Stalin & UFOs – a philosophical SF thriller

Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts.

This novel was short-listed for the Arthur C Clarke Award for Science Fiction novels last year, but it’s really more of a philosophical thriller and a commentary on the fall of Communism than out and out science fiction.  It’s dark, thoughtful, thrilling and hilarious by turns and I loved it.

It’s 1946 and the ‘Great Patriotic War’ (aka WWII) has ended.  Stalin believes that the Soviet peoples need continued conflict to remain together under his thumb and he comes up with an idea.  He gets a group of the top Soviet science fiction authors together and orders them to come up with a plan for an alien invasion that could be faked if necessary.  They devise a race of ‘radiation aliens’ beings of pure energy who they decide should destroy the Ukraine…

How could we plan such a monstrosity so very casually? This is not an easy question to answer, although in the light of what came later it is, of course an important one. Conceivably it is that we did not beleive, even in the midst of our work, that it would come to anything – that we felt removed from the possible consequences of our planning. But I suspect a more malign motivation. Writers, you see, daily inflict the most dreadful suffering upon the characters they create, and science fiction writers are worse than any other sort in this respect. 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 with the screams of the dying. He will do this every working day all through his life. How can this not prodce calluses on those tenderer portions of the mind that ordinary human beings use to focus their empathy?

Nothing ever came of these plans (phew!), in fact the group were ordered never to talk about it. Years go by and our narrator, Konstantin Skvorecky, never wrote any more SF taking up the vodka bottle instead, but he pulled himself together enough to make a meagre living as a translator.  Now it’s 1986, he’s in his early sixties and his life is about to take a very strange turn indeed, when one of his former colleagues turns up – now a KGB officer and he says he has proof that aliens are here …

‘Let’s be clear,’ I said. ‘The six of us concocted that story of space aliens.’
‘We did.’
‘We didn’t base it on anything factual at all. We invented radiation aliens. Crazy, really. I don’t believe a single one of us even approximately understood the physics of radiation.’
‘That’s right.’
‘It was fiction. It was our fiction. We made it up. It’s not real.’
‘Fictional and unreal are not synonyms,’ said Frenkel, smiling as if he had articulated a piece of profound wisdom.
‘Ivan, you’re saying that the story we invented is somehow, I don’t know, happening in the real world? That there’s proof that radiation aliens are invading?’

Then things start to get rather Monty Python as Konsty gives Frenkel the slip and ends up in front of an audience of UFO enthusiasts who see him as the prophet of the alien invasion, just like that scene in Life of Brian where his followers hang on every word and revere his gourd. An American whom Konstantin had been translating for earlier (wanting to establish the Church of Scientology in Russia), reappears and things get nasty – and Konsty ends up having to make a break for … Ukraine – and can you remember what happened in there in real life in 1986?

I loved this book on so many levels. Firstly it was a cracking good adventure with thrills, spills, cross and double-cross and even romance. Then there was the philosophical paradox in that UFOs don’t exist, but enough people believe that they do to create tremendous conspiracy theories which feed paranoia and keep the secret services busy. I loved how Roberts has taken many real facts and events and woven them into a rich sort of alternate history with these big ideas. The book also has a fantastic sense of farce – there’s a marvellous scene towards the end about Russians and queuing which had me guffawing with laughter. Konstantin, our unreliable narrator is not a typical Russian – he is known as an ironist and his skewed view on life pervades the story from the start; he can’t help but make wisecracks all the time, but is ultimately a rather loveable older man and his account of his great adventure was a brilliant read.

An absolutely brilliant read. (10/10) I want to read more of this exciting author’s books.

Source: Own copy.  Adam Roberts, Yellow Blue Tibia (Gollancz, 2009) trade paperback, 338 pages. 

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10 thoughts on “Stalin & UFOs – a philosophical SF thriller

  1. LizF says:

    The title of this intrigued me right from when you mentioned it in your ‘now reading’ section and I was trying to work out what on earth it could be about!
    On the face of it, it doesn’t sound like my sort of thing, but since you rate it so highly, I think that I have got to give it a try so I will look for it at the library – just as soon as it re opens after its revamp!

    • gaskella says:

      Liz, I used to read so much SF when younger, that nowadays when a good, clever, literary SF novel like this one comes along, it totally wows me. This totally appealed to my sense of humour (v. Python), and I love books set in Russia, so it already had a lot going for it and didn’t disappoint me … cross my fingers you might enjoy it too!

  2. chasing bawa says:

    This has been on my wishlist for a while now but I haven’t really come across many reviews in book blogs so I was waiting for one^^ Science, science fiction, writers and politics – what a great combination. The funny thing about reading your review is thinking that somewhere in the Soviet archives, there’s probably a note about a plan like this… You’ve really tempted me to try and get to this one quickly.

    • gaskella says:

      In the author’s afterword, he mentions that there are records saying Stalin was apparently very interested in aliens/UFOs, so it starts from a real (even if apocryphal) ‘factoid’.

  3. Jackie (Farm Lane Books) says:

    I saw a lot of twitter love for this book at the time of the Arthur C Clarke Awards, but it is great to know that someone whose reading taste I trust loved it too. I’m going to keep an eye out for it now 🙂

    • gaskella says:

      I don’t read much SF these days and it was a joy to read this one, which admittedly is far from typical as SF goes. Roberts is a SF author who likes each book to be different apparently, so I’m dying to read some of his others.

  4. Tom C says:

    What a terrific idea for a book – this sounds just up my street. It sounds like the author started with a credible story then built a ridiculous edifice on top of it.

    • gaskella says:

      I grew up on Sci-Fi, abandoning it temporarily in my late 20s. Now I like to include it back in the mix. At the risk of offending purists, I do love it when mainstream authors add SF elements into their novels – but it has to be well done!

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