15 April 2009

Adrienne Martini reviews Adam Roberts

from Locus Magazine, April 2009

Yellow Blue Tibia, Adam Roberts (Gollancz 978-0-575-08356-1, £18.99, 336pp, hc) January 2009.

To answer the most obvious question first, "yellow blue tibia" is the English phrase that sounds like the Russian words for "I love you." By the end of Adam Roberts's Yellow Blue Tibia, it all makes sense. Or, at least, the title does.

The basic conceit of Yellow Blue Tibia is that it is the diary of Soviet science fiction writer Konstantin Skvorecky, who was part of a panel of writers gathered by Stalin in 1946 in order to invent a new enemy for the country now that they were certain to be victorious against the American menace. Rather than search for a terrestrial antagonist, Stalin wants these writers to invent an extraterrestrial terror, which they do, crafting radiation-based beasties who intend to kill us all.

As abruptly as the writers were gathered, they are dismissed. Forty years pass. Skvorecky whiles away the time by getting married, drinking heavily and setting himself on fire. Somehow, he survives. One day, he runs into another writer from that 1946 meeting. Ivan Frenkel is now working for the KGB, it seems, and intimates to Skvorecky that their alien story might actually be true.

What follows is a Philip K. Dickish romp through the Russian countryside. Skvorecky hooks up with Saltykov, a cab driver whose behaviors read as belonging on the autistic spectrum, and with Dora Norman, a very large American Scientologist who may hold the secret of the coming invasion. The Chernobyl explosion is involved, as are Russian thugs and the secret police.

Skvorecky is never certain of his role in the mayhem nor does he know who can be believed. To make matters more interesting, time itself behaves strangely. "Time runs forward. Or it runs backward. One of the two. But it must do one of those things, and there cannot be a third thing it does," Skvorecky muses, as a third thing appears to happen.

Taken in terms of plot, Yellow Blue Tibia is a thrill ride, if only because of Roberts's wit and snappy pacing. Skvorecky's mix of bitterness and heart makes him an engaging character. The mystery of what is actually going on is a pleasure to noodle around with while you read. Roberts, who has twice previously been shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke Award, is a confident writer who appears to be having buckets of fun telling this story.

But what moves Yellow Blue Tibia from a well-told yarn into a layered novel worthy of more than one read is Roberts's commentary on the state of the genre and of its writers. Nuggets about the field abound. Like this observation about SF readers, uttered by the doctor who patches Skvorecky up after a run-in at the nuclear plant:

"Science fiction is for adolescent boys and people who make models of aircraft from plastic and glue. I am a mature woman, which is to say, the opposite of a science fiction fan."

Roberts also opines about the emotional depth of the genre's writers:

"A realist writer might break his protagonist's leg, or kill his fiancée; but a science fiction writer will immolate whole planets, and whilst doing so he will be more concerned with the placement of the commas than with the screams of the dying. He will do this every working day all through his life. How can this not produce calluses on those tenderer portions of the mind that ordinary human beings use to focus their empathy?"

After dismissing the average SF writer's ability to feel, Roberts spends the rest of Yellow Blue Tibia inserting evocative scenes that prove this idea false. Rather than read as harsh critiques, these asides are aimed directly at the core audience for his books so that they can also thumb their noses in the stereotypes' general direction.

Yellow Blue Tibia doesn't immediately make me want to say "yellow blue tibia" to it, if only because the ending doesn't quite feel like one. While it would be a disappointment if this twisty narrative had a simple resolution, it does require one that clears up a little more of the ambiguity. Still, Yellow Blue Tibia has a lot going for it, even if you don't fall in love.

Read more! This is one of two dozen book reviews from the April 2009 issue of Locus Magazine. To read more, go here to subscribe or buy the issue.
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