In Joss Whedon’s TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, it became a running joke that most people had no idea what undead mayhem was being wrought around them. Vampires, demons and other things which went bump in the night swarmed around the town of Sunnydale, which was itself on a supernatural ‘Hellmouth’, yet the vast majority of its populace continued in stubborn denial of the very real creatures of myth all around them. The longer the show continued, however, the more untenable this contrivance became; by the time the same team brought us a spin-off, Angel, the notion that most people didn’t know there were werewolves living nextdoor seemed absurd. The shrug of an explanation that “people see what they want to see” sounded more and more hollow; nevertheless, the viewer managed – just – to maintain a suspension of disbelief. If at some point they could no longer, they simply had to stop watching.
Science fiction of course relies on the suspension of disbelief: like any fantasy, it thrives upon convincing its followers to abandon not just their natural scepticism, but the very way they see the world. “Good SF does not necessarily traffic in reality,” wrote Brian Aldiss and David Wingrove in their Trillion Year Spree. All fiction, to one extent or another, asks us to imagine what might be; science fiction and fantasy in particular, however, ask us to accept a reconstitution of our universe. Whedon’s shows succeeded in this most fundamental of tricks – just barely, perhaps, but that’s all that matters.
In his latest novel, Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts chooses to grapple with these twin questions – SF’s ability to imagine new realities, and humankind’s ability to choose what and what not to believe. Indeed, Roberts’s narrator, Konstantin Svorecky, is a Soviet science fiction writer who is asked in 1946, along with five others and by none other than Stalin himself, to create an alien invasion narrative in which the Russian people could believe. This risks addressing wider issues through the prism of science-fiction-the-genre, a particular in-jokey tendency of SF of which I am a noted detractor.
Roberts is too clever a writer to fall foul of the fanboy’s error, however. His last novel, Swiftly, was an erudite and experimental look at what it might mean if Gulliver’s Travels had been true. I liked it quite a bit, and though the book has its critics, I found it in fact grew on me the more I turned it over in the light. Yellow Blue Tibia is in some ways a less adventurous novel: structurally and stylistically, it plays far fewer games with one’s expectations, and stretches the form much less. Nevertheless, it is a very smart – and often very funny – yarn. It has received rightly glowing reviews.
The novel is in part an attempt, as Roberts says in his author’s note, “to suggest a way of reconciling the two seemingly contradictory facts about UFOs: that, on the one hand, they have touched the lives of many millions of people, often directly; and that, on the other, that [sic] they clearly don’t exist.” It is, however, a far lighter read than that suggests. It is, in many ways, a farce – after all, what is farce but people failing to see what is right in front of their noses? Throughout the novel, Roberts plays up this tension between what we can conceive may be real and what we choose to believe is not, widening out the UFO theme. “Your disbelief is stubborn,” one character remarks of the habitually ironical narrator. “Disbelief can be like belief in that respect.”
Far from feeling inward-looking, this folding-in of its broader concern and its chosen generic sandpit renders the book a rather perfectly formed little gem; Communism, Scientology and the power of personality to suggest are all allowed to stand beyond science fiction and literature, but are all seen somehow to share a similarity in their relationship to how humans conceive the world. “Imaginative revolution,” Svorecky terms this notion that a person may be capable of thinking a thing into being, before adding, “Naturally such rhetoric appeals to a creative writer.”
This commendable archness keeps the novel at arm’s distance from pretension. It is aware of its own absurdity, and it regularly milks it to glorious comic effect. At the same time, and as suggested above, this farcical bent is used to bolster the novel’s thesis (and its antithesis, and its synthesis). The taxi driver Saltykov is a just-the-right-side-of-tasteful comic foil with the world-forming obssessions of the Aspie; there is surely a satire of SF fan connventions at work in the hilarious scene set at a UFOlogist get-together, in which everyone has their pet theory but no one has a clue; Skvorecky’s own ironic tone naturally infuses the narrative, and at one point is accused of being too indirect to take anything seriously, instead choosing to “exist in a haze of possible paths.”
Ultimately, then, this is a novel at home with the proliferation of quantum theory, interested in the idea that every event “happens in more than one way […] spreading into a complex delta-basin of alternate realities.” This sort of verbiage is the deadening stuff of SF, and one character is forgiveably despairing about the whole complicated business, summarising the objections of a thousand confused readers succinctly enough with a simple, “Fucking Copenhagen.” Just so. With its humour and intelligence, Yellow Blue Tibia is no precious, wordy text book. It is, and this with some élan, a wryly eloquent – and at times deeply allusive – work about the human imagination. Roberts just gets better and better.
In short? Well worth suspending your disbelief for.