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Then they scarred my face, now I'm a believer, or, what happens if you wear radioactive underpants?*
on 11 January 2013
Yellow Blue Tibia is, among other things, a serious novel about the nature and consequences of belief, but don't let that put you off; you could get through the whole thing and have a great old time without noticing the serious subtext, let alone have it ruin your evening.
That's because it's an extremely accessible, fast-paced, exciting and, above all, very funny book. The humour is embedded in the telling of the tale, in first-person narrator Konstantin Skvorecky's droll, deadpan account of the preposterous events he endures, but it also comes from the vividly-drawn set of characters he encounters. As a Proper Reviewer notes in a blurb on the back cover of the paperback edition, "Skvorecky is a great creation, comic and moving", and while that's absolutely true, it fails to highlight the big yoks which come from the likes of Saltykov (an Asperger's-afflicted nuclear physicist turned taxi driver, and if you're thinking Travis Bickle crossed with Sheldon Cooper, you're getting warm, though Sheldon dominates), Frenkel (the KGB commander whose attempts to hide his rage beneath an urbane, rational exterior are only partially successful) and Trofim (Frenkel's assistant, and a lovely spin on the usual "dumb henchman" trope).
Yellow Blue Tibia is also that rarest of creatures, an SF novel with a totally original concept and plot. There's been nothing like it before, and there won't - can't - be anything like it again, as it's completely non-replicable. In brief, it starts just after the Great Patriotic War, with Stalin ordering a group of Russian SF writers (including Skvorecky and Frenkel) to come up with an alien invasion concept to be used as propaganda to maintain patriotism among the Russian people. After a few months, he changes his mind, and the concept is suppressed and forgotten. Then, in the 1980s, it appears to be coming true, as Skvorecky gets involved in a series of increasingly farcical and strange incidents, culminating but not concluding with some High Weirdness at Chernobyl. Plagiarise that!
The ending is ambiguous and leaves some aspects of the tale unresolved. Some readers have had a problem with this, but no other ending makes any sense for a book which asks us what - or which stories - we believe in, and why. All the characters embody different aspects of belief, and believe in different stories. Frenkel believes in Soviet Communism, even though it is visibly dying around him. Trofim believes what he's told to believe. Stalnykov believes in the palpably untrue alien invasion story which Skvorecky, Frenkel et al conceived for Stalin. Skvorecky's unlikely love interest, Dora, is an empiricist who believes in what she can see, which is Skvorecky. And as for Skvorecky himself, he starts off believing in nothing (an ironic stance which makes his dry, wry narrative voice so funny) and, after his bizarre experiences, ends up believing in - well, what, and why? In this context, tidy resolution would run entirely against the point of the book. Food for thought aplenty, for them as likes that sort of thing.
All of which may make it sound appallingly pretentious, but it's anything but, because - to paraphrase Honey Bruce discussing husband Lenny - it's just so goddam funny.