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Yellow Blue OH MY GOD NO
modern lit
catvalente
Allow me to say upfront, in case it was not clear:

I am not Russian, nor do I play one on TV. I have not the smallest drop of Russian blood in me.

I am, however, married to a man who grew up in the former Soviet Union, and thus spend a lot of time with him. I also spend a lot of time with his family, all of whom lived through some pretty dire parts of the 20th century in Russia. I speak very terrible Russian on the level of a toddler. Rather notoriously, I've traveled to Russia, and most recently written an entire novel set in Leningrad, and thus done more research than you can shake a red stick at. Russian culture features extremely prominently in my life these days. I say this so that you will understand how frustrated I have become over the last two days, but not make the mistake of thinking I'm talking about my own culture.

I just finished reading Yellow Blue Tibia.

Oh my fucking god, you guys.

You know how sometimes (all the time) American movies and books will flip the R in the title to indicate one out to HOLD UP, THIS SHIT IS RUSSIAN, YO? Like so: я. This is, of course, maddening, no less than using a Greek lambda for an A when it is patently not an A. я is not an R, it goes: "ya." Incidentally, the cover of Yellow Blue Tibia is the single worst offender I have ever seen in this category, as it goes to bizarre lengths to make every English letter into some freakish version of a Russian one, including putting a line through a д to make an A, because I guess the Russian A--you know, A--wasn't Russian enough. I know the author isn't in charge of this, but I should have known, because the novel is the literary equivalent of this exact phenomenon. 

Is it a bad book? On its own merits I'd say no worse than mediocre. The plot: Stalin hires a bunch of SF writers to create a believable alien threat to unite the Communists against something other than America, which he assumes will fall within 5 years. The things they wrote then start coming true. Roberts is going for a Bulgakov meets Foucault's Pendulum sort of thing, with conspiracies that turn out to be true and a lot of madcap running around Moscow with clever asides and "incisive" satire on the Soviet system, but it doesn't really come off as clever or madcap or even very conspiratorial. When you have to have characters comment on how funny a protagonist is, he's not really that funny. If in a workshop I'd say that we get all of ten pages to care about the conspiracy these guys write, and pretty much no information on what it is besides "radiation aliens" + blow up Ukraine, so we have no investment in whether or not it's real. An on the sentence level almost every line is tortured and too full of clauses and robbed of any spirit by endless commas. But I had to do some breathing exercises to even analyze the book on that level because literally every cultural note in this entire novel is wrong.

I cannot even being to explain how much this book did it wrong. I'll give you the most glaring examples, not even getting into the little things that niggled once I gave up being immersed in the book and started actually thinking about why anyone would assume no one in 1940s Russia would speak French or how living in gaga-grad as a euphemism for crazy is not really a Russian-ism but an English-Russian-ism and not that funny anyway and ooh, I want to listen to Lady Gaga anything to get away from this thing. The fact is that the book would have been a lot more believable with all the names changed and set in England or America.

Firstly, Roberts has just ported the entire contempt for science fiction writers from the West right into Russia, with nothing changed, not even considering that there is a different culture of literature there and writers, even of SF, had a pretty high position that the protagonist would have no reason to hide with shame purely because of the genre he wrote. Yes, there is Soviet pulp, but the constant asides about how despised SF is and passive-aggressive defenses of how awesome it is, really, were meant for a Western audience, not authentic to Russia where fantastika has a long and rich tradition of not being spat on. Of course, one of the more egregious problems was that it seems not to have occurred to anyone in the editorial process that "science fiction" does not begin with SF in Russian, much less сф, as the protagonist makes much of while analyzing Josef Stalin's name to somehow contain the initials for science fiction. (In the Latin alphabet, Jehovah begins with an I...)

Then there's the names. Oh, the linguistic hugemanatee at work here! The main character's name is Konstantin, but his friends call him Konsty. Not, you know, Kostya, which is the actual diminutive and not even remotely hard to find out if you've ever read a Russian novel. Stalin makes fun of one Jan Frenkel for having a Slavic first name which he actually changed to Ivan, but seems to be cool not only with his German-Jewish surname, but the protagonist's surname, which is actually Czech. The one actual Russian word that's used is actually not correct at all, but an inexplicable mangling of the word for "dead." One character actually refers to the "x"s in the Russian alphabet, in a passage with so many things wrong with it it beggars the mind. (There aren't any. And yes, he meant x as in the English x. Oh, I know it looks like an X. But it goes: "ch" and is not an X, much like our friend я.)

The title itself makes me want to punch something. I actually said in the beginning of this book: "justbeast , the title better not be some stupid pun on тебя or I'm just going to kill myself." justbeast  assured me this could not possibly be the case. And he was right. It's much worse. You might think it has to do with alien physiology, but you'd be wrong.

Cut for Spoilers and to Spare YouCollapse )

Oh, what else? Konstantin, in 1986 Moscow, decides he's an alcoholic and stops drinking, is concerned about the effects of tobacco on his lungs. Awesomely, at one point, without any irony whatsoever, while being detained by the KGB, Konstantin loudly claims that he must be charged with a crime or released, since that's the law! Really? Would you like your Miranda rights read to you, too? How about your one phone call? The KGB and local police have to do precisely shit for you in Soviet Russia, and this isn't even a tough research bit--it's like rule one in the totalitarian handbook, and given how cynical and experienced our hard-boiled protag is supposed to be, I just can't even finish this sentence for how stupid this is.

And then we get into factual problems. Because honestly, the cultural notes aren't just wrong for Russia, they're wrong for the 80s. And sometimes offensive. One of the characters, Saltykov, has Asperger's Syndrome. In 1986. Asperger's was not diagnosed by that name in anyone until 1992. And of course Saltykov is just literally the most annoying person ever born, and exists purely to block the protagonist and cause problems with his hilarious syndrome and be comic relief, sort of, even though his symptoms are pretty much classic OCD and not Asperger's. And the American woman is, of course, fat. Not just fat, but constantly described in the most grotesque terms possible, that she has to collect her flesh and haul it into a car--she practically has no character other than to be fat and American. And a Scientologist. I'll get back to that in a minute. Eventually, of course, it dawns on Konstantin that skinny bodies aren't so awesome in post-war Russia and he falls in love with her for no reason and she with him, even though she's in her thirties and he's in his late sixties and horrifyingly scarred. Their main topic of conversation seem to remain, however, how fat she is. I've never used the word fatphobic before, but there it is. Literally, she can be stabbed with no damage because she's so incredibly fat--did you hear how fat she is? SO VERY FAT.

Oh, and she's a Scientologist. I know the Church was around then (though since Hubbard died in 1986, literally a month before the action of the book, and the Scientologists never mention it, but the Soviet authorities are all over that, I can't even say this rings right) but really, Scientology and Asperger's and alcoholism and the evils of tobacco are concerns of today, not of 1986. It just feels wrong. And there's no reason for them to be Scientologists, it doesn't matter to the plot, except in that they necessarily believe in aliens. No one has cell phones or email, but other than that it might as well be 2010. In America (or England, I know the author is British), since every single cultural reference the protagonist makes is a Western one. I swear I am more Russian than this guy.

And then there's Chernobyl, which you'll be happy to know is a cute joke having to do with the alien conspiracy and just a nice set piece, which really I'm not at all cool with, given the rest of the painfully inept cultural appropriation going on here. The much-vaunted satire in the novel's blurbs is just one-note lol Russia sux nonsense, and I think it's telling that the acknowlegments thank a plainly not-Russian friend for her childhood memories of having once visited Kiev and Moscow. Because that's what this reads like. The dim memories of someone who might have once seen a movie about Russia.

I agonized over cultural details while writing Deathless. I didn't even feel right making it a first person novel for that very reason--which YBT is. It shocks me as much as a nude author picture would, to see any cultural accuracy just flung to the wind, and this ugly pastiche, a Westerner in redface prancing around an amazing idea for a book that got totally lost in endless chase scenes, guns, and tell me the truth/you can't handle the truth! exchanges. The entire central 200 pages of the book are filled with that, such that aliens and conspiracies barely register.

I heard so many good things about this book. I went out of my way to get it from the UK. And really, I might as well have just added -ski to every word in this book and treated it like Communist Mad Libs for all that it had any point whatsoever, or any authenticity at all. Apparently cultural sensitivity just doesn't apply to those evil, evil Russians.

Yeah, I know, that's harsh. I mean, I could gripe about the cover design, too (not all books involving Russia have to be red, actually). But I have to call them like I see them, or else what's a blog for?

Is it wrong that, even with all the fail-tastic cultural appropriation going on here, my first thought about Stalin hiring SF writers was "This writer ripped off Watchmen"?

That was the first thing I thought, too, and I don't even like Watchmen - but I have to give it credit, it's - easily recognizable when ripped off.

*follows fjm's link to his blog*

But, you know, fiction is the art of telling lies about beautiful things, and science fiction is doubly lying, so it doesn't matter if anything in it is wrong, it's a priori false and therefore okay!

What utter bilge. People like him give literary theorists a bad name. Thank you for your review.

no one in 1940s Russia would speak French

Okay, my sum total knowledge of Russia and Russians comes from two semesters studying the language (with a charmingly crazy Odessan professor and a hilariously awful textbook that was all "Hello, American friend!" "Hello, Russian friend! How do you say 'peace to the world' in Russian?") and even I know just how wrong this is. Russian is full of French vocabulary! (быстро and тротуар are the examples that come immediately to mind, though it's not actually clear whether the Russians got "bistro" from the French or the French got "быстро" from the Russians.) French was the language of the Russian aristocracy for centuries! How hard it is to just fucking Google it?

The main character's name is Konstantin, but his friends call him Konsty.

NO NO NO

Excuse me, I have to go breathe into a paper bag.

Yeah.

Essentially an SF writer confesses that he plagarised all his novels from French originals. I'm pretty sure people read French novels in Russia, and this would not go unnoticed, even with poor, maligned SF. Literally any other culture would be a more believable source to rip off given how conversant many Russians were with French and French literature.

Thanks for the review

(Anonymous)
Oh my, as someone married to a Pole, with both of us Russian SF fans, I would've bought this for hubby. Thanks SO MUCH for setting me straight. I owe you one.

KS "Kaz" Augustin

That's shameful.

Do I just live in some imaginary hippy fantasy utopia where people give a shit about cultural sensitivity?

Wow.... I've never heard of this book, and now I shudder.

I am so used, over these years of living in the West, to having people completely misunderstand all things Russian, that I have become inured more or less.

The last time I remember being upset on that regard was when I was completely pissed off by The Hunt For Red October and the atrocious accents, and even the opening title sequence with the backwards R idiocy.

But this sounds like a bit too much indeed.

Ugh.

OMGWTF?!?

I once wrote a novel set in Berlin before the Wall fell. I'd never been to Berlin, and all I knew about Berlin came from documentaries and spy novels.

At least I had the decency to not try and get it published.

I do so love your reviews.....
:D
won't be reading this one. Why would I waste money or, more importantly, time on such a thing. I agree with you that intent of originality should match research ( maybe in this case it does )!
Meran

I told my Mum* about this, and she actually said: "Well, if you just say 'lyublyu tebya', it sounds a little similar, if still inane."
She does however think that only a non-native speaker would ever be able to make the connection, or maybe a "suffering teacher of the Russian language" (her words).


*She does speak fluent Russian (as does my Dad) and spent a semester in Leningrad/St. Petersburg. My great-grandparents on both sides were from Königsberg/Kaliningrad, and my parents grew up in the GDR (I did too, but only partially), but we'd think twice about writing a book set anywhere in Russia. Unlike this author, apparently.

On that note, even today Scientology is not much of a concern in the former Eastern Bloc, not even in most of the rest of Europe. I don't understand what he was thinking.

not authentic to Russia where fantastika has a long and rich tradition of not being spat on.

There's a long and rich tradition of fantastika not being spat on over here, as well -- as long as it's written by the right people.

The entry on Russian sf in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction certainly makes it sound like Roberts' portrayal has a basis in reality, though I'd agree that he exaggerates and stretches to get the parallels with our cultural relationship with sf that he wants.

I one hundred percent support your review and reaction, because hey, you actually Read The Book, but the dozens of people piling on with "OMG you are so right, this book is irredeemably terrible, not that I've read it" makes me kind of sad.

I would, on the other hand, love to hear either agreement or disagreement from people who have actually read it. (I am not one of them, although, as with others, it has now moved farther down my to-read list.)

I'm certainly surprised to get such a big response to a review of a book few enough of my audience has read.

Your Name Here (Anonymous) Expand
That sounds... very, very special.

Hey, guess what else would be mind-blowing?

Being a Romanian and reading all the stuff about your country and vampires. Vampires have nothing to do with Romanian Mythology. NOTHING. And there is NO creature in out myths that comes even close to them.

(I still shudder when I remember a certain Dan Simmons novel ... )

Really? Wow, I actually had no idea.

From Adam Roberts

(Anonymous)
This is a tremendous post. SF/F needs more reviews with this sort of passion and urgency.

I can't, obviously, contradict your dislike of the book; not so much because I consider it bad form to respond to negative reviews (though it is) as because the writer of a book is simply not in as good a position to assess it as a reader. I'm too close to it; you have a much better perspective on it. You say it's shit; you're probably right.

That said, it might be worth noting a couple of points of fact. The cover makes you angry; but I didn't design the cover. The idea that 'yellow blue tibia' is presented as being the Russian for 'I love you' makes you angry; but here you'll have to direct your ire at Vladimir Nabokov, in whose memoir Speak Memory I found this phrase and its English equivalent. Is it possible that Nabokov’s Russian was better than yours? The fact that a character has 'Aspergers's Syndrome' makes you angry, although Asperger's name is nowhere mentioned in the novel. The fact that the character sees 'SF' as 'Science Fiction' makes you angry; although surely the phrase ‘Soviet Science Fiction’ is rendered with the acronym SF ('Sovetskiy Fantastika'). There are various bits and pieces (you mention 'Gaga-grad') that struck me in writing as acceptable as English versions, in an English language novel, of phrases that, in Russian, might be rather different; but that’s a matter of my judgment and not of fact, so I’ll leave it out here. Similarly, you consider alcoholism, obsessive-compulsions and so on as being out of place in the 1960s 1980s; we may have to agree to disagree as far as that is concerned.

You accuse the book of 'fatphobia' on the strength that one character in the book is morbidly obese and is referred to in unflattering terms as such by other characters. As a matter of fact I am not fatphobic, and neither is the narrator of this novel, although some of the other characters in it are.

Re: From Adam Roberts

Well, I don't want to argue with the author on these issues, it feels uncomfortable and out of place and criticism doesn't thrive much on it.

But.

Nabokov's Russian is certainly better than mine. I still dislike puns and dislike this one particularly, I imagine my native Russian-speaking husband is pretty good with the language and he didn't like it either. I still don't think it's a good title for the book, even if it were a good pun, which I don't think it is. I don't like all of Nabokov's books, either.

I know you didn't design the cover. I said as much in the post. Well do I know that authors have no control. I have a Russian novel coming out myself--and I've certainly set myself up for a faceplant if I get anything at all wrong--and I just dearly hope they don't flip the R in my name. It actually is a beautiful cover, and the irritation with Russian letters being hard-used comes largely from how often it's done elsewhere.

You do mention Asperger's--you have Saltykov say: my syndrome was named after Hans Asp--. And then he's cut off. Come on, that's mentioning Asperger's. The acronym SF, however, is said to stand for science fiction by your protagonist, nowhere do you mention it's meant to be Soviet science fiction.

As for the fat issues, I have to say: I don't think you see how you created a character with no other traits but that she is fat and American, and how often and vividly you described her fatness, but not her interests or ambitions or education or even, I think, I could be wrong, hair color, how little there was to her other than the grotesqueness of her shape. I don't think you meant this badly, but women readers like me are used to seeing characters in novels reduced to their bodies, and it bears pointing out from time to time. It was very hard to read, and upsetting, given that there are no other female characters in the book.

I guess I'd conclude by saying what I really wanted to read was what the authors wrote for Stalin, and suggest that if you wanted to write that and put it up online or something as advertising for the book I'd be first in line to read it.



Edited at 2010-02-28 09:19 pm (UTC)

Re: From Adam Roberts (Anonymous) Expand
Re: From Adam Roberts (Anonymous) Expand
Holy schlaMOley. I definitely won't be reading this.

"Konsty"??!?

To say nothing of the fat-hatred and misogyny.

What a travesty.