Food, power, and family: By Light Alone
The last book by Adam Roberts that I read, Yellow Blue Tibia, I did not enjoy. At all. So I was a little dubious about reading this one until I saw the cover, and I am willing to admit here and now that in this case at least, the cover totally sucked me in. An art deco sensibility is definitely the way to at least make me interested in starting your book.
And then I read the blurb, and decided that this could indeed be a book for me.
One of the great answers to “how would you change the world” in stereotypical beauty pageants is, aside from world peace, an end to world hunger. It’s something that writers of near-future sf occasionally deal with: do we get awesome new genetically modified wheat? Do we farm algae in the seas? Do we ship everyone off-planet? Roberts suggests something entirely different: create a bug that, once ingested, turns human hair into a light-gathering factory. That is, allows it to undertake photosynthesis.
Et voila! Hunger solved! As long as you have access to sunlight. And as long as you have hair long enough to catch enough sun.
Marvellous! But, now that all of those people over there are no longer starving, how do the fancy people over here prove that they are still at the top of the social scale? Easy: they eat real food. Also, they shave their heads.
It’s a bizarre world that Roberts imagines, in some ways: people lying around quite literally soaking up rays, the changed language that reflects changes in society, and so on. But, most frighteningly and tellingly, actually this future world is a lot like our present one. Maybe worse. There are haves and have-nots, at all point on the spectrum; there is discontent, both individually and collectively; there are power struggles, and cultural misunderstandings.
The novel begins as a family drama, when George and Marie’s daughter is kidnapped while they are on a family skiing holiday in Turkey. (George and Marie are skiing; their children stay with their nanny in the designated children’s play area, and get brought out when the nanny is summoned to do so.) Their experience with the local authorities is frustrating to say the least, no ransom is demanded, and the outlook is bleak – until George finds someone willing to undertake an investigation on their behalf. Dot explains why children are sometimes kidnapped: the energy from New Hair is not sufficient for a pregnancy. So either women have to get food somehow as a supplement, or… they get themselves a pre-made one. As it were. While there are indications before this event that this brave new world is not a perfect one for everyone, this is the first big crack, suggesting that the worst of human nature can still exist even when one of the major crises is lifted. This whole experience also reveals some of the cracks in George and Marie’s marriage, and they just keep getting bigger.
Just less than half the novel is taken up with George’s story – losing and eventually finding Leah, everyday life as a rich man in New York, his friendship with various people and a slowly developing interest in not continuing as normal. His perspective is rather abruptly abandoned in favour of a short vignette from Leah’s perspective, which confirms what the reader has already suspected fairly early on (um, mild spoiler?): she is not Leah. Thanks to this insert the reader is given a brief, fascinating glimpse into life in a village somewhere in Turkey (maybe; the geography is unclear), where New Hair is how people survive and power games have shifted accordingly. And this is contrasted with her experiences as the pampered daughter of a rich American family, which is of course rather stark.
The rest of the novel is divided between two more perspectives: that of Marie, George’s wife, a fairly shallow woman floating along on her own indulgences; and that of a girl living with New Hair, in a no-account little village, who ends up leaving her village and commensurately its protection and familiarity. The comparison between these two is striking, and says a great deal about power, expectations, and the impact of an individual’s choices.
Am I glad I read it? Yes indeed. While it’s by no means action-packed, the plot does move along at a steady pace, even though the events could sometimes be regarded as trivial; when the focus is a single family struggling with grief, interactions with doctors and friends and a daughter returned naturally assume significance. And just like ordinary life, these events are taking place against a background of seriously geopolitical events, if the reader cares to pay attention. Of the characters, George starts off like Konstantin in Yellow Blue Tibia – annoying and self-centred and self-pitying – he improves as a human in general, plus his interactions with people also make him more interesting than he initially seemed. I cannot say the same for Marie – she never becomes a person I would want to know – but her perspective provides a crucial, and crucially different from George, view on the world. And finally, exploring how a world so different from ours, without hunger, can still be so much the same, is a sobering reflection on human nature. One that I rather hope need not prove true.
I read this basically as soon as I finished 2312. It was a serious headspin to go from THAT world to this.
Yellow Blue Tibia: a review
I received this book to review for ASif! Published by Orion, 2009.
This novel is billed as an autobiography, “Konstantin Skvorecky’s memoir of the alien invasion of 1986.” Skvorecky had an established reputation as a science fiction writer in the USSR in the mid-1940s, when he and a number of other SF authors were called together by Stalin to write the story of a new enemy for the USSR, on the assumption that the defeat of capitalist America was nigh. Their task was to invent an alien nemesis that Stalin and the Communist Party could use as a focus for the hatred and fighting spirit of the people of the USSR. As quickly as this was all put together, though, it was shelved.
Skip forward to the mid-1980s, and Skvorecky is an old man, near-alcoholic and bitter. His writing career has largely been a bust, as has his personal life. All of a sudden, however, Powers That Be are taking notice of him once again – including some people whom he has not seen since those frantic weeks in the 1940s, creating Stalin’s new enemy. His (mis)adventures take him to Chernobyl, lead him to meet an intriguing American woman who is an ambassador for Scientology, and bring him into conflict with the KGB. All of this within the possible context of an actual alien invasion.
The above premise sounds delightfully intriguing. Even if these adventures were happening to an ordinary person, I would be anticipating at least an entertaining adventure, possibly with some discussion about the functioning of the USSR at this time. Add in the fact that the narrator is a science fiction author and Roberts appears to have all sorts of possibilities in front of him, of exploring how a science fiction mentality can influence perceptions of the world, or at least jokes about turning everything that happens to the character into a story.
Sadly, Roberts in no way lived up to my hopes. The opening section, with the SF writers comparing notes and striving to out-do each other in Stalin’s eyes, is a wonderful look at Stalin’s influence and the way that writers (sometimes) interact with each other. That’s 26 pages of 323. From there… Skvorecky was a soulless narrator, for whom I had little sympathy or time, not even a “I wonder what will happen to him next” car-crash fascination, largely thanks to the stilted dialogue. This problem may in part be attributed to wanting to sound like it has been translated from Russian, but that’s not enough of a reason to make me forgive it. More than that, Skvorecky is unpleasantly arrogant and boring. Events happen to him, and he is pushed around by them – which didn’t have to make him unappealing (just look at Arthur Dent), but added to dull dialogue and an overall frustrating plot, it just didn’t work .
Aliens being responsible for the Chernobyl disaster, as part of their invasion plans, and all sorts of possibly-crazy people – including a KGB officer – running around believing that there is an alien invasion underway: this has lots of potential for madcap adventure. It did not eventuate. It was not fast-paced enough to sustain my interest when the characters were unappealing; the diversions away from plot were not interesting discussions of life or politics or the writerly craft, which would also have mitigated the lack of pace, but were instead mostly boring discussions between characters about little of consequence.
This is not a book I can honestly recommend to anyone.