The post-war Soviet Union: at horrendous cost, the Soviet people have defeated Hitler, and their country lies in ruins, while the USA is emerging as the next threat to the socialist Motherland. Meanwhile, within the Kremlin, Stalin is already pondering how the Soviet system will survive and prosper after the inevitable defeat of American capitalism; what he needs is an unprecedented threat to focus minds and motivate the population in their struggle to construct communism. Therefore, he invites a group of Soviet science-fiction writers to a country dacha, ordering them to dream up an extraterrestrial menace to suit his purposes. However, almost as soon as it gets underway, the project is apparently abandoned, and those involved are dispersed and sworn to silence. One of these authors, Konstantin Skvorecky, attempts to return to a normal life and forget all about Stalin's improbable assignment. Then, in 1986, during the early days of perestroika, his life is thrown into turmoil. First, one of his colleagues from the brainstorming sessions, now in the employ of the KGB, suddenly seems eager to discuss their collaboration at the dacha. Then, Skvorecky is witness to the murder of an American Scientologist on a Moscow street. Who, or what, is behind the killing? Are the stories he helped to pen in the 1940s somehow beginning to come true? And what connects Stalin's scheme to the Challenger disaster and a far more terrible tragedy about to unfold at Chernobyl?
It must be said that Yellow Blue Tibia is, at times, even more barking than this brief synopsis suggests (the title of the novel actually turns out to be one of its least baffling features). Blending madcap farce with dark satire, it immerses the reader in the labyrinthine bureaucratic nightmare that was the "developed socialism" of the early 1980s. Despite occasional slips in his research (such as suggesting that the bombing of Hiroshima was concealed from the Soviet public), Roberts paints a convincing portrait of a society steeped in apathy, pettiness, and hopelessness, while his vivid prose ensures that the drabness of this environment never bores the reader. The decline of the narrator, Skvorecky, from idealistic young SF writer to Gulag prisoner and then washed-up alcoholic, compellingly related in the opening chapters of the novel, mirrors the gradual tarnishing of the Soviet dream itself. Despite this bleak backdrop, there are sparkling scenes of laugh-out-loud comedy, such as when Skvorecky is stumblingly interrogated by an incompetent Soviet policeman desperately trying to maintain a "bad cop" persona. Perhaps the most telling of these vignettes is one in which Skvorecky attempts to reason with a group of convinced UFO-nuts: they are so accustomed to the Aesopian language and cover-ups of the Soviet government that it proves completely impossible to convince them he has not witnessed alien abductions. These scenes, which capture the menace, yet fundamental ineptitude, of authoritarian states, have a touch of Kafka and Gogol about them.
Skvorecky's attempts to uncover the truth behind Stalin's "alien menace" lead him to encounter a diverse cast of memorably grotesque misfits. Amongst the most entertaining, and to the narrator, frustrating, of these are the obsessive-compulsive nuclear physicist-cum-taxi driver Saltykov and the implausibly dense KGB assassin Trofim. However, the majority of these characters are drawn in rather broad sweeps and their exaggerated mannerisms are occasionally allowed to disrupt the flow of the narrative: for instance, during the climactic scene one of the key characters suddenly develops Tourette's, apparently, for no reason other than to make his dialogue more quirkily "interesting." The middle third of the novel, in particular, suffers from some self-indulgent padding in which initially amusing jokes are allowed to overstay their welcome. Fortunately, the one character who is fully-rounded, plausible, and entertaining throughout is Skvorecky himself, demonstrating the exhaustion, resignation, and dashed hopes characteristic of his generation, while still able to deliver waspish put-downs to the bureaucrats and imbeciles who cross his path.
Yellow Blue Tibia attempts to engage with some big ideas, perhaps most promisingly when it considers the allure of utopianism, which underpins both the wide-eyed naivety of early SF and the horrors of Stalinism. Skvorecky, on several occasions, ponders the shared responsibility of those who focus on "grand narratives" of human progress at the expense of human beings:
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 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 used to focus their empathy? (p. 15)
Yet the light-hearted tone which pervades the novel undermines these attempts to examine the relationship between futurism and totalitarianism, rendering them rather unconvincing. Some of the weightier passages fall rather flat as a result, such as in an otherworldly encounter between the narrator and Stalin himself, in which the dictator boasts:
"...Hitler's particular distinction is to have effected destruction on a very large scale, and for that we have to thank the rapid advances of industrialization. Me, however? I did not limit myself to a particular group, or scapegoat-crowd, or others. I waged war on the whole of humanity. I killed non-Russians. I killed Russians. I killed my opponents and my supporters. I killed Jews, Aryans, Slavs, black, white and yellow. I killed men, and I killed women... I used to send orders to Soviet cities that would read: Draw up a list of a thousand names—exactly a thousand—and execute them all." He beamed at me. (p. 214)
Obviously, in the right context, the charge-sheet of Stalin's crimes makes chilling reading, but on this occasion it feels as if a pantomime has been interrupted by an uninvited polemicist. This is a shame, as much of the satire directed against the less headline-grabbing, day-to-day injustices of the Soviet system is far more telling.
Similarly, the underlying science fictional premise of the novel goes undeveloped for several hundred pages, before explanations are hurriedly and unsatisfyingly shoe-horned into an expositional data-dump in the closing chapter. Plenty of intriguing ideas remain undeveloped at the conclusion: for instance, the significance of Scientology to the plot, while hinted at, is never really explained, thus making its presence seem rather superfluous. The final impression is of a lack of authorial discipline, and of a competent novel that would make three great novellas: a taut hard-SF adventure, an amusing knock-about farce, and a satirical, historically-embedded parallel-worlds story. Yellow Blue Tibia ends up being rather less than the sum of its parts, although some of those parts are, individually, strikingly written, entertaining, and thought-provoking.
In the minds of Anglophone audiences, science fiction is often inextricably linked with the American century. At its genesis, in the period we call the Golden Age, it was the literature of individualism, of the pioneer spirit, of can-do entrepreneurism, of free endeavor and manifest destiny. And, of course, it was the literature of fear—of the earthbound aliens on the other side of the Iron Curtain, and the nuclear war they, and we, seemed poised at any minute to launch. Adam Roberts's Yellow Blue Tibia is many things—a Cold War thriller, an alternate history, a love story, a farce—but most of all it is a novel that demonstrates that the Golden Age of science fiction is where you find it.
Konstantin Skvorecky is a Russian science fiction writer who, in 1946, is summoned along with several of his contemporaries to a cottage in the Russian countryside. There, the group is assigned, by Joseph Stalin himself, the task of writing an unusual kind of science fiction story. Eager to regain the commitment and cohesion aroused by the threat of the Nazis, Stalin wishes to fabricate another such threat in the form of an alien invasion of Earth (he dismisses America a a passing fad, and anyway notes that "I do not find that America unites the people in hostility, the way the German threat did" [p. 11]). Obediently, the writers work together, inventing a species—disembodied, "radiation" aliens—and a timeline for their attack—first an American rocket is destroyed, then the Ukraine is attacked by a nuclear bomb. Then, as suddenly as they were summoned, the writers are dispersed, ordered to forget their interlude, and the fruits of their labors apparently secreted away.
In 1986, at the other extremity of the Cold War, Konstantin Skvorecky is a broken down old man—his literary career, two failed marriages, and a bout of alcoholism behind him—living in Moscow and making ends meet by working as a translator for government ministries. It is in this capacity that he meets, not long after the destruction of the shuttle Challenger (it is one of the novel's minor but enjoyably wrongfooting notes that the shuttle is repeatedly referred to by Russian characters by the more belligerent-sounding moniker "rocket"), the Americans James Tilly Coyne and Dora Norman, who present themselves as Scientologist missionaries but who seem to be connected with nuclear technology. Coyne, Konstantin soon learns, has come to Moscow from Kiev, where he was busy inspecting the local nuclear power plant, called Chernobyl. At the same time, Konstantin is accosted by one of his former writing partners, Frenkel, who reveals himself to be working for the KGB only shortly after Coyne is murdered, and wants Konstantin to lead him to Dora.
With the help of Coyne's associates—the chairman of a Moscow chapter of UFO enthusiasts, and a disgraced nuclear physicist with Asperger's syndrome—Konstantin and Dora make their way back to Kiev, where, they believe, an attack is being planned on Chernobyl, while trying to figure out who is behind the novel's events—is the KGB, terrified of perestroika and the looming end of Communism, trying to resurrect Stalin's plan? Is an actual alien invasion happening around them? To describe Yellow Blue Tibia thus is to give the impression that the novel is a spy or SFnal thriller, but though its narrative is punctuated by several intense sequences—most especially one in which the septuagenarian Konstantin makes brutally short work of a lumbering KGB operative with orders to kill him—the emotional tone that dominates throughout the novel is a sense of absurdity, as Konstantin is bounced from one nightmarish manifestation of end-stage Communist bureaucracy to another.
Roberts, of course, is no stranger to humor—it laces most of his reviews, and under the pseudonym A.R.R.R. Roberts he has written Harvard Lampoon-esque parodies of Tolkien and Harry Potter—but whereas in the past the satiric portions of his novels have felt like homages to Swift (his most recent novel, Swiftly, was set in a world in which England had colonized and made slaves of the Lilliputians), the humor in Yellow Blue Tibia seems to owe more to Bulgakov. The first part of the novel follows Konstantin across Moscow, visiting several quintessential Russian locales—the offices of the purposefully confusing and deliberately hostile government ministry where he works; a dimly-lit eatery with black bread and hard cheese on the menu; what Konstantin first takes to be a chess club. In each of these locations Konstantin discovers that, like the devil in the early chapters of The Master and Margarita, the effects of the alien or faux-alien invasion have disrupted the carefully maintained order anticipated by his fellow citizens. When Konstantin is arrested as a suspect in Coyne's murder, his descriptions of the apparently supernatural cause of death so thoroughly discompose his interrogator that the detective mistakenly stops his tape recorder when questioning Konstantin and turns it on when threatening to cut off the old man's balls. Just as it did in Bulgakov's novel, the presence of the extraordinary, of anything that doesn't fit—or can't be made to fit—into a carefully quantified category, throws the entire rigid Communist system into disarray, and exposes it to ridicule.
On the other hand, whereas the extraordinary in The Master and Margarita was rooted in the fantastic—which, as Konstantin notes when recalling a conversation with a fellow writer who had spent several months in a reeducation camp, is dangerous ideological ground as far as the Communist party is concerned—in Yellow Blue Tibia it is rooted in science fiction. And science fiction, as nearly every character in the novel is quick to note, in sharp contrast with the attitude more prevalent among its Western readers and writers, is the most Communist of literary genres. How else, after all, could one describe a genre that holds that the world can be remade in a rational, deliberate manner, perfected through the application of intellect and will, and that the frailties of the human race can be corrected through careful application of the fruits of our scientific endeavors?
By the same token, then, Communism is an SFnal idea applied to the real world. Yellow Blue Tibia is brimming with examples of such confusions of fact and fiction—Stalin's original assignment for Konstantin and his peers; the UFO phenomenon; Dora's Scientologist beliefs, which of course have their roots in the science fiction novels of L. Ron Hubbard. Standing in opposition to all of these is Konstantin, alone among the novel's characters in his insistence on distinguishing between the real and unreal, and more importantly, between the unreal and the fictional. With a petulance familiar from a thousand interviews with SF authors, he reminds us that the purpose of science fiction is not to predict the future, not even by making it, and when questioned about his belief in UFOs he repeatedly and fastidiously replies that he believes in the phenomenon of people who believe in alien visitation and abductions—in the communally produced science fiction story of UFOs—but not in the existence of these aliens. As several characters in the novel tell us, Konstantin is an ironist, a man who takes nothing and no one seriously (which makes for some deliciously dry narrative passages and lines of dialogue), and who is certainly incapable of the earnestness required to lose sight of the line between fact and fiction. It is, however, this earnestness, this youngness of spirit, that is required from both revolutionaries and writers of science fiction, who must believe in their ability to remake the world if they are to achieve something meaningful. The world of Yellow Blue Tibia seems divided between the likes of Konstantin, who see reality for what it is but are powerless to affect it, and dreamers who have the strength of will to bring about revolution, but whose dreams are the stuff of nightmares.
It's traditional for reviews to make at least some vague gesture at an evaluation of their subject—is this book good, and what readers are likely to find it enjoyable? Yellow Blue Tibia has proven somewhat problematic on that front. It is an accomplished and unusual novel, but I found it interesting rather than likable or unlikable. Beneath its farcical surface, it seems deeply cynical about both science fiction and the revolutionary impulse. Running through the novel, unasked but ever-present, is the question of what science fiction is for, if not to suggest what might or could be. That science fiction—that any sort of fiction—can change the world is, to Konstantin, a given, but the changes that ensue when fiction is allowed to infect reality are, as the novel repeatedly shows us, rarely positive. The novel's very ending feels like a deliberate slap in the face of movements like the Mundanes, which accuse science fiction writers of creating escapist fantasies that enable readers to avoid facing the real problems of ecology, war, and dwindling resources that plague us in the real world, when it concludes that not only Communism but the whole of the twentieth century and its atrocities are an act of alien SFnal invention, while Konstantin, whose capacity for anxiety about the future has been eliminated by a brain injury, watches dispassionately as Chernobyl burns and then turns back to his private affairs. This injury is the last nail in the coffin of Konstantin's literary career. Yellow Blue Tibia, we learn in the Wikipedia entry that closes the novel, is his autobiography (as one character puts it, "A poor substitute for the splendours of fictional invention" (p. 308))—the story of how Konstantin Skvorecky stopped worrying and learned to love the alien invasion.
Michael Froggatt lives in Edinburgh.
Abigail Nussbaum (firstname.lastname@example.org) works as a software engineer in Tel Aviv, Israel. Her work has previously appeared in The Internet Review of Science Fiction, Vector, and the Israeli SFF quarterly The Tenth Dimension. She blogs on matters genre and otherwise at Asking the Wrong Questions.