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Another fine mess

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Yellow Blue Tibia - Adam Roberts Really damn good. I can't believe I haven't read anything by Roberts before. Review forthcoming... Uh-oh: now someone actually cares, so...caveat lector.

Tibia's glorious high-concept plot opens with a gaggle of bedraggled Soviet Science Fiction writers still wincing from experiences in the Great War, convened at Stalin's dacha and told--by big blustery scary-ass demon Joe himself--to write an alien invasion novel. What follows is in some ways a reinvigoration of the classic alien invasion novel, complete with the seven-veil tease of the conspiratorial plot. Yet, as our narrator, the ironist Josef Skvorecky notes, it seems often quite "peculiar," like an "idiot conspiracy. A conspiracy by cretins." Most of the action occurs in 1986, the year of Chernobyl--an event predicted as a first salvo in the alien war written by said gaggle some forty years before. We follow Skvorecky dragged back into the mess, pushed about and bullied (as much like a classic noir as an SF protagonist) by the dunderheaded Militia, the sinister KGB, the confusing American Scientologists, a Pushkin Chess Club full of UFO enthusiasts, and a sidekick named Saltykov with "a syndrome"...

...and the plotline(s) start to shift between multiplying options. The conspiratorial thriller tracks into farce, and back again. I will note, as I move away from my great pleasurable engagement with such plotting, that even if you are not like me, do not enjoy the lure of the meta and the conceptual, you can still relish the novel as thrill ride and/or fall-down funny. Skvorecky confounds and drives to furious exasperation a militiaman named Zembla (Roberts is constantly tipping his cap) who while interrogating JS gets confused about when he's turning on or off the tape recorder (so that he can off-record threaten, with increasing fury and decreasing potency, JS's ballsack). Or JS is himself driven to Oliver-Hardy-esque bluster by the rigorous commitment to certain procedures demanded by his ally Saltykov, who keeps reminding everyone that he has a "syndrome" which leads to certain needs and behaviors--like a terribly ineffectual escape route during a tense getaway scene.

But like Skvorecky I am at heart an ironist, unable to take--largely uninterested about taking--"the direct route." The novel engages quite literally and fully with the work of the science fiction novel, its relationship to history and reality -- "Let us say," advises Skvorecky, "that science fiction is a kind of conceptual disorientation of the familiar." Often, like Communism, it is a kind of dream of Necessity, a corrosive and critical comment on what should be. (A KGB foil of Skvorecky's notes that "Alternative history has no pedigree in Soviet science fiction" because "postulating what things would have been like ... is meaningless to us.") But, like Roberts, Skvorecky disagrees, is forced by the complex plot and fuelled by his own attitudinal disposition to recognize the play of possibility. SF isn't (or needn't be) about what should be, but about those conditions which could lead to X, or Y, and in interrogating--juggling--the possibilities SF demands of the reader a kind of ability to trace across the superposition of contrary, contradictory notions of history, politics, language.

Skvorecky also happens to be a translator. Late in the novel, conversing with the on-the-run American Scientologist Dora (another hat-tip), he notes how to say "I love you" in Russian. He parses the translation without saying the words, the sound of the Russian (which is, in fact, the book's title). Roberts doesn't spell things out--in this case there is no need, but even where things can get sticky, he's committed to the ambiguous (even as he maintains the amped-up pleasures of plot). At the level of language, genre, plot, theme--Roberts is a masterful juggler of the conditional.

I enjoyed this as a huge SF fan, but I think Roberts' readership could and should be broader. I can't wait to grab some more of his work...