really getting to grips with it. A further strand that I did appreciate, though, was the love story. It might seem unexpected to find such an element in this novel, but its title refers to a phonetic way of saying, ‘I love you’ in Russian — and it is indeed central to the story.

One recurring feature of Yellow Blue Tibia is that a character may say that something can be in one state or another (one could go somewhere accompanied or alone, for example), but that there could (and, in some instances, could not) be a third option. Well, I finished the book with a big smile on my face. Or it could be that I finished it with my imagination fizzing over at the possibilities Roberts put forward. Then again, it was probably both.

This book has been nominated for the 2010 Arthur C. Clarke Award. Read all my posts on the Award here

© 2024 David's Book World

Theme by Anders NorénUp ↑