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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

“Yellow Blue Tibia” by Adam Roberts (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

Official Adam Roberts Website
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Read Reviews via BookGeeks, The Guardian + The Wertzone

INTRODUCTION: Rightly named the “king of the high-concept sf”, Adam Roberts has been a big-time favorite of mine since I read “Stone”, his wonderful take on new space opera and the literary answer to Iain M. Banks’ Culture series. Mr. Roberts does not like to repeat himself in his work, so his novels range wildly from a romp like “Land of the Headless”, to a near-future epic in Gradisil, to very different takes on the Multiverse and what is reality in “Polystom” and his newest book, “Yellow Blue Tibia”. I own all of his original novels and any new Adam Roberts is a must-read for me, although it does come with high expectations.

The premise of “Yellow Blue Tibia”—subtitled ‘Konstantin Skvorecky's Memoir of the Alien Invasion of 1986’—intrigued me, though I did wonder if a novel set wholly in Russia and Ukraine of 1945 and 1986, and with mostly Russian characters, would be as compelling as his other work. After reading and immediately re-reading the book, I have to say that “Yellow Blue Tibia” not only exceeded my expectations, but it became another personal favorite—it was just that good. The cover is absolutely outstanding too...

SETTING: After a set-up prologue in a dacha near Moscow just after the ending of the war in 1945, the action switches to Moscow and Kiev in 1986.

From the superb epilogue/pseudo-Wiki page about the narrator of the novel:

Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecki (b. 1917) is a Russian-born writer of science fiction. Most of his fiction has been produced in the 1930's including such minor classics as... He served in the Red Army in the Second World War but disappeared shortly after the war...

Jan (Ivan) Frenkel is another Slavic sf writer that worked with Konstantin on the super secret literary/propaganda project personally commissioned by I.V. Stalin and which was soon abandoned. The other three writers on the project were Segei Rapoport, Nikolay Asterinov and Adam Kaganovich.

Dora Norman and James Coyle are members of the Scientology faith on a mission to collaborate with the Soviet government in matters of interest to both Scientology and the Russians. Lastly, taxi-driver Saltykov is a former nuclear physicist with a strange syndrome and is also a member of the Pushkin Chess Club which contains a large number of UFO enthusiasts.

FORMAT/INFO:Yellow Blue Tibia” stands at 324 pages divided over four parts, a Coda and the superb one page Skvorecki pseudo-Wiki reference page that incidentally functions as an Epilogue. The first two parts are subdivided into sixteen numbered chapters, while the last two parts are unitary wholes. Quotes from various Soviet leaders and “luminaries” are sprinkled here and there and add to the novel’s depth. The narration is in the first person present tense. The ending is superb and I loved its original presentation as a “Wiki” author page. January 22, 2009 marks the Hardcover & Trade Paperback publication of “Yellow Blue Tibia” via

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS:Ya lyublyU tebyA”, which sounds quite similar to Yellow Blue Tibia, means “I love you” in Russian and offers some insight into the ultimate theme of the novel—which is to never give up, to always hope and do your best and maybe, just maybe, you will find love and fulfillment in the most unlikely places and circumstances. So in this sense, and despite its dark humor, cynical jokes and attitude to life, “Yellow Blue Tibia” is a remarkably cheerful and uplifting novel.

Of course, the dark humor is just irresistible and I laughed out loudly on many occasions when reading the book. From the opening act in the dacha and the banter between the five sf writers, to the scenes in Moscow and the action & aftermath in Kiev and Chernobly, “Yellow Blue Tibia” is at times unbelievably funny, and is just a romp and very accessible.

A few examples include the policeman taping his menacing act rather than the actual interrogation, the huge KGB agent with the brain power of an ox (“and if you do have to kill him, remember to put him in the chute”), and the nuclear physicist turned taxi driver because of his unnamed syndrome (“lock, unlock, relock, unlock, relock”), but the book’s most humorous moments is courtesy of our “ironist” narrator and his many memorable lines.

Now I rarely provide quotes in my reviews since it's easy today to find online samples of almost any new novel and I'd rather have the reader form an opinion based on a large chunk of the prose than on selected lines. I also believe that selective short quotes rarely reflect the atmosphere of the whole book, but I will make an exception here since a large part of the enjoyment for “Yellow Blue Tibia” is the wordplay. From the opening part set in the dacha:

“ 'A fine story', said Asterinov ....
'Six months in prison, that tale,' said Sergei.
'Was it the witch?', I asked 'I never know where the Party stands on issues of the supernatural...'
'It was, - understand, I do not know for sure, I heard this at second or third hand - it was the walk through the forest. Apparently I was just too convincing in the representation of a poor man's yearning for money...' ”

“ 'You're talking nonsense Sergei', said Ivan Frankel. ‘Ants live in big collective groups. Ants are communists. We need a solitary insect - a spider'.
'Spiders are not insects' retorted Sergei

“A realist writer might break his protagonist's leg, or kill his fiancee; but a science fiction writer will immolate whole planets, and whilst doing so he will be more concerned with the placement of commas than the screams of the dying.”

However, do not imagine that the novel is just dark humor. There is a very strong sf-nal including a lesson on how to do Multiverse narratives based on our time-lime, an original take on UFO's and the millions of people that claim they saw or were abducted by them, and a trip to Chernobyl in the spring of 1986, as well as assorted chases, murders, action scenes and one of the most touching and unlikely romances that I have read recently and which chimes very well with the book’s title.

In summary, Adam Roberts’Yellow Blue Tibia” is just superb and I can’t recommend it enough. I also strongly hope that the book will find a US publisher soon, but until then
The Book Depository offers the novel at a good price with free shipping worldwide so I say get it!!!


ediFanoB said...

Even the book is on my list I waited for a review on one of my appreciated blogs.

So finally you did it. Thank you Liviu for this excellent review which doubles the water in my mouth.

Liviu said...

Thank you for your kind words;

I forgot to add one line in the review:

"when is a piece of irradiated shrapnel going through your brain a good thing?"

The book is zany that way - but serious too, not a parody

Anonymous said...

Interesting book...i never heard of the writer but i will check it out. The cover is simply astoneshing and well made.
And btw your name sounds like a foreign one.Have you any relatives across the Ocean, in one east european country?:)i`m hope i`m not disturbing you or something :)

Liviu said...

Completely agree about the cover; even if not a big fan of Adam Roberts I would have considered this books based on it only.

I am originally from Romania, no secret there, though I have lived here in the US for almost 20 years now and hence pretty much all my adult life

Anonymous said...

If you didn`t know, a romanian author has recently made his way in the canadian anthology Ages of Wonder from Daw, his name is Costi Gurgu. I`m reading it now...I guess that after 20 years you may be not so interested in the romanian authors of science fiction:-? Anyway cheers from your old country :D

Liviu said...

I still read some Romanian sf authors, or with Romanian names; Nina Munteanu who is from Canada I think is one example.

D. Dobos - Abatia is another series I started though not finished yet, and there are several other Romanian sf novels I have.

In the dark days of the 80's, Almanahul Anticipatia was one of the few annual bright spots I was always looking forward to, and I still did not forget it these many years later :)

Of course Crohmalniceanu's Istorii Insolite 1/2 are still with me and I re-read them once in a while, as well as I re-read Eliade's fantastic.

There was also recently a sf anthology of current Europen authors and there was a Romanian offering there.

I will take a look at the Daw anthology so thank you for mentioning it.

kyodnb said...

don`t mention it..yeah i hard too about the Tor anthology with east Europeans authors and the romanian is Lucian Merişca. I got his book in romanian in a hurry after i heard that, but i didn`t read it yet.
And Dan Dobos is a writer that i like with his trilogy, Abatia.

Hmm, the writer Crohmalniceanu... i have yet time to discover him :)

Anonymous said...

My favourite part of the book was the interview with the incompetent militia office after James Coyle is murdered. First time in a long time I've laughed out loud at a book.


Liviu said...


The two volumes by Mr. Crohmalniceanu - Istorii Insolite and Alte Istorii Insolite were some of the highlights of my early sf readings in the bad old 80's under the communist regime; I still have the books here in the US and reread them once in a while and they are still interesting; the stories are more "philosophical" than action oriented, but sf through and through, not Borgesian fantastic with which they share some similarities

Mark: YBT has so many darkly funny parts - especially for someone who lived through those times and under a similar regime.

The amazing part for me is how Mr. Roberts got it "just right". I heard tones of jokes like that with the "militia" and their stupidity in my time since that was a survival valve, but I was very pleasantly surprised to see them inserted by a Western author.

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