Review: Yellow Blue Tibia

Set in Soviet-era Russia, Adam Roberts’ Yellow Blue Tibia opens with five science fiction writers being taken to a dacha in the countryside. There, Stalin himself instructs them to invent a story about an alien invasion – the idea being that, with America seemingly on the brink of collapse, the Soviet Union needs another massive ideological threat to hold it together. A few months later, they’re told to stop working on the project and forget about it completely, on pain of death.

Sixty-odd years later, there are only two writers left: Konstantin Skvorecky and Jan Frenkel. They’re thrown together when Frenkel realises that the story they wrote is actually coming true…

When I was researching this post, one of the most notable criticisms of Yellow Blue Tibia I stumbled across, in a couple of places, was that its presentation of Russian culture and language is – not just inauthentic, but plain wrong. Catherynne Valente, in particular, points out that SF and other fantastika, far from being despised and looked down upon as it is and has been in the West, has a venerable and respectable history in Russia; that the many and various bilingual puns and plays-on-words rely on a Western reading of Russian letters, and don’t work if you can actually read Russian; that Konstantin doesn’t act like a person living in Soviet Russia would.

I think Valente is missing the point to an extent here, though I sympathise with why she has done so (how many times have I refused to engage with a litfic novel because of its treatment of its female characters?). Lavie Tidhar posits that unlike most SFF writers, who are looking to make unfamiliar worlds seem familiar and comfortable, Roberts “seeks to defamiliarise the unfamiliar” (italics original):

His interest does not lie in convincing us this is real. On the contrary. His SF seeks to distract us, to point out to us the superficial structures and devices being used.

In other words, Roberts’ SFnal worlds are not meant to be accurate; his works respond not to conditions of external reality but to the condition of SF itself. Yellow Blue Tibia is not about Russia; it’s about a Western idea of Russia.

Which leaves us with two related questions. One: is it okay to use Russian history and culture in service of a project that in truth has very little interest in the country? Two: what’s Roberts hoping to achieve by using Russia in this way?

Let’s start with the first question, although I may circle back to it once I’ve thought about #2. The answer would, I think, be pretty clear if the country in question was, say, India, or China, or the UAE: no, it’s not okay to mangle the culture and language of historically oppressed people in service of a story about the West. Although I think the calculation is a little different for Russia, given its privileged position on the world stage for much of modern history, it’s fair to say Roberts is on shaky ground here. (Enough people on Goodreads have described the book as “historically accurate” without having any knowledge of Russia to suggest that Roberts’ satire is not flagged very clearly.) I also agree unequivocally with Valente that the portrayal of Dora, an American Scientologist and incidentally also the only female character in the text, is fatphobic; and the character of Saltykov, who is ludicrously literal-minded and rules-oriented because of his anachronistic Asperger’s diagnosis, is an ableist stereotype.

So, question two: why Russia? And what’s Roberts’ larger project here?

One of Yellow Blue Tibia‘s characters describes Skvorecky, Our Protagonist, as an ironist – a description that fits Roberts himself equally well. Neither of them mean anything they say. Or, perhaps, it’s just that what they say is not exactly what they mean. Someone once defined irony to me as a gap: a gap between what is said and what is intended, or between what is and what is expected. Yellow Blue Tibia is full of such gaps. Having rejected science fiction as a moribund and foolish genre, Skvorecky makes a living in the “present day” of the novel – the 1980s, when he’s reunited with Frenkel – an English-Russian translator; much is made of the interplay between the two languages, the problems of representation and communication that translation throws up; the lossy transfer between two different ways of seeing the world as they are conditioned by language. (It’s this interplay, of course, that attracts much of Valente’s ire.)

Saying not exactly what we mean: is this indicative of what Yellow Blue Tibia thinks of science fiction? In an endnote, Roberts says of his novel that it seeks to reconcile two “seemingly contradictory facts about UFOs: that, on the one hand, they have touched the lives of many millions […] and on the other, that they clearly don’t exist”. This is an ironic statement, is it not? In a couple of ways: factually, that something that doesn’t exist can touch the lives of so many people; and self-referentially too. It’s a red herring insomuch as it suggests we read the text superficially, as pure hard-SF thought experiment, an explanation for UFOs. But, if we read UFOs as metonymy for science fiction as a whole – then, perhaps, it gives us a key to Roberts’ project in Yellow Blue Tibia. Because, isn’t it ironic that SF touches the lives of millions of people with stories of things that don’t exist?

I think there’s quite a lot of this going on in Yellow Blue Tibia: Roberts constantly directing our attention to the superficial, giving us the uncanny sense that he doesn’t actually mean anything he’s saying. Hence the exaggerated stereotypes, the comedic banter, the madcap car chases and KGB encounters and other high jinks that make up the last half of the book: these things are there to elicit a reaction; laughter, or suspense. (I laughed. Books don’t often make me laugh.)

Where does the ironical nature of science fiction come into it? There’s a scene where Skvorecky is waylaid by a UFO appreciation society and asked to give a speech, in his capacity as an esteemed science fiction author. He denies all knowledge of and belief in UFOs; the society, though, assumes that he’s doing so in order to avoid persecution from the authorities, and interprets his words as meaning their opposite. And what about the presence of the two Scientologist characters – members of a religion that famously has taken science fiction a little too seriously? What these fanatics have in common, perhaps, is an overenthusiasm for reading science fiction literally, superficially; for not spotting its ironical potential. Which is exactly what Roberts is directing us to do, of course; to pay attention to the superficialities of his text.

A regular refrain of Skvorecky’s opposes the real/not real dichotomy adhered to by Scientologists and SF fans alike: best expressed here as “It was [x]; or it was [y]; or it was some third thing”. As in, “She loved me. Or she did not. Or some third thing.” The book’s aliens, by the time they appear towards the end of the novel, are similarly indecisive, being inhabitants of a quantum multiverse who manipulate probabilities to create a timeline that suits them best. That means, among other things, that they can complicate the dichotomy between death and life, existence and non-existence. So Roberts resists a literal reading of Yellow Blue Tibia even as he directs us towards its superficialities. Which I think tells us what Russia is doing in this novel: it’s there to evoke a sense of the paranoia engendered by state surveillance, the inability to identify what is real and what is not. It is always “some third thing”.

So, like Lavie Tidhar, I read Yellow Blue Tibia as a critique of Western science fiction fandom and SF’s tendency towards familiarisation. In drawing our attention to the text’s superficialities while also resisting a literal reading of the same text, Roberts anticipates criticisms like Valente’s which demonstrate exactly his point: that SFF readers are too focused on the literal to the detriment of the ironical.

Is this a fair criticism? We’ve all heard of and met people who don’t believe politics, or any other kind of “message”, belongs in SFF. We’ve all read Watsonian reviews and comments that treat SFF texts as logically consistent secondary worlds with no authorial design or bias. But there are also lots of people out there doing fascinating SFF criticism that does pay attention to subtext, to irony, to metaphor. So –

Like many of Roberts’ novels, Yellow Blue Tibia is flawed. Although there are reasons for the unpleasant stereotyping of Dora, Saltykov and Russia in general, I don’t think criticisms like Valente’s are invalid. Pleading artistic integrity is not a defence against cultural appropriation, ableism and fatphobia. But there’s also a heck of a lot to engage with here if you’re able and willing to overlook those things: Roberts’ novel may be flawed, but it’s also kind of brilliant.

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