It’s 1946 and Soviet Russia is piecing itself back together after the horrors of World War II. When a group of eminent science fiction authors are rounded up for an audience with Josef Stalin they are understandably nervous. Has their art offended the great leader? Is sci-fi now deemed anti-Communist? Thankfully their situation is far less dire. Uncle Joe has been pondering the future. With Germany’s downfall and the inevitable, imminent collapse of the Capitalist USA the future for Russia looks bright. But something is missing. The people of the world need focus, an enemy to unite against, and what better than a terror from outer space?
Thus charged, the group commence to cap out in the dacha which will become their home. Alien civilisations are born and destroyed overnight, invasion plans drafted and technology advanced. Until suddenly the word filters down from on high that the operation is over; no explanations, simply a warning to forget what had transpired and never speak of it again. Flash forward to the 1980s, the era of Gorbachev and glasnost. Konstantin Skvorecky, one of the cadre of writers, is battling the demons of alcohol and depression following the collapse of his life. Things are about to get a whole lot worse when the imaginative figments of four decades ago start coming to life all around him.
In Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts takes this convoluted premise and proceeds to twist it into every imaginable shape. In this wonderfully sharp and satirical take on the paranoia engendered by the Soviet machine we find absurdist humour and espionage action melted together in a fashion which would make David Lynch proud. Roberts subjects his protagonist to a gruelling journey. First comes a bizarre meeting with two Americans which leaves a sour taste in his mouth. This is followed by a series of ‘chance’ encounters with his former colleague Ivan Frankel, now apparently a government apparatchik. Frankel is apparently convinced that the scenario penned in the dacha after the war is now coming true, and it seems the Americans are of the same opinion.
Before long the hapless Konstantin is being hounded by the KGB, the local police, an army of UFO enthusiasts and an insane taxi driver with no sense of social etiquette but uncannily sharp timing. All seem convinced that he is at the centre of events and his protestations to the contrary only fuel there beliefs in a Kafkan or even Pythonesque manner. With seemingly no control over his own destiny he is thrown from Moscow to Kiev to the heart of the Chernobyl power station, in and out of prison cells and ultimately unable to determine whether the whole charade is real or just the final collapse of his sanity.
The events of Yellow Blue Tibia play out as a memoir, Konstantin’s document of the invasion of the Soviet Union, a conceit which allows Adam Roberts considerable leeway to have fun. The atmosphere in the Russia he creates is perfect, embodying all the contradictions which began to surface as Communism started to crumble and Western influence began to creep in. Throughout the book he toys with your sense of reality in every way possible – is the invasion real or did the KGB stage it? Or was it the Americans? Who is on Konstantin’s side, if anyone? And what does anyone stand to gain from the situation?
Despite taking a while to find its feet – I confess, I was tempted to give up after fifty pages or so – Yellow Blue Tibia soon takes off and from that point on doesn’t lose its momentum. The various sub-plots loop around each other, always threatening to tangle beyond repair but finally reaching a suitably odd yet satisfying conclusion. And underneath it all is, as always, a rather tender love story as Konstantin rebuilds his life and prepares himself to strike out into the word again. The book may seem muddled at times, too much information being crammed into too small a space, but this does have the advantage of broadening its appeal. There’s something here for lovers of science fiction, thrillers, Russian themes and anyone who simply enjoys a beautifully written and thoroughly original tale.
You can buy Yellow Blue Tibia here.