I picked this book off the library shelf (something I won’t get to do much longer, if the Government and local councils have their way…) because I thought the cover intriguingly different.
Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky was one of a group of Russion SF writers called together by Josef Stalin in 1946. Stalin, convinced that the defeat of America was only a few years away, needed a new enemy for Communism to unite against. Skvorecky and the others were tasked with creating a convincing alien threat; a story of imminent disaster that could be told to the Soviet peoples.
And then after many months of diligent work the writers were told to stop and, on pain of death, to forget everything. Little is known of what happened to the writers subsequently but in 1986, Skvorecky made a dramatic reappearance at Chernobyl claiming that everything that he and the others had written was coming true. His assertion was widely disbelieved but Skvorecky claimed (tastelessly many believe) that the Chernobyl disaster and the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle conformed to the pattern set by Stalin’s scenario. Skvorecky believes that alien invasion is ongoing.
I’d not come across Roberts’ work before, but it didn’t take long to realise that this chap can write. Narrated in Skvorecky’s first person viewpoint, the character is beautifully realised – right down to the odd Russian contradictions such as his (completely understandable) world-weary cynicism, along with the touching belief in love. The book recounts Skvorecky’s adventures leading up to the Chernobyl disaster and how an encounter with a couple of American Scientologists changed his life.
Roberts deftly portrays a Russia suffering a crisis of confidence with everyone scrabbling to cope with Gorbachev’s cataclysmic changes involving perrestoika against a backdrop of crumbling Communism. It isn’t a pretty picture – especially filtered through the viewpoint of an aging, burnt out ex-alcoholic. By rights it should be unremittingly grim enough to make the likes of Dan Simmons and Roger Levy look pink n’fluffy in comparison. However Roberts leavens the underlying awfulness of his subject matter and backdrop by dollops of humour, to the extent there are laugh-aloud moments in this book. I found myself chuckling during Skvorecky’s interrogation when the official questioning him gets in a muddle as to when the tape is turned off and on…
The book veers from moments of acute danger, high farce and reflections on the dreadful circumstances within a couple of pages without jolting the reader out of the story. It takes a writer at the height of his powers to pull this off. And Roberts really does flex his ‘show off’ muscle in this book – the narrative voice denoting English as a second language, complete with amusing puns and odd confusions; Skvorecky’s entirely believable transformation from a miserably cynical has-been to someone a lot more hopeful and proactive; the swooping changes of mood from moments of high drama to farce… But then, if I could write like this, I’d probably be performing the literary equivalent of dizzying pirouettes, too.
Interestingly, science fiction as a genre and belief system comes under close examination in the book, right from when Stalin decides that aliens should make the next unifying threat to keep Mother Russia together. Skvorecky maintains his belief throughout that alien abductions and spaceships do not exist – that even when he was a respected science fiction author, he did not believe in such things. Science fiction becomes a metaphor for a population’s credulous belief in things without any proper foundation. Or does it? Roberts plays the sorts of games with the reader that we are more used to seeing from the literary end of the spectrum, such as providing us with an unreliable narrator. Generally I have limited patience with such gimmicks – but then they are often employed by authors who don’t possess Roberts’ skill and humour.
Any niggles? Nope. Not a single one. I’ve read reviews that have grumbled that some of the interesting issues raised in the book are not fully developed – but that’s FINE with me. This is a piece of fiction designed to entertain. In addition, Roberts has also chosen to give us food for thought along the way – what he didn’t do was to hold up the narrative pace to extend those reflections beyond their use in the story. A writer that – despite his stylist flourishes – puts the needs of the reader above his own hubris. Hallelujah! In short (in case it’s already escaped your attention) I think that this is a superb, funny, sharp read by a clever author who knows exactly where he’s going… Go on – track it down, you be thanking me if you do. And if you’re scratching your head about the odd title – apparently the Russian phrase Ya lyublyU tebyA, meaning I love you, sounds roughly like yellow, blue tibia.