Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Yellow Blue Tibia

This one attracted attention last year when Kim Stanley Robinson suggested it should win a Booker prize in his article about SF for New Scientist last year. I'm not that interested in awards, by and large, and I rarely read “new” books, but I was curious about what the book was actually like. I've read one of Adam Roberts's previous books – Polystom – which was okay, but not really a barnstormer and had a somewhat weak ending.

I'm danger of seeing YBT only through the Booker Prize lens, which - let's be frank! - does it no favours. I don't think it's Booker material for a number of reasons (which I shall relate shortly) but it's a funny, clever and enjoyable book nonetheless. When you expect eye-peeling excellence, merely being funny and enjoyable can sometimes seem like failure when it's clearly not.

There's a lot of well-played comedy, particularly in Skvorecky's encounters with his hapless nemesis Frenkel and his various subalterns. The climax of the novel in the Number Four reactor at Chernobyl is nicely done, beginning a train of consequences that leads to the wonderful line:
“To be clear,” I said, “by smoking a cigarette, inside a nuclear facility, whilst having my skull blown up by a radioactive RGD-5 I have extended my life expectancy.”

Skvorecky's encounter with red haired death in shape of a KGB assassin while recuperating from the above is probably my favourite bit, a sequence of brilliantly timed farce that I shan't spoil for you. There's a lot of satirical fun had at the expense of UFO nuts and – by subtle extension – SF fans, and of course the ultimate combination thereof, the Scientologists, particularly in the first half.

There are a few things, though, that I wondered about. Roberts has a breezy style that slips down easily, but he never really puts his prose to work in a deep or heavy way. There's a sense of language serving the needs of the plot and not really aspiring to anything more. There were a few places, indeed, where the language was still a bit tangled and clunky. That's okay, but I'd have thought that a potential Booker Prize winner (sorry to harp on about it!) should be a bit more ambitious in this regard.

While I enjoyed most of the comic banter (there was too much in a few places), I did wonder how some of the punning dialogue would have worked in the Russian tongue, and there were moments where the turns of phrase struck me as somewhat anachronistic. And I got a little weary of the sunset descriptions – I wasn't sure what they were there for and they fell somewhat short of poetry to me.

I did like the idea of the quantum aliens, but it was fairly clear where we were headed quite early on (the reference to The Grasshopper Lies Heavy was the first thumping great clue) and then the nature of the aliens isn't discovered by Skvorecky, but they rather drop in at the end as a deus ex mechina to tell us who and what they are. The equation of of Soviet Communism with science fiction made real is a fairly well worn one, and rather explicitly stated, I thought: a more confident work might have made the comparisons between SF and the Soviet Union without coming right out and telling us about it. I enjoyed the jokes and satire on the way, but these revelations didn't really seem to amount to much in my, perhaps jaded, opinion.

Although I have only two points of reference, I'm drawn to ponder a pattern in Roberts's work. Both Polystom and this were fun journeys that stopped short of anything especially profound, although this one had a far more satisfying shape than Polystom, which just kind of stopped. Both had - to my eye - more fun with the elements of their created worlds than a driving story about people behind them (characterisation was somewhat thin in YBT, and Skvorecky's love for Rosa Plot Device never really convinced me, although Skvorecky himself was a very appealing lead).

Now, see, I've done what I didn't want to do which was spend more time pondering the books faults than its positive qualities. It's a good book, and well worth a read, but the idea of the Booker Prize puts it under more pressure than it really deserves (in either sense). So it goes - I'm sure there's some bleakly ironical Russian aphorism about negative consequences of positive attention!

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