[T]his year the [Booker] prize should probably go to a science fiction comedy called Yellow Blue Tibia, by Adam Roberts.
I say this not because Adam's a personal friend (although he is), and not because I've edited some of his other novels (although I have), but because it actually is the most intriguing novel I've read this year. Admittedly, I can't say whether it's the best novel published in 2009, because I only read three novels published this year (The City and the City, Inherent Vice, and Asterios Polyp), so I'm limited to saying that Yellow Blue Tibia merely outpaces the latest by Mieville and Pynchon, as well as David Mazzucchelli's decade-in-the-making masterpiece. A quick plot summary before moving on to what makes the book sing.
In 1946, Josef Stalin ordered Konstantin Skvorecky, Ivan Frenkel, and a few other Russian science fiction writers to create a new threat against which the Soviet people could unite (as they had against Germany). They concoct a plot in which invisible radiation aliens invade the U.S.S.R., but it opens when "The Americans launch a rocket to explore space [and the] aliens destroy it with a beam of focused destructive radiation ... Then the aliens blow up a portion of the Ukraine, and poison the ground with radiation" (25). Before they can sketch the invasion out in greater detail, Stalin disbands the group. Years pass. Frenkel accidentally reconnects with Skvorecky shortly before the Challenger disaster. The plan they concocted for Stalin seems to be coming true. Skvorecky, a translator, meets two American scientologists and a Muscovite taxi driver named Ivan Saltykov. There is a murder. Someone or something threatens Chernobyl. Love happens.
That is not, I grant, the most conventional summary of the novel—if they're more your bag you can try here, here or here, or if you're feeling more adventurous, here—but for me to say more would not despoil the novel so much as ruin the pleasure afforded by Adam's narrative gamesmanship. I'm more than happy to spoil a simple plot point, but I would prefer to avoid ruining the interpretive tension created by the contradictory accounts of those simple plot points. Were I to concretize any one of them, I would not only be usurping the role of a character within the novel, I would be reproducing the book's ingenious structural conceit.
Unlike a A Scanner Darkly, in which conflicting realities are focalized through the muddle of drug-induced paranoia, the narrator of Yellow Blue Tibia is fully aware that he lives in a world structured by other people's understanding of reality. From the obsessive-compulsive taxi driver, Ivan Saltykov, who returns to the scene of the crime because he must retrace his path exactly, to the UFO enthusiasts who mistake Skvorecky's denial of the existence of extraterrestrials for an exercise in dialectical thinking, the characters in the novel influence the narrative less through their actions than their rationale for engaging in them. Dramatic irony is both deployed and undermined, resulting in a comedy of ideological errors that ranges from the subversively slapstick (Krapp's Last Tape as performed by an inept Moscow detective) to the deeply structural (the evisceration of Scientology's theoretical and psychology underpinnings).
But, because I'm a blogger and bloggers are narcissists, I want to call attention to the rude portrait Adam drew of me in the novel. In a comment attached to a post from 2005 that has since been rescinded—it was a little too revealing about someone in my department and thus fell into the category of material I wrote as "A. Cephalous" that's not suitable for publication under my own name—Adam posted a link to what he referred to as "a portrait of Mr. Non-Capo." Five years later, he included in Yellow Blue Tibia the following:
The lift door creaked open, and a fantastically shrunken and wrinkled old woman shuffled out, carrying a string bag bulging with provisions. Her head was located in the space directly in front of her torso, as if her neck fitted into the centre of her sternum rather than between her shoulders[.]
Make of that what you will. I choose to be offended. Offended!