In 2015, [Tan] completed her PhD in creative writing at Curtin University. Her thesis investigated the intrusion of science-fictional tropes and iconography onto our current social reality, and the cultural anxieties that this has produced. This practice-led research culminated in her first novel Rubik, published in 2017.
It’s a bit of shame about that PhD, although too common to worry about any more. I like to think of the author as slaving away in a garret [from the old French “guerite”, meaning “watchtower” or “sentry box.”] to get her dreams down on paper, not poring over textbooks to assemble concepts in an order acceptable to her supervisor, and I’ve written before that I find novels by literature academics often too self-consciously post modern. But not, I’m happy to say, in this case.
One of the great pleasures of reading C21st writing – for me – is the way Science Fiction has leaked into the Lmainstream. Think Jane Rawson, A Wrong Turn at the Office of Unmade Lists, Charlotte Wood, The Natural Way of Things, Ellen van Neerven, Heat and Light, Claire Coleman, Terra Nullius, and all right, Margaret Attwood, The Handmaid’s Tale. Wait, there’s more, Krissy Kneen, Rodney Hall, Georgia Blain, Robert Edeson, Nathan Hobby, and these are just authors that I’ve reviewed.
SF is a way of making sense of the world, and this is a world that needs to be made sense of. Early, 1950s SF fought WWII and the Cold War in space, America to the rescue, a trope laughably referenced recently by President Trump.
In the 1960s and ’70s SF reflected not just psychedelia, experimental writing, the drug culture, different ways of living, though there was lots of that, but also the consequences of nuclear and climate disasters. Sadly the literature was regarded as genre, and to be honest, the purview of nerdish young men. Consequently, great writers like JG Ballard, Doris Lessing, Ursula le Guin, Phillip K Dick received far less attention, as writers, than they deserved.
Mainstream writing proceeded on its way with social realism. Mostly. There were outliers like David Ireland’s A Woman of the Future and Thomas Keneally, A Dutiful Daughter. Postmodernism which had begun in the 1950s as a way of describing and deconstructing writing was by the 1980s merely a fashion in which all literary works had to contain elements of meta fiction. Likewise Magic Realism, interesting in a South American context and later in Indian, African and Indigenous writing, but just a base to touch for Anglos, pointless and handled badly.
So, to Rubik. First, this is a work set unselfconsciously in Perth, not in a descriptive way, you won’t get much of an idea of what Perth is like, but fun to follow for a local as characters flit from Northbridge (inner city arts and restaurant precinct) up and down the Mandurah (south) and Joondalup (north) rail lines.
Rubik is a novel about the intersecting lives of a range of characters, through a series of vignettes, not sequential, and sometimes exploring alternate time lines. Even if you miss some (or most) of the connections, and I’m sure I did, it is immensely enjoyable. In particular, Tan writes likeable characters and I hope in a future novel she takes the opportunity to let us know two or three characters really well.
The eponymous Elena Rubik is knocked down by a car and killed in the first scene but persists in various ways throughout. Her housemate Jules Valentine is asked to stand in for the ‘falling woman’, a widely distributed meme associated with the new in-phone. A little girl is cared for by an octopus/transformer. Peter’s piano teacher disappears and he and his new school friend attempt to find her. Ursula and Penny create mobiles for an exhibition at the Cultural Centre (in Northbridge of course). They fixate on a voice-over man whose cat may exist in alternate universes. Everyone sort of recognises Jules, as she has been the face of the Ampersand product range. Audrey repairs robot birds and insects, which are all we have left. A student newspaper begins pulling some of the strands together. With surprising results.
Some of these strands may be stories on an old fan fiction site of which Ampersand sales people Michael and Bette are or have been members. As was/is Elena.
This is a novel for our neo-liberal times where corporations run by faceless old white men both know and control everything about us. Tan fights back subtly, with satire, with ‘acceptably brown’ characters, with off-hand analyses of the way we submit to being manipulated. I forget who recommended Rubik now, but thank you, I loved it.
Elizabeth Tan, Rubik, Brio/Xoum, Sydney, 2017