Jack Glass – Adam Roberts

Jack GlassAdam Roberts’ Jack Glass (2012) carries the subtitle ‘A Golden Age Story’, which, for me at least, problematised the book before I’d even started reading it. Other than writing that was published between two dates (nominally 1938 – 1946, though debate rages on…), I’ve never been able to figure what unifying factor exactly constitutes ‘Golden Age’ Science Fiction. Having been published in 2012, Jack Glass’ subtitle implies that there’s some quality inherent in Golden Age-ness that’s independent from the date of composition, though the novel itself doesn’t really offer any suggestions as to what this quality might be.

Jack Glass certainly isn’t a planet-hoping space adventure of the pulp variety (though there are nods to this), nor does it pit some moral paradigm of hero against an unequivocally evil villain, and it’s not particularly Hard SF; all of which have, at one point or another, been put forward  as Golden Age genre markers. This is further complicated by some of Roberts’ stylistic choices: the prose is characterised by rampant and strange neologisms, there’s a very un-Golden Age focus on the politics of this far-future solar system, and the whole thing is filtered through the modernist device of an unreliable narrator. Oh Adam Roberts, you tricksy game-player you.

But maybe I’m looking at this ‘Golden Age’ subtitle through the wrong lens. As well as being a Science Fiction story, Jack Glass is also a murder mystery novel (it’s actually three locked room/murder mysteries brought together under one, over-arching story), so perhaps the intended referent of this subtitle isn’t just Golden Age SF, but Golden Age detective fiction, too. The locked room mystery is certainly a staple of classic Crime Fic.

However, considering Jack Glass as a Golden Age Detective novel is, it turns out, even more problematic than reading it in terms of Golden Age Science Fiction. But I guess all of this red-herring, self-problematising and game-playing trickery is characteristic of Roberts’ style.  For example: we’re told on the very first page that the killer is the titular Jack himself, which immediately positions the novel as a how- rather than who-dunit. Similarly, several of Roland Knox’s famous so-called ‘Ten Commandments’ of the detective genre are flamboyantly broken by Roberts in the course of the three stories: the solution to one of the murders relies on some long-winded explanation of a technological MacGuffin, while the narrator (or ‘Watson’ figure, if you must) conceals their true identity as a physical participant in the narrative until the very end of the book. Most damaging, though, is the fact that Jack Glass himself is privy to information that he pretends he isn’t privy to (until he absolutely has to reveal it, that is), which bathetically undermines the denouement of at least one of the stories, as well as some of the tension the book is attempting to generate.

***

The first of the three stories is, by some margin, my favourite: an SF-nal take on the impossible prison break, which sees Jack (here ‘Jac’) and several other crims imprisoned inside a tiny asteroid, given two drills so that they can hollow-out some living space for themselves, and enough supplies to last their sentence (if they cooperate, that is). Jack’s inevitable escape from this apparently inescapable prison is brilliantly inventive and utterly unpredictable, but it’s the politics of the prisoners’ relationships that really makes this story shine. The traditional dichotomy of alpha and beta prisoners (with all of the rape and subjugation this entails) is manipulated by Jack to his own advantage, as he weaves lies, misdirects and false friendships into his plan for escape. In contrast to the book’s light-hearted and playful prologue, this first story is nauseatingly violent and dark; seemingly the least Adam Roberts thing that Adam Roberts has ever written. Tempering this brutal content, however, is the character of Jack himself: a spritely self-interested manipulator whose appalling behaviours make for weirdly addictive reading: a challenge to the worryingly popular critical notion that all protagonists should be ‘likeable’.

The second and third stories shift focus to Diana Argent, a fifteen-year-old heiress to one of the solar system’s ruling families, and a freakishly gifted solver of mysteries (albeit simulated VR mysteries). There’s even some suggestion that Diana has been born and bred in an Iain-Banks’-Player of Games kinda way to be the galaxy’s greatest detective.  Her character’s development is refreshingly deep; the novel tracks a convincing journey from precocious and over-confident spoiled rich girl, to a morally interested, politicised and self-aware young woman (Jack Glass is similar to Roberts’ previous novel By Light Alone in this regard).

Diana initially approaches the murders she’s investigating as a sort of game, akin to the simulated adventures she grew up playing. But as the body count rises, and her own safety is threatened, her wide-eyed glee at the prospect of solving a ‘real’ murder mystery is replaced by fear and a cogent self-analysis. There’s a nice moment when she admits that “An invented whodunit has the same relation to real life as a chess puzzle has to an actual game of chess”.

But man does this complicate things further. As readers, of course, we’re aware that Jack Glass is exactly the type of “invented whodunit” that Roberts was just questioning the value of.  The two most conspicuous aspects of Jack Glass are the provocative subtitle (‘A Golden Age Story’), and the book’s constant pairing of murder mysteries and games. When this is coupled with the novel’s predominant imagery – that of break out and escape – perhaps it wouldn’t be too twee to suggest that the sort of game Adam Roberts is really playing is an implied questioning of the genre boundaries of “Golden Age” SF and Detective fiction. The book’s subtitle is more likely an invitation to question and investigate the tenets of golden age-ness (reader become detective..?), than it is a definite statement about the book’s genre. As, as we have already seen, the very moniker ‘Golden Age’ is riddled with problems of definition.

Superficially, then, Jack Glass is a Science Fictional murder mystery – and an excellent one at that – , but on a subtextual level, the book definitely had me scratching my head over issues of genre identity, and science fiction’s unhelpful structuralist habit of pigeon-holing books into neat genre categories. The three mysteries make for fantastic page-turning reading, and the characters (notably Diana Argent) are impressively well-developed. But at the same time, Jack Glass’ un-crime fiction stylistic ticks (lotsa neologisms, an unreliable narrator, revealing the murderer on the first page etc.) had me wondering what it was that Adam Roberts really wants to reader to investigate.

Tomcat.

By Light Alone – Adam Roberts

BlaYou know zombie movies, yeah?  Zombie movies? Okay so you know how in zombie movies there’s often a protracted period in the opening act during which the characters have no idea that the world has gone to shit and that the zombie horde is almost at their front door, and the only way that the viewer has any idea about the zombies is because she’s given glimpses of subtly-placed newspaper headlines and T.V. footage telling her about the zombies – reportage of which the characters all seem blissfully unaware?  Well, Adam Roberts’ By Light Alone begins in very much the same vein.  There are no zombies, but the world has most definitely gone to shit.  This may be painfully obvious to the reader, but the rich, self-centred protagonists, sealed off in the hermetic paradise of uber-affluent Manhattan, have no idea about the true state of things – reading the news, you see, has become distinctly unfashionable.

I say there are no zombies – but that’s not really true.  By Light Alone is set 100 (ish) years from now, when humans have genetically engineered the ability to photosynthesize through their hair, thus eliminating the need for food.  This results in a kind of extreme Marxian two-class society: the rich (who can afford real food) are completely sealed-off and unreachable, and affect baldness as a visual signifier of their wealth. The poor masses, by comparison, grow long flowing locks and spend their days prostrate in the sun in order to survive. (I suppose the “jobsuckers” (those who work) form a third class – analogous with the petite bourgeoisie – but the novel never deals with these directly.) The so-called ‘longhairs’ are seen by our rich protagonists as the zombie plague: socially worthless (they don’t need food, so there’s no motivation for them to work the low-paid jobs of the poor), nomadic and emaciated, they ring the walled-cities and lay-about on rafts, just existing in their millions, described using imagery highly reminiscent of cinema’s zombie hordes: gorging all day (albeit on sunlight), walking about, and not doing very much of anything else.

In order for By Light Alone to work, then, the reader has to swallow the ridiculousness of photosynthesizing hair, and for what it’s worth I was more than willing to suspend my disbelief in this regard (who says Science Fiction has to be about real science, anyway?).  I was wary going-in to a book that so obviously functions as a thought experiment, a transposition of our real world concerns about a growing rich-poor divide that utilises a science fictional gimmick (the “hair”) to both simplify and radicalise the terms of the enquiry (I’ve always been more interested in sci-fi as a poetics than as an extrapolation). But the clinical and gloomy investigation into the nature of poverty is pleasingly tempered by Roberts’ knack for charming characterisation and frequently hilarious satire.  This, if anything, is what justifies Roberts’ couching of his debate in the form of a novel (-as if such a thing needs justifying…).  The satire in question isn’t especially subtle (and his caricatures of the vain, ignorant, unsympathetic rich are so extreme as to be unhelpful in some passages), but I generally found the jokes to be successful, and the culture criticism to be biting and astute.

**

The first half of By Light Alone is uncomfortable reading. We spend most of our time with George and Marie: grotesque, vain, vulgar millionaires entirely ignorant and dismissive of the wider world and its myriad problems.  They spend their time holidaying and eating various expensive and exotic foodstuffs; partly because it’s fashionable, and partly because they just can.  George and Marie’s children are cared for by a full-time nanny, who is occasionally commanded to bring the kids out so that they might be shown off for 5 or 10 minutes to George and Marie’s equally abhorrent friends – this being the total extent of the interaction between parents and children.

I experienced a strange cognitive dissonance when reading about George and Marie, somewhere between voyeuristically delighting in their vileness, and morally despairing at the unapologetic pride they have in their own ignorance.  Much of the language in the first half of the novel is equally divided: there’s a limited narratorial point of view that seems similarly unaware of the wider “real world”, but which simultaneously satirises the protagonists’ despicable ignorance and gluttony.  It’s impressive stuff, coloured by Roberts’ characteristically dry sense of humour. For example, when Marie admits to a friend that she has two children, the narrator chips-in with this sly description:

‘Two!’ repeated Ys, as if this number were one of those mind-stunning statistics you hear on documentaries about the vastness of interstellar space.

The primary catalyst for dramatic action occurs when George and Marie’s daughter, Leah, is kidnapped while on holiday.  Leah is returned to them after several months’ frantic communication with the local police, but something about their daughter isn’t quite right. She’s lost the ability to speak English, has been forced to grow her hair long and, after months in the capture of poor “longhairs”, hasn’t eaten “hard food” since her kidnapping.  After various psychological and pharmaceutical therapies, Leah slowly returns to her old self, but the process takes its toll on her parents, and this traumatic event inevitably exposes the cracks in their marriage.

The change in George’s world view at this point is a slightly garish and parable-esque U-turn that’s just about in keeping with his pre-established character, but the more interesting emotional fallout is definitely Marie’s, whose search for solace in various lovers, drugs, therapies and hobbies reveals an emotional complexity that tested my pre-conceptions of this rich, vain woman.  She’s still patronising and ignorant, of course, but it’s satisfying that Roberts’ caricatures attempt some emotional depth.  There’s a strange amount of posturing in By Light Alone, and the book constantly had me shifting and re-adjusting my opinions of its characters.  I’m not sure if this is a consequence of deliberate misdirects and red herrings designed to play on my own prejudices, or if it’s just down to some clunky writing.

When ‘what happened to Leah’ is eventually revealed to the reader, for example, I was equal parts pleased by the originality of the twist, and disappointed by its implications for characterisation. I guess it’s down to the caprice of the individual reader to decide whether he can buy-into the idea that Leah’s parents wouldn’t have immediately sussed what was going on, even though Roberts had laid some of the groundwork for their parental ignorance in advance. I’m still not sure what I feel about it, to be honest.

**

The second half of By Light Alone entails a dramatic shift in narrative focus, and the book now concerns itself with Issa, an itinerant “longhair” trying to reach New York.  The change in register at this point is welcome; long descriptions of food, affluence and luxury are replaced like-for-like with accounts of hunger, poverty and violence.  The tonal move is jarring, but deliberately so. As Issa travels through (I think) Turkey, she is variously assaulted, dehydrated, lost and forced to deal with the Spartacists (revolutionaries set on overthrowing the superstructure of the real-food-eating rich).  It’s harrowing and often deftly-handled stuff, but I found many of the long passages that recount Issa’s wanderings to be tedious, repetitive and a bit too vague in their imagery (I had a lot of trouble actually visualising the landscape).  Perhaps you could generously describe such sequences as the novel’s form mirroring the experience of its subject… but er..hmmm.

Seen from the perspective of the “longhairs”, of course, it is now the super-rich of the book’s opening chapters who appear to be the zombies: constantly stuffing their faces, ignorant about, well, everything, and just kinda brain dead and detached.  I don’t want to take this whole zombie analogy too far (I admit it’s a bit fatuous and vague), but it’s definitely helpful in describing the somewhat ironic way in which the book’s two groups of people (the rich, and the longhairs) see one another. The most successful aspect of By Light Alone is the way the novel appears to set-up simplistic binaries, but then perpetually interrupts the process by shifting the perspective to the other side, to detail the pains and flaws of what was heretofore an “other”.  As I’ve said, the rich aren’t exclusively depicted as emotionally depthless and selfish, and likewise Roberts is keen to avoid any stereotypes of the noble poor (many of the “longhairs’” actions are truly despicable).

**

So By Light Alone is an odd thing, really. It makes a lot of demands of its readers: you have to buy-in to lots of nonsense that can’t always be waved away as “just satire”, but if you’re willing to read it without too much cynicism, then you’ll find the book to be frequently funny, engaging and, at its action-packed dénouement, genuinely moving.  I found myself having to constantly re-orientate my opinions of its characters and their actions, and this, in some ways, is a good reflection of the complexities and problems of the debate at hand.  The second half of the book is a little too earnest, and definitely over-dependent on unlikely coincidences to drive the narrative forward, but By Light Alone remains a fascinating thought experiment, and definitely worth a read.

Tomcat.

Yellow Blue Tibia – Adam Roberts

There’s a scene in Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia in which the narrator, Konstantin Skvorecky, is interrogated by a junior member of the KGB.  It’s your archetypical interrogation set-up: windowless room, tape recorder, table and two chairs.  During the course of the questioning, the seemingly polite and considerate interrogator will reach across the desk, pause the recorder, and subsequently launch an abusive tirade of threats at Skvorecky, paying particularly gruesome attention to the protagonist’s balls.  He’ll then un-pause the recorder and pursue his inquiry in the aforementioned polite and courteous manner, only, of course, to stop the tape machine again and make progressively more disturbing and violent threats of injury to Skvorecky’s testicles.  The scene progresses in this manner for a number of pages until, in a hilarious switcheroo, it’s revealed that the KGB officer has been unintentionally recording the “stuff about balls” but pausing the tape while conducting the interview proper.

It’s very funny (and nothing I can write in this review could possibly articulate quite how ball-obsessed this KGB guy is); but as well as serving to bathetically undermine the seriousness of the interrogation scene as over-used genre trope, this sketch also functions as microcosm for the entire novel.  Yellow Blue Tibia essentially examines the tensions between state-sanctioned truths and the deeper, behind-the-scenes, capital-T Truth (while asking the question: can such a thing be said to exist anyway?).  As this interrogation scene pertinently demonstrates, there’s often a gap between the history as it’s recorded and it’s wider, un-written contexts.  The book’s key thematic elements are the narrative problems of memory and the recording of the same, and the reconciliation of different characters’ conflicting subjective interpretations of the same events.  It’s the kind of thematic fodder that you might expect from more mainstream literary fiction; but don’t worry, Yellow Blue Tibia doesn’t skew quite as close to such middle-brow bore-fests as The Sense of an Ending as I’ve perhaps made it sound.   One of the key questions Yellow Blue Tibia attempts to address is this: what, exactly, is science fiction, and, then, what, exactly, is science fiction for? Fittingly for a book that examines truth, openness and the problems of definition, the setting is Perestroika era Russia. Oh, and there’s loads of stuff about UFOs too. Lots and lots of UFOs.

In brief: A group of renowned Russian sci-fi writers put their heads together to produce a collectively authored alien invasion yarn on the orders of none other than Mr Stalin himself, who feels that a new enemy is just what Russia needs to unite its people.  Not long into the creative process, the writers are ordered to abandon their efforts and, on pain of death, never speak of their narrative again. Jump-cut forty years to 1980s Moscow, where one of the writers, Konstantin Skvorecky, now an elderly divorced ex-alcoholic, is working as a Russian-English translator.  Just as Gorbachev is having his way with Communism, the alien invasion that Skvorecky and colleagues cooked-up all those years ago begins to transpire for real. Or maybe it doesn’t.

Of course, any book that takes as its subject the nature of truth and the trouble with definition presents some particular difficulties for the reviewer (i.e me).  Whether or not I label Yellow Blue Tibia as predominantly realist fiction psycho-drama or escapist sci-fi is somewhat dependent on my own interpretation of its events.  In reading, the novel offers a kind of genre mashup: equal parts literary realism, sci-fi novel, historical fiction, thriller, and satire.  All of this is perennially augmented(/problematised) by the narrator, who will frequently refuse to commit himself to any one version of events, a feat he achieves by constantly employing the book’s defining refrain: “It was [x]; or it was [y]; or it was some third thing”.

So, is there an alien invasion in Yellow Blue Tibia or is there not? (or is there some “third thing?”).  Well, refreshingly, the text doesn’t encourage the reader to plant a flag and take sides with either the ‘yes’ or the ‘no’ camps. Of course our objectivity is somewhat limited by the necessarily biased first-person narration (Skvorecky’s testimony is our only source), but one of Roberts’ most extraordinary achievements is never pushing the balance too far in favour of one interpretation over another.  In this regard Skvorecky is a perfect narrator and an effective canvass for reader-sympathy; being a Russian-English translator, Skvorecky, like the reader, also finds himself adrift between two irreconcilable perspectives; held in suspicion by the Russians (surely it’s impossible to learn English without simultaneously appropriating some of the fundamental deep-structures of the capitalist mindset?), yet not at home with the Americans either (there is a (cold) war on, you know etc.).  This dualism transcends the sub-text to characterise the page-by-page style of the book’s narration.  Skvorecky’s confusion over the alien invasion (that both is and isn’t happening) is charmingly reflected in his narrative voice, which frequently employs bi-lingual puns, hilarious Russian misunderstandings of 20th Century Americanisms and a charming penchant for both Slavic self-deprecation and American pride and blow-hardedness.  Yellow Blue Tibia is a novel of unresolved parities and long-drawn passive conflicts (if you wanted to be reeeally twee about it, you could argue that the book’s overall structure functions as a long-game metaphor for the cold war).

Elsewhere the supporting cast fulfil their roles well: the matter-of-fact and aspergic nuclear physicist-turned-taxi-driver Saltykov offers a pleasing comic foil to Skvorecky’s self-indulgent world weariness.  American love interest Dora gives a satisfying non-Russian perspective while simultaneously providing Roberts with an excuse to have his narrator explain all of the clever puns he’s making. Trofim is your prototypical Bond villain henchman, whose brief moments of verbal eloquence come only when he’s repeating verbatim the philosophy of his superiors, an affectation counterpointed to great comic effect with his otherwise lumbering stupidity.

That Yellow Blue Tibia revels in these kinds of conflicts and ambiguities is what makes the book so special (I also enjoyed the constant and often contradictory attempts to define science fiction, e.g.: “science fiction is a conceptual disorganisation of the familier” etc.)  Being the SF nerd that I am, I’m usually pre-disposed to the more fantastical interpretation of any given set of events. But Yellow Blue Tibia almost denies me this readerly choice by making both of it’s possible outcomes a reality: the alien invasion both is and isn’t happening – and while I can’t explain how the writer achieves this without resorting to massive spoilers, suffice to say the ending really is something else.  For the immovably cynical among you, Roberts offers an out in the form of an ‘it was all a bump on the head’ possibility, but this is by far the least interesting of the explanations offered up by the text.

In a brief end-note, Adam Roberts states that the kernel of the novel was an attempt to reconcile the “seemingly contradictory facts about UFOs: that, on the one hand, they have touched the lives of many millions […] and on the other, that they clearly don’t exist”; but I would posit that Yellow Blue Tibia also carries with it some strikingly more literary connotations, and that Skvorecky’s dilemma (the synchronized existing and not-existing of the book’s aliens) stands as a metaphor for the interpretive pluralism of literary texts – those wildly different readings of books which are, nonetheless, all equally valid.  That the book is narrated by a writer, and that the story constantly draws attention to itself as a multi-layered work of fictions within fictions adds further weight to this argument, I feel.  I enjoyed the book immensely.  Yellow Blue Tibia is about the different ways we read and interpret texts; it’s about the consequences of fictions; or it isn’t. Or maybe it’s some third thing.

Tomcat