TagYellow Blue Tibia

Clarke Award 2010: in review

The commentary I’ve encountered on this year’s Clarke Award generally agrees on two things: that it’s a five-horse race, and that Chris Wooding is the author who’s written the also-ran. Having read all the shortlisted novels, I must concur with that view. Retribution Falls is a good book on its own terms — a superior sf adventure story — but it seems lacking in the context of this shortlist. It just doesn’t have the extra depth that the others, in their different ways, all have. For that reason, Wooding’s book is first out of the running for me.

The favourite to win the Clarke this year is The City & the City. This is a fascinating, innovative novel (the first, as far as I’m aware, to engage so explicity with the crtical taxonomy of fantasy that has emerged in the last fifteeen years), possibly China Miéville’s best-written to date. I like it very much… but I don’t think it should win. The reason I don’t think it should win is that the Clarke is an award for science fiction, and The City & the City doesn’t make sense if read as sf — one is forced into an unsatisfactory psychological interpretation. However, the novel does make sense — and is much more interesting — if read as fantasy (see my review for more on this); I’d be happy for it to win any fantasy awards for which it may be nominated, but I don’t see it as a good fit for the Clarke.

I intended to review the entire shortlist, but, in the end, I’m one title down. The reason I haven’t written previously about Gwyneth Jones‘s Spirit is that I really struggled to get to grips with it. I grasped the basics of the story, but there’s so much else about which I’m not sure that I can’t see my way to giving the novel a proper review. Why I experienced this difficulty, I don’t know; maybe it was because of all the associated books I hadn’t read (Spirit is a re-interpretation of The Count of Monte Cristo, and is connected to both Jones’s earlier Aleutian Trilogy and her Bold as Love sequence), maybe something else. Whatever, though I’m not able to comment on Spirit in detail, I do gain an impression of a significant work.

Galileo’s Dream by Kim Stanley Robinson combines fictional historical biography with far-future sf, to what I found was mixed effect. It is an excellent work at times, but tries one’s patience at others, and its two aspects don’t integrate as well as they might. But there’s a lot about the book that I know I missed (I didn’t pick up on all the sbutext, for example), so I’m quite willing to accept that Galileo’s Dream is a stronger book than I found it to be, and hence a strong contender for the Clarke.

There’s also a lot about Adam Roberts‘s Yellow Blue Tibia that I know I missed — but, all the same, I thoroughly loved it. Of all the shortlisted title, this is the one I enjoyed the most, both for its humour and for what it does as a work of imaginative literature. I can’t judge in full how successful it is, because for that I’d need more knowledge of its historical setting, and the science fiction with which it engages — but it’s worthy of winning the Clarke as far as I’m concerned.

Finally, Marcel Theroux‘s excellent Far North, which is my other pick of the shortlist. A post-disaster novel which is less about the effect of change on the world than itseffect on humanity, this is a quiet book that makes its point subtly and with force. It works superbly as an aesthetic whole, to a greater extent than perhaps any other novel on the shortlist. A win for Far North would be thoroughly deserved.

So, I’d most like to see Roberts or Theroux be awarded the Clarke this year, but, really, it’s an open field, and I would not like to predict who will win. The winner will be announced this Wednesday, and I look forward to finding out whom it will be.

My favourites of 2009 so far…

I know we’re some way past the halfway point of 2009, but I wanted to do a mini-review of the year so far, as I’ve read so many great books this year that I’d like to highlight the best once again. So these are my top five reads of the year so far (all had their first UK publication in 2009), in alphabetical order (click the titles to read my reviews):

Keith Brooke, The Accord

Eleanor Catton, The Rehearsal

Rana Dasgupta, Solo

Margo Lanagan, Tender Morsels

Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

An honourable mention goes to Ken Grimwood’s Replay, which is my favourite pre-2009 book that I read for the first time this year. All six books are excellent, and I woud urge you to seek them out.

(Of course, I don’t just blog about books on here; so, for the sake of completeness: my favourite fiilm of the year so far is Franklyn; and favourite album of the year so far is Kingdom of Rust by Doves, which I will get around to blogging about eventually…)

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

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