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Sunday, March 3, 2013

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts

I once got in a huge argument with some friends when they uttered the following statement in my presence: “The post-Soviet economic system is a much purer form of capitalism than our own.” In addition to being vague to the point of meaninglessness, this idea, which I've heard several times in different contexts, is such a ridiculously American piece of twaddle, uttered in comfy American living rooms while outside government continues to function and basic services are rendered. Adam Smith's sherry-snorting little capitalist would piss himself yellow when confronted by a New Russian when he came to shake down the widget factory for protection money. Before you jump down my throat, yes, I am aware that the US is a total kleptocracy, and that for many Americans, basic services don't even exist. But what bridles me about this statement is the almost wistful idealism – in the classic sense of the term – that goes along with this statement: look at those lucky Russians living out the American dream of a total lack of government! Think of everything we could get done if we dismantled public education, a state-maintained infrastructure, and even the pretense of a impartial court system!

In 1991, I went on exchange to the Soviet Union, to Minsk in Belarus specifically. (Although, it was called Byelorussia in those days. I can see why the name change - Byelorus means White Russia, but spoken aloud by English speakers, this sounds like Yellow Russia.) I was 16 years old, and typically naïve, although not in a particularly precious or nasty way. We were exhorted by the exchange leaders and chaperones to be mindful of not becoming the dreaded ugly American. We all very earnestly took this to heart, but in some very real way, there was nothing to be done about what a complete mindfuck was coming our way. Turns out, the Soviets viewed history entirely differently than Americans. I mean, duh, of course they do, but it's one thing to say this, and another thing to walk around in place entirely steeped in an alternate history. It's like someone took all the regular labels, and, I don't know, rendered them into Cyrillic or something. 

I'm being flip, but here's an example: I know it may be hard to remember, but the Soviet Union and the US were both Allies in the War. When I say the War, I mean WWII, which the Russians would call the Great Patriotic War. The War sucked for the States, absolutely: rationing, tons of people dead, Japanese internment  etc, but this is a completely different kind of sucking than the Russians experienced: cities laid siege, the countrysides burned to ash, the lack of basic munitions for the soldiery. (And this is assuming the soldiery were even, in the strictest sense, soldiers. There were tons and tons of statues in Minsk – rightly so – to the partisans who fought the Nazis with absolutely no military training or back-up of any kind.) So when Russians speak with pride about their part in War, it's a fundamentally different kind of pride than an American would understand. It's personal in a way an American transported on government ships, outfitted with government weapons and generaled by American military leaders cannot begin to understand. Again, caveats all around about your Grandpa and how he got screwed this one time, or LeMay and what an idiot he was or whatever. My point stands: your Grandfather didn't have a gun to both his front and back when he went to war. I'm not saying his service is less valorous or whatever; I'm saying it's entirely different. If it weren't for this experience, I might have been able to go along with the statement above, because I would have understood the word “capitalism”, with it's embedded widgets and labor and markets and all that crap in a very specific way, and then thought I could export those ideas with their nomenclature intact. Wrong. No way. 

I have roughly seven thousand different anecdotes about how my mind was blown by this country that was filled with humans, flesh-and-blood recognizable humans, and how their sense of history, community, and individuality was entirely different from mine. Yellow Blue Tibia takes place in this Soviet Union, and I'm afraid a good deal of my pleasure with this novel is intensely personal. Which is not to say it isn't good, because it really, really is. Frankly, I'm a little pissed off I had never heard of Adam Roberts before Mike's review turned me on to this. Yellow Blue Tibia is a thoughtful exploration of the idea of alternate history, both in the literary and the cultural senses, in this po-mo meta way, but don't let that dissuade you. It's also maybe the first example of the Soviet Noir, in this incredibly funny way that zips the California flat-foot backwards, but don't let that dissuade you either. 

I've started this review a couple of times, but each time I get into the swing of things, the freaking battery on my lappy fails, and I lose it all. I wised up at some point, and started saving regularly, but the whole thing has been so frustrating with lost passages and I feel so sick and irritated with trying to recreate them that I've decided to chuck it all and start over. It's kind of perfect, in way – although this may be the sour grapes talking – because this book is partially about history and the ways it is perceived, the way those perceptions are enacted and enforced. For whatever reason, I've been reading a lot of fiction recently in the mode of alternate history, and then also stuff about the paranoid conspiracy. I'm beginning to think maybe history is a paranoid conspiracy. Seriously, don thine tin foil works of millinery and gather round for this one.

As I'm writing, I'm sitting on the back porch while firecrackers bang around me in the dark. It's Forth of July weekend, and we Americans are reenacting our big F.U. to taxes and England and whatnot. Our country was founded on an oppositional basis: we are not a monarchy, we are not British, we are something other, and that other is not-you. The Brits kind of fell off as our bad-guy of choice, but we've always found another other, which probably reached it's societal pinnacle of othering with the Cold War. And the reason our conflict with the Soviets was so freaking perfect was that at the very same time, they were writing themselves as not-us. (I guess when I say perfect, I mean horrible and infectiously engulfing, but you know what I mean.) 

Yellow Blue Tibia takes place in the Soviet Union in 1986, mostly, when the Soviet narrative was beginning to crack and fail, on a collective level. (Har har?) The same could be said about that time in the States: the Berlin Wall had fallen, Germany was nervously approaching reunification, and we were all kind of losing interest in the whole thing. Meh, it's done. Reagan's “Star Wars” speech was in '83, but this was pretty much a punchline on the era – for cripe's sakes man, clearly you have been reading too much science fiction! (Although, that little chestnut was dusted off after 9/11, as you may recall, just another piece of evidence of how un-charmingly Cold War Era our “security systems” still are/were.) Anyway, the protagonist, along with a number of other science fiction writers, was called by Stalin after the Great War to script the war-after-the-next-war. After the Soviets put down the Yanks, they would need a new enemy to fight, and that enemy, my friends, would be aliens.

They beaver away at it, script the entire invasion, until they are told to stop and never to speak of it again. Unlike an American in the same instance, this actually means something, so they don't. I've always laughed my ass off at American conspiracies, because the idea of governmental competence on that level is a real knee-slapper. If there's one thing a group of Americans can't do, it's shut the fuck up on an institutional level. A Stalin Era Soviet, however, knew the true murderous power of an effective government, at least when it came to shutting you the fuck up. So he shuts up, drinks roughly 8 million cubic shit-tons of vodka, dries out, and manages to make it to '86 more or less intact. Then the real fit hits the shan. He's contacted by another of the writers from the group, who pitches the idea that all their fictions are beginning to come true. 

There's a lot of snicker-snack and some zippy plot-driven origami at this point, and I won't go too far into it for fear of spoilers. But woo-ey, it's fun, and more mindful of character than your usual high-concept exercise. There are parts that got a little to expository for me, especially near the end, but wow is that first several hundred pages worth reading when compared to the only partially lumpy infodump near the end. And even though I'm complaining a little bit, I still thought the ideasworked and they worked well, reconciling all kind of craziness into a neat pile of half-smoked Russian cigarettes. Roberts is the most fun sci-fi writer you've never heard of. Sci-fi nerds, get out and read this as soon as you are able.

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