This is Adam Roberts’s tenth novel, which of course means there were nine before it. Nine that I haven’t read. How on Earth have I allowed this to happen? If they’re all as enjoyable as Yellow Blue Tibia, I have been missing out.
Yellow Blue Tibia is presented as the memoir of one Konstantin Skvorecky, a science fiction writer who was gathered together, along with four others, by Stalin in the aftermath of (what I know as) the Second World War. Stalin charged the writers with the task of creating a new enemy — an enemy from outer space — which the ruling party could claim to be fighting, thereby strengthening the prestige of communism. The authors come up with some outlandish nonsense about ‘radiation aliens’, and hammer out a future history — but the project is promptly cancelled, and the writers instructed never to speak of it again.
Skvorecky sees neither hide nor hair of the others until 1986, and a chance encounter with another of the group, Ivan Frenkel — who claims that the story they constructed four decades previously is now coming true, beginning with the Challenger disaster (caused by radiation aliens!!). Sounds ridiculous, of course: but then Skvorecky (who works as a translator) meets the American James Coyne, who insists something similar — and then dies in mysterious circumstances.
After various turns of the plot, we find Skvorecky racing to Chernobyl, along with Ivan Saltykov, a nuclear physicist turned taxi driver who says he has Asperger’s syndrome (though he never gets to name it in full), and ceaselessly reminds people of the fact; and Dora Norman, Coyne’s hugely overweight compatriot. And, after Skvorecky survives a grenade attack against all the odds, things start to get really strange…
My strongest abiding memory of Yellow Blue Tibia is how much of a pleasure it was to read. Though not (I would say) primarily a comedy, it is nevertheless one of the funniest books I have read in some time: witness, for example, the scene in which Skvorecky is first translating for the two Americans, and frantically trying to think of acceptable ways to ‘translate’ his colleague’s insults.
More than this, the novel also provides plenty to think about. Roberts bases his fiction on a paradox about UFOs: there are so many reports of them, yet such a paucity of evidence for their concrete existence. The author’s fictional solution to this paradox is fascinating to think about; I particularly like the wayhe takes some well-worn ideas and spins something fresh out of them.
Roberts also effectively plays tricks with the narrative. Skvorecky undergoes a pre-frontal lobotomy during the novel, which subtly alters his narrative voice, and disrupts his sense of the passage of time, something Roberts exploits to extend the mystery of his plot. Skvorecky stresses at the beginning that ‘[t]here are no secrets in this book’, but of course there are — they’re just hidden from the narrator as much as from the reader (reading back the paragraph I’ve quoted from, I also discovered several subtle hints that seem innocuous at first, but change in meaning once you’ve read the book).
Another strand of Yellow Blue Tibia concerns parallels between science fiction and communism; but lacunae in my knowledge of history and politics prevent me from really getting to grips with it. A further strand that I did appreciate, though, was the love story. It might seem unexpected to find such an element in this novel, but its title refers to a phonetic way of saying, ‘I love you’ in Russian — and it is indeed central to the story.
One recurring feature of Yellow Blue Tibia is that a character may say that something can be in one state or another (one could go somewhere accompanied or alone, for example), but that there could (and, in some instances, could not) be a third option. Well, I finished the book with a big smile on my face. Or it could be that I finished it with my imagination fizzing over at the possibilities Roberts put forward. Then again, it was probably both.