I’m going to review a couple of 2009 novels that did not receive Hugo nominations this year, just to give a little more context (and because I have read or planned to read these novels already). The first I want to discuss is Adam Roberts Yellow Blue Tibia, which made the shortlist as a nominee for the Clarke and British Science Fiction Awards (and made some waves when Kim Stanley Robinson suggested that it should win Britain’s prestigious Man Booker Prize for literary fiction).
It’s an odd one. The novel takes place in the Soviet Union in the 1980s, and it’s Roberts’ rendering of Soviet society on the brink of its collapse that is probably the most fascinating part of the book. The narrator, Konstantin Skvorecky, is part of a group of science fiction writers called together by Josef Stalin after World War II to design an alien invasion scenario that the USSR can use to distract the West. Forty years later, Skvorecky is a recovering alcoholic who hasn’t written in years. He picks up a job translating for Scientologists visiting from the United States, but he soon discovers that much of the scenario he helped create decades earlier is beginning to come true (beginning with the Challenger disaster). The next part of the scenario involves a nuclear reactor in Ukraine called Chernobyl.
As I said, the setting is brilliantly rendered, and Roberts gets a lot of mileage out of the science fictiony realities of the ‘80s (UFO religions, exploding spaceships, reactor meltdowns, etc.) I liked the characters, but there is a Coen Brothersesque cartoonishness to them: everyone has to be comically dimwitted, obese, or deluded. Skvorecky himself is supposed to be an elderly and broken man, and he is even further damaged as the novel progresses, but he still manages to make it through several action scenes and have a romance. The plot is also terribly convoluted and prone to seemingly random digressions like a Coen Brothers film. Overall, I do think the novel wavers too much on the line between straight sf and literary surrealism. I usually enjoy genre-bending, but, in this case, I was slightly bothered that the novel couldn’t establish a consistent tone.
Still, it’s fun and stimulating stuff. I’m not going to moan that it was robbed of a Hugo nomination, but I would recommend it, especially to fans of the Coen Bros., and I’d easily rate it above www.Wake.
Also, that’s one of the best covers I’ve ever seen.