Konstantin Skvorecky is a Russian science fiction writer. In 1946 he and several of his colleagues are called together by Stalin. The war with Germany is over, and the Soviet state needs a new enemy against whom to unite the population. Decadent America is clearly no use — it is bound to collapse in a few years — so Skvorecky and his friends are asked to craft a believable tale of alien invasion. In their story the alien attacks, conducted using powerful invisible rays, result in the meltdown of a nuclear power station on the east coast of the USA, the shooting down of an American spacecraft, and the destruction of another nuclear power station, this time in the Ukraine. Forty years later, in the wake of the Three Mile Island accident and the Challenger disaster, Skvorecky finds himself racing to Chernobyl in a valiant attempt to thwart an alien plan that he thought he had invented. Or does he?
Adam Roberts is a keen student of science fiction, and most of his novels seem to be inspired by some well known writer or another. His latest book, Yellow Blue Tibia, appears to be his Philip K Dick novel. If that isn’t obvious from the fact that one of the Russian writers claims to have written a book called The Grasshopper Lies Heavy then it should become so after this passage:
“Konstantin,” said Frenkel, leaning forward. “Do you believe in UFOs?”
“You’ll need to frame the question more precisely,” I replied.
It took Frenkel a second or so to process this, and then he laughed briefly and unconvincingly. It sounded like a horse sneezing. “I see what you mean, of course,” he said, his face serious once more. “My question is ambiguous between, Do you believe UFOs are a feature of contemporary culture? — which of course they are — and Do you believe in the literal reality of UFOs? Am I right? So do you believe in the literal reality of UFOs?”
“Somedays I’m not sure I believe in the literal reality of literal reality,” I said.
If you recognize that as referencing Brian Appleyard’s fascinating book, Aliens: Why They Are Here, then you would be right, because Roberts cites it as an inspiration.
The trouble with this habit of Roberts is not so much that he imitates the style of other writers, but that he tries to lampoon them. Sometimes he’s very funny, but the usual result of trying to lampoon someone as smart as, say, Ursula Le Guin, is that you make yourself sound stupid. This isn’t a problem if you don’t recognize the works that Roberts is lampooning, but if you do recognize them it can seriously damage your enjoyment of his books. As a result I had given up reading them. I came back to Roberts with Yellow Blue Tibia on the recommendation of John Clute, and I am glad that I did.
I think that the important thing to bear in mind here is that Phil Dick is very difficult to lampoon. The essential feature of his books is their paranoid craziness. If you try to lampoon that by making your book even more paranoid and crazy all that happens is that you end up sounding more like Dick than Dick himself.
Of course Roberts finds other things to lampoon instead. He has a good go at the Soviet state, and at the Russian fondness for alcohol. That works well. I expect that somewhere there will be readers who are deeply offended by the fact that he mercilessly ridicules a character who suffers from a particular Syndrome that causes obsessive behavior. However, if you have been to enough SF conventions you will probably have encountered people with behavior like that and find yourself headsmacking along with Skvorecky.
If you think about it, you’ll probably agree that it is obvious that the Americans in the book have to be Scientologists. What people will make of this I do not know. There are some people who are so paranoid about Scientology that they will probably come to the conclusion that Roberts is a secret Scientologist agent who is trying to brainwash innocent science fiction fans with this novel. After all, what better cover for a conspiracy than a book that pokes fun at conspiracies?
Most of us, however, are entertained by conspiracy theory rather than frightened by it. If you do find such things amusing, and I know I do, I am sure that you will enjoy Yellow Blue Tibia.