Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts

Yellow Blue Tibia is the first novel by Adam Roberts I’ve read. I chose the novel, in great part, because of Kim Stanley Robinson’s claim, reproduced on the novel’s cover, that it “Should have won the 2009 Booker Prize.” Robinson feels that science fiction novels are marginalized; he may have a point, but to make a claim that a certain novel should win a prize is fatuous: it would have been enough to state that he thinks it should have been considered for a Booker Prize, but to state that it should have won is provocative and no-doubt invites undue criticism.0575083573.02.LZZZZZZZ

I began the novel with a certain prejudice because of Robinson’s statement on the cover; at first, I was won-over by Robert’s prose (such an excellent set-up!), but I don’t think it should have been considered for a major literary prize. The main character, Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky, is an enjoyable invention; sarcastic, and teeming with wry wit. And the story is quite engaging. But there simply wasn’t enough depth to fully immerse me as a reader, and Roberts has an annoying tendency to overdo things. A few examples of the overdone:

The dialog is purportedly in Russian (it appears in English to the reader), with some English, which is differentiated by [placing it inside square brackets], but Roberts felt the need to remind the reader for far too long that certain words were said in English, or that someone had switched to Russian, far past the point that I understood without being told. I don’t like authors who assume I’m thick; readers should be required to pay attention, and the careful reader should be rewarded, not punished.

There is a comical interrogation in which a tape recorder is used: the interrogator turns the recorder on and off in order to separate the ‘official’ recorded version from the interrogation sections filled with threats. The interrogator becomes muddled and begins to turn the recorder on and off at inappropriate times, recording his threats, and stopping the recording during the ‘official’ sections. Roberts tells the reader for far too long that the switching on and off are recording the incorrect sections; the interrogator’s reactions when he realizes his mistake are also overplayed. I would have appreciated  a little subtlety throughout this scene.

An interesting character, Saltykov, has a ‘syndrome,’  which is mentioned ad nauseam.

I enjoyed the novel (and, although you cannot tell a book by its cover, the art is remarkable), but it didn’t strike me as a particularly brilliant work of literature. As I mentioned, Kim Stanley Robinson believes (stated, in an article for the New Scientist) that Yellow Blue Tibia should have won the Booker Prize in 2009 (won by Hilary Mantel, for Wolf Hall). In the article, he maintains that the novels that win tend to be ‘historical’ novels, which “…are not about now in the way science fiction is.” Robinson lists a few other science fiction novels that he believes could have won in previous years; I have only read one of the other books he mentioned (Air, by Geoff Ryman), and it is a novel that I think should have received more attention as a work of literature, but that is only my opinion, and — oddly — I’ve never been asked to participate in a Booker Prize panel.

I’m glad I read Yellow Blue Tibia; for the most part it was well written and I’ll probably try another of the author’s books.

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Jack Glass, by Adam Roberts

In Jack Glass (The Story of a Murderer), Adam Roberts sabotages the golden age of science fiction and detective fiction. Genre conventions are used and abused as the novel slowly morphs into parody. There is a distinct postmodern style, which I often enjoy; but, after an interesting set up, I was disappointed with the novel’s unsatisfactory resolution. Jack Glass won the BSFA Award (2012) and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award (2013) for best novel.

Jack_Glass_Adam_Roberts_coverThroughout the novel, the word impossible is used as an ingredient for postmodern deconstruction; the impossible is merely very difficult. While reading, I was reminded of a line in The Princess Bride when a character (Vezzini) keeps using the word inconceivable, and another character (Inigo Montoya) responds by saying: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The book is divided into three sections, with (at least) one murder in each section. The novel’s intriguing introduction makes it clear that Jack Glass is the murderer in each section, but the why and how are the unknowns that provide the mystery elements.  Each successive section increases the scope of the novel, both in terms of setting, and plot convolutions.

The first section is quite brutal and grisly.  It takes place on a prison asteroid (escape is impossible); there are seven criminals on the asteroid and one is, of course, Jack Glass. The prisoners are left alone on the asteroid and they are supplied with some rudimentary equipment to help them carve out a livable habitat. It is a cruel sentence, and the chance of survival is low, but the authorities will return for them in eleven years; either the criminals will be dead, or they will have made a habitable asteroid that can be sold for a profit (the prisoners would be free, but they would receive no money).

The second section takes place on Earth, where two rich, genetically modified sisters — Diana (almost sixteen) and Eva (twenty-one) — have come from space to stay at a family manor; they have a retinue of servants, bodyguards, and a tutor. Jack Glass is in disguise, but his true identity soon becomes obvious to the reader. The Earth’s gravity makes simple movements awkward (for those used to the low gravity of space), a servant is murdered (Jack Glass’ part in the murder is specious), and there is much more going on than it first appears; among other things, there is a hint that a connection exists between supernovas and faster than light travel (of course, FTL travel is impossible). There is a great deal of unscrupulous political maneuvering between powerful clans. The plot thickens.

The final murder — a seemingly impossible event — takes place at Jack’s home in space.

In each section, Jack Glass is reinvented and each modification in his character causes the reader to redefine the novel’s conventions. A step-by-step stripping of Jack’s masked personas takes place; I suppose this is an attempt to evoke sympathy in the reader, but his raison d’être eventually succumbs to caricature (perhaps this is intended as another shot with the postmodern deconstruction ray-gun).

Jack Glass is well-written — some of the writing is excellent — but the novel is too smartassed for its own good. It is an enjoyable read, but lacks the depth required to sufficiently oil the postmodern gears that Roberts is so eager to grind.

I’ve read two novels by Adam Roberts (the other being Yellow Blue Tibia) and I think he has the potential for an exceptional book, so I’ll keep working through his oeuvre (although I may become impatient if all of his novels begin with great promise and end with inefficacy). He has written a new novel — Bête — that will be published later this year.

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