Yellow Blue Tibia

The title of this novel by Adam Roberts, we eventually learn, comes from an attempt to render the Russian phrase meaning “I love you” phonetically into English.  It may at first glance seem a fairly arbitrary title, but the choice is justified: love looms large in this book and interlinguistic play abounds.  It was this month’s science fiction choice by my book group, but, though it is concerned with science fiction in many ways, no obviously science fictional elements appeared till quite near the end when things went, in a phrase much used by a friend of mine, bat shit insane.

The story begins with the first-person protagonist (Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky) summoned to a gathering of science fiction writers some time after World War II.  Stalin has decreed that Russia needs external threats to pull together and successfully maintain the communist dream.  With Hitler gone and the U.S. soon to be defeated (heh), a new, alien, threat must be brewed.

Later, in 1986, Skvorecky lives in Moskow and earns his money as a translator.  He meets one of his erstwhile science fiction colleagues, Jan Frenkel, who now holds a minor position, in a minor ministry.  Frenkel seems very curious about what Skvorecky remembers of their time together working on Stalin’s project.  This meeting pulls Skvorecky into a world of scientologists, UFOlogists, KGB agents, and crazies of diverse sorts.  Challenger has exploded and it seems as though the events dreamed up by the cabal of writers all those years ago might be starting to come true.  Many people are convinced that aliens are at large — could they be behind these mysterious happenings?  Worryingly, there are signs that Chernobyl, a nuclear power plant not too far from Kiev, might be next…

The book is extremely funny.  Skvorecky has a wickedly ironic tongue that leads to comical frustration for anyone foolish enough to cross him.  There’s a particularly amusing interrogation scene where the hapless interviewer is brought almost to tears by his sarcastic responses.  Later in the novel, after a near death experience, he asks his doctor: “To be clear, by smoking a cigarette inside a nuclear facility, whilst having my skull blown up by a radioactive grenade I have extended my life expectancy?”  His relentless irony is met with confusion and bamboozlement by another character who has text book Asberger’s Syndrome (and who is not shy about advertising the fact), and there’s much more humour to be found in the interactions between this Russian odd couple.

One of the science-fictional themes that recurs is the idea of alternate universes and branching timelines.  I’m a sucker for little touches of postmodern self-awareness in books (see my review of The Years of Rice and Salt, for example), and had to chuckle when Skvorecky muses that in some other timeline his life “stops at page number two hundred” — the very page his near death experience occurs.

It’s a great wee book.  It may not have deserved to win the Booker (as Kim Stanley Robinson suggests on the front cover), but it’s certainly better than many things that have.  Clean prose, great characterisation, a wicked sense of humour, and an (apparently) authentically evoked Russia make this one well worth the read.

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