The OF Blog: Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia

Science fiction, particularly that of its so-called "Golden Age" of the 1950s, has had an interesting relationship with real-world concerns.  Much of the SF of the 1950s, whether it be print or film, contained elements of paranoia:  the aliens are amongst us!, who really controls the leadership, what if the aliens are hostile to us and want to eliminate humanity?  Much has been made of this paranoia-influenced SF, whether in non-fiction studies or via fictional works that reference the time periods in question.

Most of the fictional representations of this time period have centered around the US and/or its NATO allies and their views on UFOs, aliens, and the possibilities of ray guns and laser warfare.  But what about the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union?  After all, SF flourished in the Warsaw Pact nations around this time and their concerns, while sometimes mirroring those of the NATO countries, often differed in key respects.

British author Adam Roberts addresses some of this in his 2009 novel, Yellow Blue Tibia (the title being an English approximation of the Russian phrase for "I love you").  Spanning a time from the last years of Josef Stalin's dictatorship in 1946 to the immediate aftermath of the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986, the novel follows the life of Russian SF writer Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky during this tumultuous period of Russian history.  During the course of this novel, distinctions between the fictional and the "real" become blurred, perhaps as a way of reflecting Soviet propaganda at the time.  Take for instance Stalin's directive to Konstantin and other SF writers assembled before him:

'Besides,' said Stalin, with force, 'I give America five years.  Do you think that defeating America will be harder than defeating the Germans?  The Nazi army was the most modern and best equipped in the world, and we made short work of them.  And now our weapons are even stronger; our troops battle-hardened and our morale high.  I can tell you, comrades, that America will fall within five years.'

'Tremendous news,' said Sergei, in a loud, brittle voice.

'Indeed,' we all said.  'Excellent.  Superb.'

'But it is my duty,' said Stalin, 'to consider longer-term futures than a mere five years.  It is my duty to ensure that the revolutionary vigour is preserved long into the future.  And this is where you can help me.  Yes, you, science fiction authors.  Once the west falls, as it inevitably will, and the whole world embraces Communism, where then will we find the enemies against which we can unite, against which we can test our collective heroism?  Eh?'

This was a tricky question - tricky in the sense that it was not immediately obvious which answers were liable to provoke official displeasure.  We pretended to ponder it.  Fortunately Comrade Stalin did not leave us to stew.

'Outer space,' he said, in a low voice.  'Space will provide the enemies.  You, comrades, will work together - here, in this dacha.  All amenities will be provided.  I myself will visit from time to time.  Together we will work upon the story of an extraterrestrial menace.  It will be the greatest science fiction story ever told!  And we will write it collectively!  It will inspire the whole of the Soviet Union - inspire the whole world!  It is, after all, the true Communist arena.  Space, I mean.  Outer space is ours!  That is your task, comrades!' (p. 8)
From this directive springs a narrative where the tail (the conceived stories of an alien menace) ends up wagging the dog (or actual 1980s Soviet life).  Roberts utilizes satire to very good effect in this novel; the stultifying effects of a stratified Soviet society are parodied in several passages throughout the novel.  Skvorecky, who went from being a whiz kid of sorts on this scenario-developing team to gulag prisoner to broken-down alcoholic in the 1980s, represents several of the changes that have taken place in Soviet society over this time span.  After elaborately setting up the scenario that later unfolds, the novel comes into its own a little over the halfway point, where all sorts of bizarre events, some of which center around a Stalin, converge to create a tale that is in equal parts a satire of 1950s alien menace SF tales and a warped look at communism as practiced in the Soviet Union during the Cold War years.

Such satires are difficult to review effectively because so much depends on how well the reader knows the source material and also how inclined that reader may be to reading a work that parodies elements of Soviet history and period-piece SF.  For myself, I found the humor to be hit-and-miss.  Sometimes, it felt as though Roberts strained the narrative a bit too much in trying to fit all of the pieces together.  But there were also times, such as the case involving the American Scientologist, where the manic pace and comedic writing collide nicely with some rather brutal truths about that time period.  So while some of Yellow Blue Tibia was a mess to sort through, the end result for me was a mess that was gloriously sloppy, often funny, and well worth the time devoted to deciphering just what in the hell was actually taking place.

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