Yellow blue tibia
[ bookreviews ]
A coven of Soviet science-fiction writers are summoned by Stalin to a dacha sometime in 1945 for an act of dark enchantment. The war against Germany is won and, as the atomic bomb is yet to be dropped, Stalin predicts a brief, victorious struggle against the decadent USA. The Soviet Union, however, needs an enemy to keep the engines of permanent global revolution stoked. Thus the Soviet sci-fi'ers are given a task by the dictator - to create the narrative of an alien invasion that will serve as a global unifying myth. Except this myth, the terrified authors are given to understand, is going to be enacted in reality. Motivated initially by fear and then their own professional, creative pride, the writers begin to construct a tale of radiation aliens, of an American rocket destroyed by a high-intensity beam and an alien nuclear attach in the Ukraine. All this under the eye of Malenkov, Stalin's henchman, there to serve as a permanent reminder that this is an assignment which it is not an option to refuse.
One day, without warning, Malenkov tells the writers that their work is finished, that they are to depart and never to acknowledge, even to themselves, that the event even happened. Such is the force of terror embodied by Stalin (and, by extension, his underlings) that they do so without demur. Our narrator, Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky, goes on to abandon the world of science fiction and to work as a translator; his real devotion becing becoming an exceptionally heavy drinker, even by Russian standards, and a terrible spouse and father. The years go by and he loses wife and family and, in a drunken act of self-destruction, manages to set fire to himself and loses much of his facial skin. He finally gives up alcohol, faced with a choice between continuing to drink and continuing to live, and lives a drab, modest life of solitude. The years up to 1986 are eked out in this fashion. ) Living alone, he believes himself to be sole survivor of those weeks in the dacha that followed the meeting with Stalin, a memory he hardly dares recall.
Konstantin Andreiovich is mistaken, however. Konstantin Andreiovich encounters - apparently by complete chance - Ivan Frenkel, born Jan Frenkel, who back in the dacha was at pains to conceal his Slav origin. Frenkel is accompanied by muscle-bound giant called Trofim, who at first seems some kind of minder. Frenkel's bizarre behaviour and eagerness to - in front but ostentatiously out of earshot of Trofin - recall the time the two former writers met Stalin unsettled Konstantin Andreiovich. This is only the beginning of the his unsettling, as the narrative that follows marries the riotious sense of the absurd of Gary Shytengart's "Absurdistan" with the quizzical, maybe-counterfactual-maybe-not tone of Philip K Dick's The Man in the High Castle. Konstantin Andreiovich describes how in 1985 when the Challenger disaster occured, it was observed in the USSR with a mix of sorrow and schandenfreude (characteristic of the mix of envious inferiority and boastful superiority with which Russia views America.
One of his translating jobs is for the Office of Liaison and Overseas Exchange. Called to the Office one day, he is asked to translate for a roaringly obscene official who just wants these pesky foreigners out of his hair the words of Dr James Tilly Coyne and Dora Norman, two pleasant Americans who report that they represent the Church of Scientology, which is hoping to establish itself in the Russia of Gorbachev, glasnost and pereistroika. An apparently humdrum piece of work, surreal in the way all translation is surreal, is followed by our narrator's abduction by friendly UFOlogists who believe his denials of the existence of UFOs and his involvement in the "Stalin affair" are a brilliant piece of misdirection, the mysterious death of Coyne, and one of the most hilarious set-pieces of the book as Konstantin Andreiovich is interrogated by an ineffectually angry policeman incapable of anything except threats against testicles. From then on the plot is gloriously unpredictable and unpredictably glorious. Like a glorious express train, "Yellow Blue Tibia" is one of those novels that sweeps the reader along.
Stalin's interest in science-fiction and UFOs is well documented, and the Soviet Union rivalled the United States for UFO sightings (presumably for similar reasons - the reader can decide for themselves which reasons based on their own view of UFOlogy) Roberts uses nuggets of real (so to speak) incidents in Soviet UFOlogy to build his counterfactual-that-isn't-counterfactual narrative. The ideas come thick and fast, from dialectical materialism to the nature of tyranny to quantum mechanics. Close attention is rewarded, and is absolutely necessary for some of the more speculative moments, but this is a book that wears its learning and innovations lightly, never becoming dry, pedantic or afflicted with the curse of clumsy exposition.
As intelligent and provoking at it is humourous and even touching, the book even acts as an entertaining (and never pompous or portenrous) disquisition on the nature of science fiction. A female doctor, who late in the novel saves Konstantin Andreiovich's life repeatedly (in one of the many great lines, he observes "to be clear, by smoking a cigarette, inside a nuclear facility, whilst having my skull blown up by a radioactice RGD-5 I have extended my life expectancy") observes that "Science fiction is for adolescent boys and people who make models of aircraft from plastic and glue. I am a mature woman, which is to say, the opposite of a science fiction fan." This, of course, is the default position of so many readers, and it is customary for reviewers enthusiastic about a book that just maybe could possibly be described as sci-fi to deny that it is so, especially if the book is by a Big Literary Name (David Langford has collected a very entertaining collection of these quotes that can be viewed at http://news.ansible.co.uk/others.php)
Elsewhere, we read a more nuanced but even bleaker meditation on the sci-fi writer's craft: "A realist writer might break his protagonist's leg, or kill his fiancée; but a science fiction writer will immolate whole planets, and whilst doing so he will be more concerned with the placement of the commas than with the screams of the dying. He will do this every working day all through his life. How can this not produce calluses on those tenderer portions of the mind that ordinary human beings use to focus their empathy?" In a novel in which one of the most entertaining supporting characters suffers from a "syndrome" characterised by lacking empathy, an inabilty to detect sarcasm and a compulsion for order (in the post-Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time world, most readers will know exactly what this is), a concern with empathy and human connection is central. This novel is most fundamentally a love story, a less than conventional love story to put it mildly, but one of great richness, power and beauty. If it was written by a Big Literary Name, we'd have reviewers falling over each other to clear their throats by announcing that it isn't science-fiction, a genre for adolescent boys and people who make models of aircraft from plastic and glue, after all.