This is a very odd book. It’s the kind of love-child that might result from someone distilling Umberto Eco and Kurt Vonnegut. Adam Roberts takes on the spectre of Soviet Russia and, at the same time, explores how science fiction shapes and is shaped by the issues at work in the society of its time. Yellow Blue Tibia is not your typical work of alternative history.
At the end of World War II, Stalin gathers some of Russia’s greatest science fiction minds and asks them to create an alien menace that will keep Russia unified following the defeat of the Nazis. Just as abruptly, this secret project gets scrapped and the writers are told to forget it ever happened. Konstantin Skvorecky does exactly this for another forty years, but in 1986 his life takes a turn for the surreal. He runs into another of his writer comrades from that project, Jan (aka Ivan) Friedman, now a colonel in the KGB. He encounters two Americans, and a Russian physicist-turned-taxi-driver, who are somehow involved in a plot to blow up Chernobyl. Nobody wants to explain anything to Skvorecky, and somehow he gets wrapped up in a conspiracy that might be of his own making.
The convoluted conspiracies that lie beneath the surface of Yellow Blue Tibia remind me of Foucault’s Pendulum. After Colonel Ardenti’s mysterious visit to the publishing house, the various characters of the Templar conspiracy start coming out of the woodwork for real. A similar thing happens here, with Friedman’s reappearance triggering the landslide of events that culminate in Skvorecky and Saltykov’s mad drive to Kiev. Don’t get me wrong: there is no way Roberts’ writing comes even close to Eco’s, and I don’t think it would be fair to either of them to say that he’s trying to emulate that style. No, my comparison here is entirely one of content; both authors tackle the curious effect that conspiracy theories have on reality. Roberts draws from the rich, conspiracy-laden background of Soviet Russia, where people really did disappear for decades without explanation.
Roberts’ style reminds me more of Kurt Vonnegut. Characters enter and exit the narrative in a meandering way, pausing to deliver exposition or advance the plot before disappearing back into the space between pages. Motivations are thin or bizarre at best. What is Friedman really after—does he believe in this conspiracy, or he is merely cynically manipulating it? Whose side is he on, after all? How did Saltykov become embroiled in all this? This is where Yellow Blue Tibia probably fails some people, for Roberts refuses to tie up all the loose ends and turn in a conventional five-act narrative where everything is resolved and clear-cut.
I think this book truly shines in two ways. First, as I already mentioned, there is the connection to the ethos that pervaded Soviet Russia. Second, it is, somewhat, a commentary on science fiction in the twentieth century.
I won’t pretend to be an expert at twentieth-century history, let alone Russian history, so the extent to which I can comment on this remains superficial. But it seems to me that the society of Russia following World War II is the perfect setting for Roberts’ tale. This wouldn’t necessarily work in another country where freedoms and civil liberties are more rigorously observed. But in Soviet Russia, there is just enough of that sense of ahistory for Skvorecky’s own self-doubt to be believable. At first, he patently rejects the idea that the story he and his fellow science-fiction writers developed could actually be coming true. It is, after all, absurd. But as evidence piles up and more people in positions of authority insist that it is the case, he begins to doubt himself. It’s not a matter of proof or persuasion but simply the persistent reminder that, in Russia, nothing is as it seems, and there is the truth and then there is the truth as told by the Party.
There’s a great scene in the middle of the book, when Skvorecky visits a club and is asked to deliver a speech on UFOs, that demonstrates this concept. Skvorecky refuses to talk about UFOs on the grounds that he does not believe they exist. Yet his audience refuses to swallow this reasoning, choosing instead to believe he is speaking in circles lest he get in trouble with the KGB and the Communist Party for speaking of something that is not sanctioned. Roberts demonstrates the lengths to which some people had to go to get their point across without running afoul of censors and secret police.
Yellow Blue Tibia also explores the relationship between science fiction and society. Science fiction has often had a rocky relationship with authoritarian/communist regimes—why depict a future society that isn’t communist if communism is supposed to be the answer to all our problems? Skvorecky and his fellow writers are oppressed yet, at the same time, valued by Stalin and his cronies. And Skvorecky meditates upon how science fiction has changed since the end of World War II. The science fiction of the 1930s and 1940s is significantly different from the science fiction that followed—the difference due in part to the spectre of nuclear apocalypse now lingering over every writer’s pen. No longer was science fiction only about colonies on the moon or aliens from Mars. Suddenly, humanity had the power to destroy all life on Earth quite easily (and even accidentally). It might have been the first time when, globally, something that had only been science fiction was suddenly very, very real.
If you’re looking for a quick and easy read, look further, for Yellow Blue Tibia is not it. Similarly, it’s not quite the deep and moving work of introspection that Eco or Vonnegut might produce. It’s somewhere in between … easy enough to read but not necessarily easy to comprehend, and enjoyable if you are willing to go along with it. I don’t know if I would recommend it for people who gravitate towards alternate history, but if you are interested in Soviet Russia or science-fictional conspiracies, you should definitely give this a try.