Columnist John Clute goes to war with Stalin's favorite SF writers in Yellow Blue Tibia

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Dec 14, 2012, 3:54 PM EST

There is a blue hammer in Yellow Blue Tibia (Gollancz, £18.99), because Adam Roberts's new novel is a love story, but only as we near the end do we encounter that lightening of the heart. First we must encounter Stalin, and Hitler must be namechecked, and Chernobyl must be visited, and there is the Matter of SF.

It is 1946. World War II has ended, leaving the U.S.S.R. with no external enemy worth considering—in Stalin's view, America will collapse within half a decade, leaving his people with no venomous Antithesis of World to arm themselves against. He has summoned a gaggle of Russian-language SF writers to a remote dacha. The novel—which is narrated throughout by one of these louche figures, Konstantin Skvorecky—begins. Skvorecky has a preternaturally clear voice. He sees everything in clear, as though some sort of unrelenting strobe were backlighting the world, except when things become deeply obscure.

You will want me to say what my impression of [Stalin] was. I can do little better than say to you that what most struck me, meeting him in the flesh, was how very like himself he looked. ... I had heard it said that when encountering Stalin the crucial thing was to meet his gaze.

Stalin now tells the SF writers their mission: They are to create a self-consistent and over-arching narrative in which UFOs are invading the U.S.S.R. and must be defeated at all costs. The terror-stricken writers—one wrong word in Stalin's presence and they are surely dead—settle down to work. They come up with the idea of "radiation aliens"—neatly prelusive of the Commies-in-your-backyard paranoia in America less than a decade later—and work up a scenario in which much of the Ukraine will be destroyed. They pick on the Ukraine because it can be destroyed by Stalin (they surmise) if necessary, as part of the real-life catastrophe he is eager to impose. But before their scenario can be enfiladed into the world, they are told to forget the whole thing on pain of instant death. With the exception of Skvorecky, none of them ever sees Stalin again.

Forty years pass. Skorecky has not written another word of SF. He has spent much of the intervening years drunk in Moscow. Because he can speak English, he works as a freelance translator. His life is a tepid shambles, but the world around him—"The clouds looked as if painted upon a vast transparency that was being slid slowly left to right along the backrail of the horizon"—retains all the clarity of a Thought Experiment.

Suddenly the jaws of Story shut cleanly on him.

He has been summoned to translate a conversation between two Scientologists, a thin man named Coyne and the obese, sweet-hearted Dora Norman, and soon becomes involved in the former's death. After the translation session, he is mysteriously transported to a club where UFO fanatics adjure him to confess to his knowledge that it is all true: that we have been invaded by aliens, as he well knows. He meets Coyne again there. They go into the street. A flying saucer that manifests itself as a clarity of light so overwhelming that the world shivers like a card being palmed—"a kind of conceptual disorientation of the familiar," which is how Skvorecky defines SF—yanks Coyne from the ground, then dumps him like garbage, killing him. Skvorecky is arrested, then escapes and is taken with Dora to Kiev in a cab driven by an SF person and UFO cognoscente named Saltykov, who has a "syndrome" whose symptoms closely resemble the Asperger-like symptomatology presented by some SF fans and writers: humorless literalism; unswervable adherence to patterns, lists, schedules; relentless rehearsals of iterable litanies, including detailed descriptions of their own symptoms and special menus; fixated attention spans in general. Roberts' portrait of Saltykov is quite extraordinarily funny; it reads as though taken from life.

Early on, they must escape from KGB pursuit:

"Speed up!" I bellowed. "I am driving at the optimal speed for fuel efficiency," retorted Saltykov in no placid voice.

Anyone who has tried to find a convention hotel from the back seat of a car piloted by a friend of a friend down the wrong interstate in driving rain has been there.

But they escape, after maybe too many pages, but the fun has been irresistible. Skvorecky is taken to Chernobyl—smack in the heart of the Ukraine—which the aliens are about the blow up. Somehow he manages to disable the bombs, though not before a grenade goes off and (it seems) kills him.

He awakens in a land irradiated by light of abnormal purity and finds the 1946 dacha, where Stalin awaits him. But it is clearly 1986. They converse. We are at the hinge of Yellow Blue Tibia. What happens now may be delusional, or may represent an SF outcome, or may flicker faster than the eye can see between conditions of reality, between genres of perception, between the living and the dead, between farce and utter stillness; between a story in which UFOs did the 20th century to us—"You don't think the entire twentieth century is f--king evidence of the shells landing amongst us?" Skvorecky is asked at a late point—and a story in which we did ourselves in.

Stalin, who seems unstained by the passage of 40 years, speaks disparagingly of Hitler, for the Man of Steel has never had any use for his "provincial" rival in the task of bringing off the dégringolade—an onomatopoeic term for "tumultuous change from bad to worse"—of the 20th century. As he puts it,

"Hitler was a human tyrant. He murdered millions, but he murdered those he considered other. He had his tribe. ... Me, however? I did not limit myself to a particular group, or scapegoat-crowd, or others. I waged war on the whole of humanity."

Just about now Skvorecky begins to realize that Stalin is inexplicable in human terms, that he is literally a Man of Steel—an alien, a polished, lacquered, androidal mockery of any merely human mass murderer, "a skilful and detailed copy of a human." (One is reminded here of Harry Mulisch's definition of Hitler in his novel Siegfried [2001] as a kind of radiant absence of being, a deathly absence into which we humans inscribed the "meaning" of Hitler.) Skvorecky now realizes that Josef Stalin (like Mulisch's Hitler) is in fact not to be "understood" as Steel, that he is not merely steel but light, that he is an idea of the world. In this world, the world of 1986 where the two meet, we may venture to describe him as an impostume of Chernobyl burning a hole in paradise. But that is to say that in this novel, under the garb of steel, under the steely back-lit simplistic sky, Josef Stalin is pure "SF."

The world portrayed in Yellow Blue Tibia is an illimitable palimpsest of versions of the world, just like all the SF stories ever written heaped one upon another; the world is a Book (on page 251, Roberts says as much, says that Yellow Blue Tibia is the book in which Yellow Blue Tibia happens); if we are lucky (as Skvorecky eventually is), we adhere to a page of the world that allows us to llive, but if we are less fortunate we reality-shift (as Skvorecky did until he fixes on one place) through the tissue-thin but innumerable Thought Experiments of the Prestidigitator, who may be UFOs this time.

The novel cardsharps to its ambivalent, or multivalent closing point. Stalin flickers out—the version of the world in which he is an alien radiance of light is no longer consanguinous with Skvorecky's world or worlds—and we seem to inhabit a world much like our "own," where Chernobyl does eventually blow up. This is not everyone's choice.

"Two roads...," says one of the ancillary characters towards the end, underestimating the number by a quintillion or so. "One of them led to the stars, do you understand? ... The other leads to the mundane. ... The appalling, appalling, appalling mundane."

But there is a kind of coda. Skvorecky has slowly been falling in love with Dora Norman, and she with him. This we are about to learn has been foretold by the title, just as the clue to the explosion of feeling that closes The Blue Hammer (1976), Ross MacDonald's last Lew Harper novel before the Alzheimer's got him, lies in its title. Harper has aged and "softened" as the book progresses. Near the end of the tale, watching his loved partner sleep, he notices "the steady blue pulse in her temple ... that meant that she was alive. I hoped that the blue hammer would never stop." Love makes the world go round.

Less intensely perhaps, Skvorecky discovers something very similar near the end of Yellow Blue Tibia. It is also the sum of the marvelous book he inhabits. He tells Dora he loves her. She tells him she loves him. He tells her that when "I love you" is spoken aloud in Russian, the phrase sounds to an English ear exactly like "yellow blue tibia."

Love makes the world go round.