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3.8 out of 5 stars35
3.8 out of 5 stars
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on 1 October 2014
This is a thought-provoking and darkly witty tale, although the humour reveals itself rather more in hindsight than in the moment. Like many Adam Roberts' books, it revolves around a central conceit, which is revealed late in the day - but the ride is exciting, fast-paced, and tense. Most especially it is tense - the backdrop of Soviet Russia helps to accentuate this tension, and Roberts brilliantly evokes an atmosphere of political claustrophobia and fear. Readers of Roberts' work will recognize the slightly chaotic behaviour of his characters, which is something I relish - they always feel very human to me. This book does feel to have more direction than some of the author's other works, though; the chaos is nicely paced with a steadily mounting tension. All in all, one of my favourites - a book to read, enjoy, and muse upon.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 January 2013
Set mostly in Moscow with a diversion to Kiev this intriguing and extremely well set up novel involves a group of young Science Fiction writers invited to attend a meeting with Josef Stalin a few years after the end of WWII. He wants them to write a scenario involving a challenge from a new enemy. In his view of the world the only honour is that which comes with warfare. Now the Germans have been beaten he has run out of enemies and his requirement is that a new threat must be created. He wants them to interpose an alien force from the stars that will unite the Russian people against it. Konstantin Svorecky is one of the writers involved and they do their best to produce a scenario that will fill his needs. Then, almost as soon as their script is written they are told to disperse and forget they ever met Stalin or wrote a word.

Many years later, however, as Gorbachev is announcing Perestroika it seems that the KGB has taken Stalin (dead now of course, but *is* he?) at his word and are launching an alarming plan to put the written work into action. Jan Frenkel one of the original writers has risen through the ranks and has the power to set the mad scheme off. Svorecky finds himself taking an excruciating journey to Kiev, and from there to Chernobyl, where the first strike is to be made. Also implicated are two members of an American Scientology delegation. They set off to try and divert this insidious plan with their driver Saltykov - a man with a strange syndrome that renders him hysterical if anyone tries to touch him. Then Svorecky is trapped within the Chernobyl complex and forced to treat with Trofim, a bear of a man following the orders of the loathsome Frenkel. The confrontations and contradictions often have the quality of high farce as Svorecky argues against Trofim's conviction that he will be translated into a higher sphere if he blows up the plant.

`"I shall meet the radiation aliens," he said firmly

`"Comrade," I said, "Listen to me carefully. The radiation aliens - *I made them up*. Me! You are talking to their creator. Comrade Frenkel and I and a gaggle of other science fiction writers, back in the 1940s. We *wrote* them."' But he can't budge the stubborn faith of the man.

From there the plot builds to a climax with tension ratcheted up all the way. The question appears to be whether there really are aliens in the Russian skies. How the bizarre events that ensue can possibly be explained. How many realities are there and which one is Svorecky actually inhabiting? Throughout, Svorecky is obsessed with the idea that death, personified is after him in the disguise of a red-haired man, whom he believes will shoot him through the heart. This is the man who later confronts him in a Moscow park.

I've left out huge chunks of the plot, which is decidedly fiendish, both hilarious and terrifying at the same time. Adam Roberts writes with such brilliant confidence and credibility that you almost want it to be true. All the time I was reading this I was being prodded by the beautiful range of ideas that he puts into motion. This is one book I will definitely want to read again, it is witty, shocking, deep and strange, alarming and wonderful.
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on 30 August 2012
There's a scene in Adam Roberts' Yellow Blue Tibia in which the narrator, Konstantin Skvorecky, is interrogated by a (presumably junior) member of the KGB. It's your archetypical interrogation set-up: windowless room, tape recorder, table and two chairs. During the course of the questioning, the seemingly polite and considerate interrogator will reach across the desk, pause the recorder, and subsequently launch an abusive tirade of threats at Skvorecky, paying particularly gruesome attention to the protagonist's balls. He'll then un-pause the recorder and pursue his inquiry in the aforementioned polite and courteous manner, only, of course, to stop the tape machine again and make progressively more disturbing and violent threats of injury to Skvorecky's testicles. The scene progresses in this manner for a number of pages until, in a somewhat predictable but nonetheless hilarious switcheroo, it's revealed that the KGB officer has been unintentionally recording the "stuff about balls" but pausing the tape while conducting the interview proper.

It's very funny (and nothing I can write in this review could possibly articulate quite how ball-obsessed this KGB guy is); but as well as serving to bathetically undermine the seriousness of the interrogation scene as over-used genre trope, this sketch also functions as microcosm for the entire novel. Yellow Blue Tibia essentially examines the tensions between state-sanctioned truths and the deeper, behind-the-scenes, capital-T Truth (while asking the question: can such a thing be said to exist anyway?). As this interrogation scene pertinently demonstrates, there's often a gap between the history as it's recorded and it's wider, un-written contexts. The book's key thematic elements are the narrative problems of memory and the recording of the same, and the reconciliation of different characters' conflicting subjective interpretations of the same events. It's the kind of thematic fodder that you might expect from more mainstream literary fiction; but don't worry, Yellow Blue Tibia doesn't skew quite as close to such middle-brow bore-fests as The Sense of an Ending as I've perhaps made it sound. One of the key questions Yellow Blue Tibia attempts to address is this: what, exactly, is science fiction, and, then, what, exactly, is science fiction for? Fittingly for a book that examines truth, openness and the problems of definition, the setting is Perestroika era Russia. Oh, and there's loads of stuff about UFOs too. Lots and lots of UFOs.

In brief: A group of renowned Russian sci-fi writers put their heads together to produce a collectively authored alien invasion yarn on the orders or none other than Mr Stalin himself, who feels that a new enemy is just what Russia needs to unite its people. Not long into the creative process, the writers are ordered to abandon their efforts and, on pain of death, never speak of their narrative again. Jump-cut forty years to 1980s Moscow, where one of the writers, Konstantin Skvorecky, now an elderly divorced ex-alcoholic, is working as a Russian-English translator. Just as Gorbachev is having his way with Communism, the alien invasion that Skvorecky and colleagues cooked-up all those years ago begins to transpire for real. Or maybe it doesn't.

Of course, any book that takes as its subject the nature of truth and the trouble with definition presents some particular difficulties for the reviewer (i.e me). Whether or not I label Yellow Blue Tibia as predominantly realist fiction psycho-drama or escapist sci-fi is somewhat dependent on my own interpretation of its events. In reading, the novel offers a kind of genre mashup: equal parts literary realism, sci-fi novel, historical fiction, thriller, and satire. All of this is perennially augmented(/problematised) by the narrator, who will frequently refuse to commit himself to any one version of events, a feat he achieves by constantly employing the book's defining refrain: "It was [x]; or it was [y]; or it was some third thing".

So, is there an alien invasion in Yellow Blue Tibia or is there not? (or is there some "third thing?"). Well, refreshingly, the text doesn't encourage the reader to plant a flag and take sides with either the `yes' or the `no' camps. Of course our objectivity is somewhat limited by the necessarily biased first-person narration (Skvorecky's testimony is our only source), but one of Roberts' most extraordinary achievements is never pushing the balance too far in favour of one interpretation over another. In this regard Skvorecky is a perfect narrator and an effective canvass for reader-sympathy; being a Russian-English translator, Skvorecky, like the reader, also finds himself adrift between two irreconcilable perspectives; held in suspicion by the Russians (surely it's impossible to learn English without simultaneously appropriating some of the fundamental deep-structures of the capitalist mindset?), yet not at home with the Americans either (there is a (cold) war on, you know etc.). This dualism transcends the sub-text to characterise the page-by-page style of the book's narration. Skvorecky's confusion over the alien invasion (that both is and isn't happening) is charmingly reflected in his narrative voice, which frequently employs bi-lingual puns, hilarious Russian misunderstandings of 20th Century Americanisms and a charming penchant for both Slavic self-deprecation and American pride and blow-hardedness. Yellow Blue Tibia is a novel of unresolved parities and long-drawn passive conflicts (if you wanted to be reeeally twee about it, you could argue that the book's overall structure functions as a long-game metaphor for the cold war).

Elsewhere the supporting cast fulfil their roles well: the matter-of-fact and aspergic nuclear physicist-turned-taxi-driver Saltykov offers a pleasing comic foil to Skvorecky's self-indulgent world weariness, and American love-interest Dora gives a satisfying non-Russian perspective while simultaneously providing Roberts with an excuse to have his narrator explain all of the clever puns he's making. Trofim is your prototypical Bond villain henchmen, whose brief moments of verbal eloquence come only when he's repeating verbatim the philosophy of his superiors, an affectation counterpointed to great comic effect with his otherwise lumbering stupidity.

That Yellow Blue Tibia revels in these kinds of conflicts and ambiguities is what makes the book so special (I also enjoyed the constant and often contradictory attempts to define science fiction, e.g.: "science fiction is a conceptual disorganisation of the familier" etc.) Being the nerdy reader of sci-fi and fantasy that I am, I'm usually pre-disposed to the more fantastical interpretation of any given set of events. But Yellow Blue Tibia almost denies me this readerly choice by making both of it's possible outcomes a reality: the alien invasion both is and isn't happening - and while I can't explain how the writer achieves this without resorting to massive spoilers, suffice to say the ending really is something else. For the immovably cynical among you, Roberts offers an out in the form of an `it was all a bump on the head' possibility, but this is by far the least interesting of the explanations offered up by the text.

In a brief end-note, Adam Roberts states that the kernel of the novel was an attempt to reconcile the "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"; but I would posit that Yellow Blue Tibia also carries with it some strikingly more literary connotations, and that Skvorecky's dilemma ( the synchronized existing and not-existing of the book's aliens) stands as a metaphor for the interpretive pluralism is literary texts - those wildly different readings of books which are, nonetheless, all equally valid. That the book is narrated by a writer, and that the story constantly draws attention to itself as a multi-layered work of fictions within fictions adds further weight to this argument, I feel. I enjoyed the book immensely. Yellow Blue Tibia is about the different ways we read and interpret texts; it's about the consequences of fictions; or it isn't. Or maybe it's some third thing.
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on 30 June 2012
The concept is clever, the characters are interesting, and the plot is exciting. Add to that some quality prose - the author especially has a great way of describing the sky in all its guises - and some genuinely funny scenes, and you have a very good novel. Ok, sure, there are a few holes in the logic, and a few James Bond moments (let me just explain all my evil plans to you, Mr. Bond, before I kill you...), but you get the feeling the author had his tongue lodged in various cheeks while writing, so... Overall, recommended.
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on 24 August 2011
I haven't read any Sci fi since I was a teenager but decided to take the plunge with this one because it sounded a bit different. All in all I really enjoyed it and it did have me hooting with laughter at several points. The characters are varied and complex and my favourite was the taxi driver. However, and it may be only a small point, if a book is titled Yellow Blue Tibia the author really ought to know where the tibia is. Or is that a bit nitpicky?
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 August 2010
I liked this book. It wheehks you around all over the place. Equally amusing and fascinating.
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on 17 June 2012
I hugely enjoyed this - it is one of the few SF books to really address politics and a venture where instead of looking into the future, this book looks back into the past to come up with an alternative explanation for real events. It's well written and funny, and a little bit like The Hitchhiker's Guide in its light-hearted tone. Highly recommended.
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on 18 July 2014
The best Adam Roberts I have read so far, and worth 4.5 stars. A strange mixture of SF, comedy, and thriller in one book. I wanted to throw it away but had to keep reading one more chapter before doing so. A small bonus is that I now know how to say "I love you" in Russian ( or so Mr Roberts affirms).
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on 19 March 2010
"Fantastic" books like this don't normally manage to create characters realistic enough to hold my attention, but this one did. It was a page turner of a book and has a novel approach to Soviet Union history as well as UFOs!

Entertaining and effortlessly informative, in an odd way.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 14 September 2013
I bought this book under the influence of the recommendations from Amazon and the positive reviews posted about it. What a disappointing read. I should have put it to one side as soon as it failed to capture my imagination within the first fifty pages. The prose is turgid, making it a difficult read. The story is hardly compelling and presents as many unique writing occasions that were never intended to be linked together in a single novel. In other words, the complete novel presents as an artificial construct. The explanation in the final chapter of the book's logic and "science" is ample evidence that the previous 300 pages had been disjointed. As for the novel's "humour", don't get me started on that...
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