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Letters from Proxima Thule

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Yellow Blue OH MY GOD NO
modern lit
Allow me to say upfront, in case it was not clear:

I am not Russian, nor do I play one on TV. I have not the smallest drop of Russian blood in me.

I am, however, married to a man who grew up in the former Soviet Union, and thus spend a lot of time with him. I also spend a lot of time with his family, all of whom lived through some pretty dire parts of the 20th century in Russia. I speak very terrible Russian on the level of a toddler. Rather notoriously, I've traveled to Russia, and most recently written an entire novel set in Leningrad, and thus done more research than you can shake a red stick at. Russian culture features extremely prominently in my life these days. I say this so that you will understand how frustrated I have become over the last two days, but not make the mistake of thinking I'm talking about my own culture.

I just finished reading Yellow Blue Tibia.

Oh my fucking god, you guys.

You know how sometimes (all the time) American movies and books will flip the R in the title to indicate one out to HOLD UP, THIS SHIT IS RUSSIAN, YO? Like so: я. This is, of course, maddening, no less than using a Greek lambda for an A when it is patently not an A. я is not an R, it goes: "ya." Incidentally, the cover of Yellow Blue Tibia is the single worst offender I have ever seen in this category, as it goes to bizarre lengths to make every English letter into some freakish version of a Russian one, including putting a line through a д to make an A, because I guess the Russian A--you know, A--wasn't Russian enough. I know the author isn't in charge of this, but I should have known, because the novel is the literary equivalent of this exact phenomenon. 

Is it a bad book? On its own merits I'd say no worse than mediocre. The plot: Stalin hires a bunch of SF writers to create a believable alien threat to unite the Communists against something other than America, which he assumes will fall within 5 years. The things they wrote then start coming true. Roberts is going for a Bulgakov meets Foucault's Pendulum sort of thing, with conspiracies that turn out to be true and a lot of madcap running around Moscow with clever asides and "incisive" satire on the Soviet system, but it doesn't really come off as clever or madcap or even very conspiratorial. When you have to have characters comment on how funny a protagonist is, he's not really that funny. If in a workshop I'd say that we get all of ten pages to care about the conspiracy these guys write, and pretty much no information on what it is besides "radiation aliens" + blow up Ukraine, so we have no investment in whether or not it's real. An on the sentence level almost every line is tortured and too full of clauses and robbed of any spirit by endless commas. But I had to do some breathing exercises to even analyze the book on that level because literally every cultural note in this entire novel is wrong.

I cannot even being to explain how much this book did it wrong. I'll give you the most glaring examples, not even getting into the little things that niggled once I gave up being immersed in the book and started actually thinking about why anyone would assume no one in 1940s Russia would speak French or how living in gaga-grad as a euphemism for crazy is not really a Russian-ism but an English-Russian-ism and not that funny anyway and ooh, I want to listen to Lady Gaga anything to get away from this thing. The fact is that the book would have been a lot more believable with all the names changed and set in England or America.

Firstly, Roberts has just ported the entire contempt for science fiction writers from the West right into Russia, with nothing changed, not even considering that there is a different culture of literature there and writers, even of SF, had a pretty high position that the protagonist would have no reason to hide with shame purely because of the genre he wrote. Yes, there is Soviet pulp, but the constant asides about how despised SF is and passive-aggressive defenses of how awesome it is, really, were meant for a Western audience, not authentic to Russia where fantastika has a long and rich tradition of not being spat on. Of course, one of the more egregious problems was that it seems not to have occurred to anyone in the editorial process that "science fiction" does not begin with SF in Russian, much less сф, as the protagonist makes much of while analyzing Josef Stalin's name to somehow contain the initials for science fiction. (In the Latin alphabet, Jehovah begins with an I...)

Then there's the names. Oh, the linguistic hugemanatee at work here! The main character's name is Konstantin, but his friends call him Konsty. Not, you know, Kostya, which is the actual diminutive and not even remotely hard to find out if you've ever read a Russian novel. Stalin makes fun of one Jan Frenkel for having a Slavic first name which he actually changed to Ivan, but seems to be cool not only with his German-Jewish surname, but the protagonist's surname, which is actually Czech. The one actual Russian word that's used is actually not correct at all, but an inexplicable mangling of the word for "dead." One character actually refers to the "x"s in the Russian alphabet, in a passage with so many things wrong with it it beggars the mind. (There aren't any. And yes, he meant x as in the English x. Oh, I know it looks like an X. But it goes: "ch" and is not an X, much like our friend я.)

The title itself makes me want to punch something. I actually said in the beginning of this book: "justbeast , the title better not be some stupid pun on тебя or I'm just going to kill myself." justbeast  assured me this could not possibly be the case. And he was right. It's much worse. You might think it has to do with alien physiology, but you'd be wrong.

The title allegedly is a phonetic English version of "I love you" in Russian. I love you in Russian is ya lyublyu tebya. So, um, I guess if you  have THE WORST PRONUNCIATION IN THE ENTIRE WORLD and are an idiot, it kind of almost works. Except no, no, it doesn't. Instead it's the worst pun in the universe. Then, to make it better, the American love interest says it to Russian people and they understand her despite the emphasis and ACTUAL VOWELS being completely wrong. I used to think this was an awesome intriguing title. Now I hate myself and all living things. This is why we can't have nice things, kids.

Oh, what else? Konstantin, in 1986 Moscow, decides he's an alcoholic and stops drinking, is concerned about the effects of tobacco on his lungs. Awesomely, at one point, without any irony whatsoever, while being detained by the KGB, Konstantin loudly claims that he must be charged with a crime or released, since that's the law! Really? Would you like your Miranda rights read to you, too? How about your one phone call? The KGB and local police have to do precisely shit for you in Soviet Russia, and this isn't even a tough research bit--it's like rule one in the totalitarian handbook, and given how cynical and experienced our hard-boiled protag is supposed to be, I just can't even finish this sentence for how stupid this is.

And then we get into factual problems. Because honestly, the cultural notes aren't just wrong for Russia, they're wrong for the 80s. And sometimes offensive. One of the characters, Saltykov, has Asperger's Syndrome. In 1986. Asperger's was not diagnosed by that name in anyone until 1992. And of course Saltykov is just literally the most annoying person ever born, and exists purely to block the protagonist and cause problems with his hilarious syndrome and be comic relief, sort of, even though his symptoms are pretty much classic OCD and not Asperger's. And the American woman is, of course, fat. Not just fat, but constantly described in the most grotesque terms possible, that she has to collect her flesh and haul it into a car--she practically has no character other than to be fat and American. And a Scientologist. I'll get back to that in a minute. Eventually, of course, it dawns on Konstantin that skinny bodies aren't so awesome in post-war Russia and he falls in love with her for no reason and she with him, even though she's in her thirties and he's in his late sixties and horrifyingly scarred. Their main topic of conversation seem to remain, however, how fat she is. I've never used the word fatphobic before, but there it is. Literally, she can be stabbed with no damage because she's so incredibly fat--did you hear how fat she is? SO VERY FAT.

Oh, and she's a Scientologist. I know the Church was around then (though since Hubbard died in 1986, literally a month before the action of the book, and the Scientologists never mention it, but the Soviet authorities are all over that, I can't even say this rings right) but really, Scientology and Asperger's and alcoholism and the evils of tobacco are concerns of today, not of 1986. It just feels wrong. And there's no reason for them to be Scientologists, it doesn't matter to the plot, except in that they necessarily believe in aliens. No one has cell phones or email, but other than that it might as well be 2010. In America (or England, I know the author is British), since every single cultural reference the protagonist makes is a Western one. I swear I am more Russian than this guy.

And then there's Chernobyl, which you'll be happy to know is a cute joke having to do with the alien conspiracy and just a nice set piece, which really I'm not at all cool with, given the rest of the painfully inept cultural appropriation going on here. The much-vaunted satire in the novel's blurbs is just one-note lol Russia sux nonsense, and I think it's telling that the acknowlegments thank a plainly not-Russian friend for her childhood memories of having once visited Kiev and Moscow. Because that's what this reads like. The dim memories of someone who might have once seen a movie about Russia.

I agonized over cultural details while writing Deathless. I didn't even feel right making it a first person novel for that very reason--which YBT is. It shocks me as much as a nude author picture would, to see any cultural accuracy just flung to the wind, and this ugly pastiche, a Westerner in redface prancing around an amazing idea for a book that got totally lost in endless chase scenes, guns, and tell me the truth/you can't handle the truth! exchanges. The entire central 200 pages of the book are filled with that, such that aliens and conspiracies barely register.

I heard so many good things about this book. I went out of my way to get it from the UK. And really, I might as well have just added -ski to every word in this book and treated it like Communist Mad Libs for all that it had any point whatsoever, or any authenticity at all. Apparently cultural sensitivity just doesn't apply to those evil, evil Russians.

Yeah, I know, that's harsh. I mean, I could gripe about the cover design, too (not all books involving Russia have to be red, actually). But I have to call them like I see them, or else what's a blog for?

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Ditto on the title. Also, 1986 was pretty much at the peak of anti-alcohol campaign by Gorbachev, so alcoholism was a commonly acknowledged concern at the time.

Well, then it still doesn't make sense, since everyone else in the book laughs at him for it, and it's presented as a deeply personal decision in the sense of an American choosing that--and he chose it in the 60s. It's one of those things that piled on and on. I admit my loathing of puns might color my hatred of the title, but I can't get over how much it just doesn't sound that way at all.

I actually got curious about that one (please let me know if you'd rather I shut up). So this guy stopped drinking, smoking - and coupled with his Russian ethnicity and/or nationality it contributes to the awful impression. Was it written in such a way that you found his decision hard to believe, or is it just that no guy in that age and locality would not make that decision? Because from what you say it seems a plausible event, unless the writing was not convincing.

I mean, yes, many would laugh at that decision, whether in the 60s or 80s or today, for that matter, and yes, it would have to be a deeply personal one, because of the conventions in many subcultures (but not in all of them) - you know, not everyone living or born in Russia drinks vodka as a hobby. And, while it would require an astonishing amount of naivete to say that line about "tell me what charges are or let me go", but it can happen, if the character is like that and the author makes it work. Just saying.

First the character is shown as INCREDIBLY cynical and hard boiled, so no naïveté males sense. He's also. WWII vet. Second, the alcoholism thing felt not genuine because the way it was written felt so very western, with the emphasis on introspection and critique of alcohol that didn't feel true to the culture. Hard to explain. But I know not all Russians drink vodka.

Thank you. I see. Then it just was not convincing enough, and that _is_ bad writing.

Also, to clarify--it is /not/ the law, in the USSR. It is completely nonsensical to claim a Western law applies to your detainment by the KGB when you are not a Western person nor have ever been outside Communist Russia, much less lived under and worked for /Stalin./

(Who is a space alien.)

I see :) a space alien? well, that explains a lot.

Thank you for that clarification. I do not doubt you when you say that _the_ situation with _the_ character is a non-possibility. On an off the topic note, the depth of legal knowledge is (or at least was when I lived there, which was up to 90s) so low (unless one had a brush with justice) and for the most part not from actual documents and such, but from movies and stories, that I kind of can imagine _a_ person who would believe that he should be charged or released, because that's how he saw it done in the movies. I'm sure I was naive enough to pull something like that. Though obviously Konstantin should know better.

Also, given how little love figures in this book, naming it I Love You is just weird and reflects nothing about the book at all. It's a pun only valuable for one side of its punning, not for the meaning of the phrase at all, which is meaningless. The book isn't about love or the relationship between the protag and the American woman. Those are very incidental.

The book isn't about love


Yes it is. In the Dr Strangelove sense.

Well, again, we just have to disagree. The love relationship was incredibly tacked on to my view, not helped by the misogynistic portrayal of Dora as this breathy, adoring nobody with no traits other than being fat. In fact, I was struck at what a loveless book it was. And since the title pun is used in relationship to Dora, I guess I'm not following your argument about Dr. Strangelove.

Well, first, irrespective of the merits of Dora as a character (and I think she's significantly less problematic than you do, because I think both she and the characters relating to her are shown to grow and change over the course of the novel; though in common with the other characters, she is indeed more of a type than an individual), the relationship between her and Svorecky read as genuine to me. At the very least,it's the closest thing to a healthy relationship I've read in an Adam Roberts novel. But I think that love -- and the absence of love, which is a way of writing about love -- can be applied much more broadly to the novel, stemming from the idea that both science fiction writing and politics are both passionate forms of engagement with the world. As Clute puts it at the end of his review of YBT, "love makes the world go round".

I'm just not seeing it. Also, having never read another AR novel, I have no basis for comparison.

No, and that's fair enough. As I just alluded to in another comment, though, I do think there's a strand of self-reflexiveness about the book (that is, it's not just about science fiction, it's about Adam Roberts writing science fiction). I seesaw between being surprised it's gained so much traction for that reason, and between cynically feeling it's an Adam Roberts novel for people who don't like Adam Roberts novels, containing some of his common themes in a more palatable (read: watered-down) form. This discussion suggests I should be erring on the former rather than the latter. :-)

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