This is a peculiar book, and one that is difficult to size up. Like a many-faceted jewel it presents many faces to the reader, each of which sparkle and scintillate beautifully, but the object itself, considered in its entirety, sits somewhat awkwardly on the palm of your hand. In other words, it is a brilliant, but flawed, book. That, in a nutshell, is what I feel about Yellow Blue Tibia.
The book is nominally science fiction. It is told from the perspective of its narrator and protagonist, an erstwhile science-fiction Russian writer named Konstantin Skvorecky. During the height of the Great Patriotic War, Skvorecky and a gaggle of other SF writers are bundled in a train and brought to a dacha on Stalin’s orders to fabricate an alien invasion story, to be used to unify the Soviet peoples as one socialist monolith against the next great enemy: radiation aliens from outer space. The writers take to this task with some aplomb, plotting out an elaborate chronology of the alien attack, but as abruptly as the project started, it is wound up, with instructions from Stalin never to breathe a word of what they have done, upon pain of death. Except, sixty years later, the events in that narrative start coming true, one after another. Skvorecky, as one of the few people privy to the narrative, is caught up in events – and is shepherded into a leading role in them, although the significance of his involvement only becomes clear in the penultimate sections of the book.
That in itself is an interesting premise – and it forms the core of the narrative that leads our tottering protagonist Skvorecky on a madcap journey across the Soviet Union – an endeavor he undertakes only with great reluctance but a suspicious degree of aplomb. But, for all its novelty, it is not the best part of the book. The best part, as the idiom goes, is in the journey, not the destination. The narrative is merely stage dressing from which hang the book’s greatest virtues – the many brilliant and cutting vignettes, most uproariously comic, that intersperse the main narrative, providing a wildly entertaining and satirical deconstruction of the absurdities of late-era Soviet life.
Skvorecky, in his somewhat bildungsroman-esque caper through the heart of Mother Russia, is a wonderful, dry-humored and ever-ironic cynic, a brilliantly-imagined foil to the Strangelove-esque caricatures that he meets. His somewhat dignified authorial voice shines through in his stately Old-World prose, which he uses with great effect to romance a loquacious but grossly corpulent blonde American Scientologist in what must simultaneously be the most absurd-yet-affecting love stories I’ve encountered in recent times. In contrast to this are the many characters that Skvorecky meets in his journey, who each symbolize a different aspect of the collective neuroses of the New Soviet Man. His sidekick and driver, the former nuclear physicist Saltykov, is an obsessive-compulsive, hyper-rational stickler for following rules to their absurd, OCD extreme, who nevertheless regresses into a gibbering, infantile wreck when brought into physical contact with other men (he never specifies if he has a similar aversion to the fairer sex). Then there is the KGB agent Frenkel, who, true to his profession, has an annoying habit of speaking in cryptic riddles until he falls off a building and lands on his head, after which he becomes a wheelchair-bound Tourette’s sufferer who cannot stop impulsively spilling state secrets. There are the regulars at the chess club, who are so inured to Soviet-style bureaucratic doublespeak that they take everything Skvorecky tries to tell them as obfuscatory statements that mean the precise opposite. Then, of course, there are the dull-as-doorknob police officers and assassins, like Frenkel’s henchman Leo Trofim, who, in his Boxer-like devotion to the state, is a regular Stakhanovite, too dim to be manipulated by Skvorecky’s attempts to get him to stop blowing himself (and millions of innocents) up just because a superior told him that it was for the greater good of Mother Russia.
These are great characters, great comic vignettes and great diversions from the primary narrative, and are the book’s greatest joys. The author, Adam Roberts, wrote a great many parodies that you may be familiar with – as A.R.R.R. Roberts, he wrote such gems as The Soddit and The Dragon with the Girl Tattoo. He’s got the comic chops. As a PhD in Classics, he also has an unusual pedigree for a science fiction author, and he does lend a literary touch to this apparent work of SF, through the use of unreliable narration, metaphor, allusion, satire and fluid, vivid prose to the nth degree. And the book’s name! Inscrutable as it may be, the passage in which the reason for the book’s title, Yellow Blue Tibia, is revealed, literally made me exclaim aloud in a crowded train.
It is therefore a bit of a shame that the whole of Yellow Blue Tibia is somewhat less than the sum of its parts, as one review put it. The SF premise is surely the book’s weakest link; stage dressing that takes too long to unfold and ends unsatisfactorily, with plot threads unresolved or only barely touched upon. As with much of SF, the entire book itself derives from a novel, speculative premise or idea – what if UFO sightings were actual, material reality and not merely mass psychosis? How can this square with the lack of physical evidence? – but this idea is not really brought to its full potential, and the explanation, the revelation of the great Mystery – is shoehorned into the last few pages and never has a chance to take off. The reader is left wondering – what, in truth, was the payoff of this nevertheless diverting and arresting journey?
In any case, though, I recommend this book, and Adam Roberts, unreservedly. As a unified work of art it may be found somewhat wanting, but I can appreciate the greatness that glimmers beneath its unpolished exterior. Roberts has definitely merited a place in my must-read authors list, in any case.
I give this book: 4 out of 5 Reality-Radiating-UFOs
+ Great characters
+ Great comedy
+ Great satire
– Central plot underdeveloped
– Characters are too purposefully cryptic in a transparent attempt to hold off the revelation of the True Nature of Things until the last moment
– Comedy can get in the way of the dramatic, at times