Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

Gollancz, 2010, 330 p

Yellow Blue Tibia cover

Emblazoned across this book’s cover is ‘Should have won the 2009 Booker Prize’ – Kim Stanley Robinson. Rather a large claim to make and considering the novel spends some time mentioning and discussing Science Fiction and the existence or not of aliens – an automatic disbarment one would have thought – a forlornly hopeful one at best. (I note a certain amount of possible mutual back-scratching going on here as Roberts praised Robinson’s latest novel in his recent Guardian review.)

Yellow Blue Tibia, unusually for a piece of Western SF, is set entirely in the Soviet Union and starts when a group of Soviet SF writers is invited to meet comrade Stalin and asked to come up with a scenario of alien invasion to provide an enemy for the state to rally the people against. Their concept of radiation aliens becomes fleshed out but then they are told to forget the whole thing and never mention it again to anyone. Narrator Konstantin Skvorecky, former SF writer and veteran of the Great Patriotic War, recalls this from the perspective of the glasnost and perestroika era of 1986 when he once again meets a member of that original group, Ivan Frenkel, and weird things begin to happen.

The novel contains several nods to works of SF, The Grasshopper Lies Heavy etc, and frequent discussions of the form, ‘the worlds created by a science fictional writer do not deny the real world; they antithesise it!’
But what are we to make of this exchange?
“‘Communism is science fiction.’
‘And vice versa.’
‘I can think of many American writers of science fiction who would be insulted to think so.’
‘Perhaps they do not fully understand the genre in which they are working.’”

Frenkel is attempting to convince Skvorecky that UFOs are real, are in effect all around us, that in accordance with the scenario dreamed up by Stalin’s conclave of SF writers an alien invasion is under way. Skvorecky is initially sceptical, “‘Marx called religion the opium of the people… But at least opium is a high-class drug. UFO religion? That’s the methylated spirits of the people. It’s the home-still beetroot-alcohol of the people.’” To help persuade him Frenkel has Skvorecky meet two US Scientologists, James Tilly Coyne, and Nora Dorman – with whom Skvorecky falls in love mainly, it seems, because she is well-proportioned. In the end, though, Skvorecky tells us, “There are no secrets in this book… it is drawing your attention to that which is hidden in plain view all the time.”

Supposedly comedic interludes are provided by Saltykov – a taxi driver who has a condition, an extreme form of Asperger’s syndrome – and cannot bear contact with another man. He continually harps on about this and repeatedly says, ‘Do not talk to the driver. It’s a distraction.’ Roberts making one of Saltykov’s utterances, ‘I like to keep my engine clean. It’s a clean machine,’ is, though, certainly an authorial allusion to Penny Lane. Then we have the rather plodding KGB heavy, Trofim, who dogs Skvorecky more or less throughout.

This is the first time on reading Roberts that he has made me laugh. This came during an exchange in Chernobyl’s Reactor 4 (the aliens are apparently intending to blow this up, Skvorecky to find the bomb) when Trofim says, “It’s fallen in the water!”. But then I suppose, strictly speaking, since it’s a Goon Show quote (“He’s fallen in the water” – audio sample here, towards the bottom of the page) it was actually Spike Milligan making me laugh.

Skvorecky leads a charmed life, surviving many threatening situations, not least with Trofim. The UFO hypothesis suggests his survival is due to the superposition of states, of what Roberts dubs realitylines.

So why Yellow Blue Tibia? Apparently “yellow, blue, tibia” approximates to a phonetic declaration of “I love you” in Russian, a phrase which Skvorecky teaches to Dora. Unfortunately the book states that the tibia is a bone in the arm. The tibia is actually in the leg, along with the femur and the fibia; the bones of the arm are the humerus, the radius and the ulna. This is a pretty egregious mistake to make when the word tibia is in your book’s title.

It is undeniably all very cleverly done but again there is that distancing feeling attached to Roberts’s writing. Skvorecky claims to be in love with Dora but as a reader I couldn’t really feel it.

Apart from that could Yellow Blue Tibia have won the 2009 Booker Prize? Given the literary world’s prejudices – even though some of its denizens have taken to appropriating the tropes of the genre – never.

And should it have? In a word, no. Look at the short list.

Pedant’s corner:- for you next appointment (your,) paleoarcheological (palaeoarchaeological,) a stigmata (stigmata is plural, the singular is stigma,) a missing opening quote mark, sat (seated, or sitting,) “the spindle-wheels of the cassette again began turning again” (only one “again” required here,) span (spun – which appeared later,) “covered with the chocolate brown patches” (these patches had not previously been mentioned; so “covered with chocolate brown patches”,) a missing full stop at the end of a piece of dialogue, “we spent out energies” (our energies,) sprung (sprang.) “‘What am I suppose to do now?’” (supposed,) liquorish (liquorice. This is the second time I have seen liquorish for liquorice in a Roberts book. Does he really believe liquorish is the correct spelling?) “‘She was the middle of’” (in the middle of,) cesium (caesium, please,) trunk (of a car; previously “boot” had been used,) “‘Use you fucking head.’” (your,) “The air around me was less atmosphere and more immersion, or preparation was of a multiple spectral shift.” (????) “when accounts … becomes more frequent” (become. )

Not Leaving Ferrol

The harbour side, Ferrol. Lovely paving and trees:-
atrees at port

You can see the SS Black Watch in the background here berthed at Ferrol. That beardy bloke got in the photo again:-

Ferrol Harbour

Getting up on deck some time after we got back I could hear the sound of pipers again, coming from the quayside. I assume these were the Galician variety:-

Galician Pipers

I took some video. Click on the picture to take you to it. Galician pipes have a less strident sound than the Scottish variety:-

Pipers, Ferrol, Galicia, Spain

There was a delay to our departure because of what at first I couldn’t make out from the ship’s PA. I eventually cottoned on they’d said they were “bunkering”. I was amused that the same word is still used even though the ship won’t have coal bunkers but oil tanks instead.

It was a beautiful warm day and the ship put on an impromptu deck party, complete with six piece band.

impromptu deck party

My cynical self had the thought that they did this to push sales of sangria to offset any excess berthing fees arising from the overstay.

Chuck Berry

Reading his obituary and a piece in the Guardian’s G2 brought home to me how important Chuck Berry was to the development of rock and roll and the music that followed it.

His heyday was in the 50s so I had kind of missed all that by being too young. I must have been aware of him somewhere in the background via the paltry amount of rock music on the radio in those times but I didn’t really come into contact with his music till the mid to late 60s when some of his singles were in the pile beside the record player at a youth club I went to. It’s therefore No Particular Place to Go and Memphis Tenessee I remember most particularly. It wasn’t actually till years later that I discovered No Particular Place to Go was a reworking of a 1957 song, School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes the Bell).

Not the least of his accomplishments was to irritate Mary Whitehouse with his ding-a-ling. (Well, it seems it was Dave Bartholomew’s ding-a-ling, but it was Chuck who annoyed Whitehouse.)

His personal life may not have been unblemished but he certainly has an impressive musical back catalogue, and that’s only the singles.

So here are those two Berry singles the second in a later live version.

Chuck Berry: No Particular Place to Go

Chuck Berry: Memphis Tenessee

Go Johnny go! Tell Tchaikovsky the news.

Charles Edward Anderson “Chuck” Berry: 18/10/1926 – 18/3/2017. So it goes.

Art Deco in Ferrol

There wasn’t much deco in Ferrol. We found two nice squares and this one, the Plaza de Espaňa, had a deco building on it:-

Plaza de Espaňa, Ferrol

A Banca:-

A Banca, Ferrol

Close-up showing deco detail on rounded corner:-

A Banca Close-up

Balconied Deco:-

Art Deco Building in Ferrol

More Art Deco, Ferrol:-

More Art Deco, Ferrol

Buildings in Ferrol

On the way in to Ferrol from the ship we passed an area known as Arsenal Militar. A mannequin recalled Spain’s military past. Here’s a photo with some beardy bloke beside it:-

Soldier Mannequin

Ferrol seems to be laid out in a grid pattern though the streets are not wide. This was at siesta time when the streets emptied:-

asiesta time

A square in Ferrol:-

Old and New

The building to the left of the square in the photo above has an odd mixture of architectural styles. See the glass gable-end:-

Odd Mix of Architectural Styles, Ferrol

It was also hard by what may be a memorial to Spain’s colonial wars (if I can trust my reading of the Spanish inscription.) It was in the middle of a busy road so I didn’t linger long:-

Colonial War Memorial, Ferrol

You know you’re not in Calvinist Scotland any more when you come across a statue like this in an otherwise perfectly normal street. (Hooded penitents are apparently a big part of Holy Week celebrations in Ferrol.):-

Hooded Penitent Statue, Ferroll

Asimov’s Science Fiction January/February 2017

Dell Magazines

Asimov's Jan-Feb 2017 cover

Sheila Williams’s Editorial hails Asimov’s 40th year of publication, Robert Silverberg’s Reflections solicits two cheers for Piltdown Man, James Patrick Kelly’s On the Net: Ask Me Anything compares various digital assistants, in On Books1 Paul di Filippo reviews eight books (including one I have reviewed for Interzone.) I was under the impression that Lavie Tidhar’s Central Station was a fix-up novel. di Filippo writes about it as if unaware of this.
As to the fiction. In Crimson Birds of Small Miracles2 by Sean Monaghan the father of a daughter with a terminal brain disease takes her and her sister to see Shilinka Switalla’s artwork, a flock of robot birds doing murmurations, as these excursions seem to help her. This story had an illustration of a strange attitude to wealth. The father has a good business, can afford increasingly complex prosthetics for his sick daughter, can take his children to various different planets but reckons he could never be rich in the monetary sense. Yet he quite clearly is.
Tagging Bruno3 by Allen Steele. On Coyote, a moon in the system 47-Uma, a former soldier is roped in to act as guide on a project to tag an indigenous bird-like species (boids) dangerous to humans but under threat of extinction due to human hunting activity. It goes quite well till the expedition encounters a flock which turns the tables on them.
Still Life with Abyss by Jim Grimsley is set in a project researching the only individual in all the multiple universes who has never caused a fork in time.
In Fatherbond by Tom Purdow, new arrivals on a colony planet begin to work against the entity which seeks to restrict their actions. (It’s tempting to read this as a metaphor for the pre-Revolutionary government of North America which forbade expansion westwards, the desire to overthrow which ban -rather than the confected protest about taxation – being the true reason for the War of Independence.)
Winter Timeshare4 by Ray Nayler shows us the annual meeting of two people who inhabit bodies (dubbed blanks) for their one holiday each year which is always in Istanbul, whose surrounding hills are the location for sending volunteers on a one-way trip to space. Despite their purchasing power blanks are resented by the “normal” locals. For a reason not particularly obvious the job of one of our protagonists involves simulating the Peloponnesian War.
Two young girls in the LA area in Lisa Goldstein’s The Catastrophe of Cities investigate strange houses wherein they glimpse oddly shaped people and passageways lead elsewhere. They drift apart on puberty, one seemingly dropping out of existence. In much later life the other seeks her out.
Robert R Chase’s Pieces of Ourselves5 is the tale of a survivor of a terrorist attack on a moon base who may have assimilated character traits as a result of her experience.
Jack Skillingstead’s Destination6 features a man who has not been outside the confines of his gated work community since being plucked from his childhood home after displaying high aptitude being told by his bosses to take part in the game Destination, essentially a mystery tour by taxi. Outside is not what he thought.
The Meiosis of Cells and Exile by Octavia Cade is structured around the life of Soviet biochemist and neuroscientist Lina Stern. On a train to exile in Dzhambul her body buds sequentially (or else she hallucinates) three of her former selves, the Academician, the Child, and the Scientist. Each is equated with a function of the blood-brain barrier.
Starphone by Stephen Baxter is set in a post ocean-rise world where flood refugees are kept inside domes. Some teenagers plan a short escape to test the Fermi Paradox by making an Allen Array with their mobile phones.
In Blow Winds, and Crack Your Cheeks7 by John Alfred Taylor a couple celebrates the last time it will be safe to witness a storm at their island home. The damage it causes is still substantial even though the hurricane’s eye passes thirty miles out from shore.
Robert Reed’s The Speed of Belief8 is a tale of three entities, two immortals with bioceramic brains, one normal human, on their way to a planet where the rivers are sentient. I really couldn’t make much of this. Perhaps I was too tired when I read it.

Pedant’s corner:- 1 again di Filippo uses stefnal for science-fictional – it still looks odd to me, “compare that man to somewhat callow fellow” (to the somewhat callow fellow.) 2a dark red button-front jumper (a dark red cardigan, then?) base reliefs (bas-reliefs, I think,) 378.2 inches (how can you decimalise a non-metric unit?) “a small red crosshairs” (a implies singular, crosshairs is surely plural; there was “a green crosshairs” later,) “Carbon testing of boid skeletons had shown they could live as long as thirty-five years” (leaving aside the question of whether 14C would exist on this world at all, unless the carbon testing is somewhat different from on Earth it could do no such thing; 14C dating only yields the time elapsed since death,) a missing end quote mark, sole causality (casualty.) 4Bosporus (I only ever saw Bosphorus when I was young,) causal (casual was intended.) 5 “started at her intently” (stared.) 6 “an approved media” (it was one of the social media; so medium.) 7grille (grill, used earlier in the story.) 8 “with every sort of creatures” (creature.) “But the dense native air was heavily oxygenated, and the bedrock had been scorched clean of its forests and soil.” (This is stated to have been done by wildfires. The oxygen would have to be remnant then as there will be nothing to replenish it,) “carefully tailored frame: The long body” (no capital at “the”.) “Mere notice what was different” (noticed,) forbad (the usual form is forbade.)

Two Today

I know I’ve not yet commemorated Chuck Berry. I’ll do so on Friday.

The news came today that Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, has died.

Dexter had at one time the distinction of being the author whose books were most donated to charity shops. (At least in England. In Scotland Ian Rankin fills/filled that role.)

Norman Colin Dexter: 29/9/1930 – 21/3/2017. So it goes.

Looking at the news coverage of the death of Martin McGuiness I did wonder whether the UK was the only country in the world whose media reacted with such an emphasis on his terrorist past rather than his conversion to peacemaking and power sharing. Sinner that repenteth and all that.

(In this context I note Norman Tebbit’s characteristically pungent comments on McGuiness’s death. Anyone would think that Tebbit had never done anything in his life that warranted citicism. Some of the policies he supported as a government minister caused grief to tens – hundreds – of thousands of his fellow citizens – and perhaps the premature deaths of some of them. The tone of his comments suggest he feels McGuiness’s adoption of peace was not genuine. Well, Ian Paisley had much more reason to suspect McGuinness of duplicity yet managed to find common ground. Paisley’s son explicitly acknowledged the change in McGuiness’s attitude. Fair enough Tebbit’s wife was severely injured by the IRA so he has a pressing reason for his contumely but she wouldn’t have been in that hotel if she wasn’t his wife. Then again Tebbit has never been known for acknowledging the viewpoint of his political opponents.)

Whatever, McGuiness was one of the most prominent Irishmen of his times.

James Martin Pacelli McGuinness: 23/5/1950 – 21/3/2017. So it goes.

Ferrol, Galicia, Spain

Ferrol, or El Ferrol, in the province of A Coruña, Galicia, Spain, was known for forty-four years as El Ferrol del Caudillo as it was the birthplace, in 1892, of dictator Francisco Franco. Curiously, in some sort of political karmic equalistion it was also the birthplace of the founder of the Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party (PSOE), Pablo Iglesias, in 1850.

The town is a mixture of ancient and modern with the older parts near to the harbour.

This is a stitch of three photos taken from the ship at berth:-

Ferrol from Ship's Berth

Ferrrol has been a shipbuilding town since the time of the early Bourbon kings of Spain, capital of the Spanish Navy’s Maritime Department of the North. This looked like an aircraft carrier:-

Aircraft Carrier in Dock at Ferrol

Another naval ship:-

Naval Ship Docked in Ferrol

These buildings were hard by the harbour:-

Sea Front Building, Ferrol, Galicia, Spain

Older Fortification and Newer Buildings, Ferrol

Interzones 269 and 270

 The Stars Are Legion cover
Interzone 269 cover

Interzone 269 arrived today.

It contains my review of The Mountains of Parnassus by Czesław Miłosz.

A few days ago I received The Stars Are Legion by Kameron Hurley.

That review is due soon for Interzone 270.

Divided City by Theresa Breslin

Corgi, 2006, 236 p. One of the Scotsman’s 20 Scottish Books Everyone Should Read.

Divided City cover

One night Graham (surname never specified) is taking a short cut – against which his parents have repeatedly warned him – on his way home from football training when he witnesses a gang chasing and stabbing a young lad whom they call “asylum scum”. Graham comforts the wounded boy, Kyoul, uses the mobile phone Kyoul has dropped to call an ambulance and accompanies him to the hospital then slips away but not before Kyoul asks him to take a message, and the phone, to his girlfriend Leanne. This leads to Graham almost by accident involving another boy from training, Joe Flaherty (who is of course from across the sectarian divide to which the book’s title mainly refers) in finding Leanne’s house. She is grateful but has kept her relationship with Kyoul from her own parents and so asks them to visit Kyoul for her. This strand of the book where they find common purpose off the training pitch is intertwined with the background of both footballers.

Graham’s Granda Reid is a proud Orangeman who wants Graham to march in the big Orange Walk which is coming up. Graham’s parents have always resisted pressure to make him take part when he was younger saying he should make his own mind up when he is old enough. However, this is the year he must do so. Joe’s family members are equally committed to upholding their Catholic traditions.

But this is where Divided City is too diagrammatic. Nearly every domestic conversation in the book centres on sectarianism and how the “others” mistreat “our” side.

There were other infelicities. The football training is for a youth team to be known as Glasgow City which is about to take part in an inter-cities youth competition. Here credulity becomes strained. If both boys were as good at football as the novel tells us they’d most likely already be attached to a club and probably not allowed to play for anyone else. Another unconvincing aspect is that Leanne is said to be “not yet sixteen” but she met Kyoul who had wandered in off the street at one of Glasgow University’s school open days and both ended up looking at a stand where they were each wondering what courses they would choose and struck up a conversation. Fifteen is rather young for such a trip. Also, the first time home ground of Rangers is mentioned it’s by a supporter, who calls it “Ibrox Park.” A fan would just say “Ibrox”. Similarly we get “the Celtic Parkhead stadium”. Then there is the description of an Old Firm game where the phrase “unleashed a stinging right kick” is used. It’s called a shot, not a kick. Later one fan is enjoined to ‘Watch the play’. It would be ‘Watch the game’.

Granted the dilemma of an asylum seeker from a ‘White List’ country, deemed to be safe but which isn’t, may need elucidating to a wider audience, yet while the novel is even-handed enough as between Protestant and Catholic viewpoints I struggled to see for what audience this could have been written, whom it was intended to educate. The book’s cover is emblazoned with the phrase “Carnegie Medal winning author” implying it’s for young adults. But young adults in Glasgow will know about sectarianism, those elsewhere likely not care (Northern Ireland excepted.) The incidental illustration of the usual parental restrictions on adolescent comings and goings do not expand the scope. Divided City’s earlier chapters reminded me of a certain kind of not very good Science Fiction which doesn’t trust its reader to make the connections, so too much is spelled out. And there is an overuse of exclamation marks. I would submit that YA readers deserve better.

There is a good novel about sectarianism – and/or football – in Glasgow out there. This isn’t it.

Pedant’s corner:- “the dark openings of the tenement building mawed at him” (the openings stomached at him?) the local senior boy’s club” (boys’ club, I think,) refers to winning the League Championship (it’s just “winning the League” not League Championship,) Rangers’ (Rangers’s,) ‘How are we going to do that without getting caught.’ (Needs a question mark, not a full stop.)

free hit counter script