Note: This review was written some time ago for ShadowDance. What appears below is a translation of the original. Hence the recognizable formatting with “+” and “–” sections.
Kim Stanley Robinson wrote some time ago that Adam Roberts’s Yellow Blue Tibia should be awarded the Booker prize for 2009. I am not in a position to say whether I agree or not, as I rarely read the shortlisted novels. What I can agree about is that this strange and strangely-titled book absolutely deserves a spotlight. Authors of so-called “literary realism” will definitely benefit from reading it; its methods can make their stories more interesting, their worlds more imaginative and their ideas more provoking.
Adam Roberts is probably one of the currently active authors who are best versed in the genre. He is a London-based professor who specialized in Robert Browning and Victorian literature, author of Science Fiction, a critical introduction to SF,and of the comprehensive study The History of Science Fiction (to the extent such a thing can be comprehensive, of course). In addition to that Roberts maintains an active blog, where he frequently demonstrates and hones his fine critical skills and incisive humor. When an author’s name sits beneath an intellectual overview of the ideas of Frederic Jameson andbeneath popular parodies (such as The Soddit, The Sellamillion, The Dragon With a Girl Tattoo, etc.), and when that author manages to pull off roughly one good SF novel per year, take notice and keep close tabs on that particular career.
In the spirit of this introduction to Roberts, it should be mentioned that there probably isn’t an author better suited to write a book such as Yellow Blue Tibia. The novel is a comic-cum-satiric-cum-serious study of a topic that is deep-seated in popular culture and psychology, as well as in SF – UFOs and alien abductions. In Science Fiction Roberts analyzes the phenomenon as a cultural reaction provoked by the traumatic imprints left on the collective unconscious by the wars, repressive regimes and genocides of the past. Yellow Blue Tibia takes a more SF-oriented approach to the problem. At the end of the novel the sense of wonder remains with the reader, who now has at hand a new explanative model that is both stranger and conceptually more elegant than any of the usual suspects.
Let us take a look at the story that frames this meta study of the genre and the opportunities offered by it. The narrative starts right after WWII. A handful of Russian SF writers are taken to an isolated dacha in the province, where they meet comrade Stalin himself. The mission they are given is ludicrous, thrilling and terrifying at the same time. Convinced in America’s imminent fall, Stalin orders the writers to create a new Enemy that can bring the whole world under the Cause. To accomplish that the new hostile force has to be a threat to all of humanity. The authors take up the task in full secrecy, producing an elaborate alien attack scenario. Abductions, space flight sabotage, nuclear explosions, invaders made of “radiation” – the fantasists create all that with almost childish abandon. Then, abruptly, the project is frozen and buried deep. The protagonist Konstantin Skvorecky, whose memoirs actually comprise the novel, goes back to Moscow to start his battle with postwar reality.
Forty years later, during the Perestroika, the ex-writer is a twice-divorced, semi-bankrupt part-time interpreter. He is harried by health issues, ex-alcoholic, current teetotaler, right there at the very bottom of existence. The arrival of two American scientologists in Moscow triggers the incredible succession of events that pull Skvorecky out of anonymity. The angry old man, seemingly by accident, meets Jan, one of his secret colleagues from decades ago. According to Jan, now working on an unnamed government job, everything described by the writers in the dacha is now coming to reality and only the efforts of the secret service are keeping the invasion from the public. Skvorecky, of course, refuses to believe him and dons his usual masking sarcasm. Reality turns out to be the better ironist, though. An unexplainable murder, a secret club for the appreciation of UFOs, a paranoid cab driver with an Asperger syndrome and a doctorate in nuclear physics, KGB, Chernobyl and the Challenger shuttle – all that and more is weaved in by Roberts into a comically-serious story that sees Skvorecky desperately trying to save his name and prevent a nuclear catastrophe. Meanwhile, the old man rediscovers the meaning of life in a most unexpected way, thus infusing some of it into the title of the novel.
OK, so what is the business with that, you might ask, what kind of a title is this? What does a colored bone have to do with science fiction and the USSR? The novel’s title is very much in tune with Roberts’s attempt to recreate Skvorecky’s bilingual perception of reality, him being one of the only characters who can speak both Russian and English. This should be a sufficient hint into the nature of the title, if you are a Slavic language speaker. If not before starting the book, then at least well in advance before the explicit formulation of the concept, you should be able to decode its import. The conceptually bi-planar perception of reality is constantly present in the subtext of the novel. American culture pitted versus the Russian, the average citizen versus the informed KGB agent, the UFO buff versus the sensible comrade, the fantastic explanation of the world versus the realist one.
As I mentioned earlier, Yellow Blue Tibia is an attempt to normalize the paradox of UFOs. How is it possible for millions of people to be absolutely convinced that something as absurd has happened to them? Mass hypnosis as a result of psychological trauma? Maybe. This novel offers a much different take on it. An inured realist, Skvorecky remains one almost to the very end, and even the most bizarre situations are resolved through a reasonable consensual explanation. In most cases this rational process goes hand in hand with a hilarious satire of socialist reality, which further anchors the text to the realist tradition. It seems, almost throughout the book, that Roberts satirizes the fantastic, exposing its as untenable. Because of that the last part of the novel comes as a lightning strike to the unprepared reader, offering a solution that, fantastic to the extreme, makes much more sense than any of the realist ones, at least in the world of the novel. What Roberts gives the reader is the concept of the ambiguous, protean nature of reality that, for most of us, is essentially unknowable. Fantastic fiction is namely a tool to think about the unthinkable, to map out imaginary Borgesian terrains of the unimaginable, to bring our conceptual models closer to a less prejudiced map of the world. The kind of map that is not always more useful, but is often more interesting, brave and modest in its acknowledgement of the multitude of mysteries that exist. Mysteries for whose identification we may still have not even evolved conceptual instruments, as a species. There are always at least two faces to reality, just as a human shin kicked blue and yellow by life can inspire a totally different perception of that same brutal aggressor.
+ Quality satire.
+ Roberts’s writing style is deftly controlled and well-suited to his purposes. Skvorecky’s speech is succinct, transparent and distinctly his, while at the same time rich in vivid and unexpected metaphors.
+ The text flows seamlessly over the boundaries between realism, satire, surrealism and science fiction.
+ A few hilarious scenes.
+ Saltikov the cab driver.
+ The concept of the aliens and the whole quantum mechanics explanation, which leads one to some very interesting thoughts about the role of imagination and storytelling at a cosmic scale.
– The satire, even though funny, seemed a bit superficial to me, at least with respect to the socialist aspect. This was my impression as a person who remembers practically nothing of those years. Older eastern European readers might have more complaints than me. But after all, Roberts is a British SF writer, not a Russian satirist.
– Despite the overall high quality, Yellow Blue Tibia probably won’t keep you on the edge of your seat and impatient to see the denouement of the story. The novel balances masterfully its comedic and skeptical sides, maintaining a low key through which it cleverly contaminates the reader’s mind with SF memes. But don’t expect much in the way of pyrotechnics.