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Yellow Blue OH MY GOD NO
modern lit
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?

I've just begun to read this book. So far it's not absolutely wrong, but is annooying, alas. Yes, German-Jewish name of "Slav" Frenkel, and then they have Rapoport and Kaganovich in this company who are certainly Jews - and they write the SF about "wicked traitors to the cause of humanity (Jews and homosexuals and the like)" (I guess it was possible at the time to make all your literary rogues Jewish, but on the official level USSR was international, and Jewish writer writing about Jewish rogues... uhm). And there was no way for the homosexuals to appear in the Soviet SF. Even as traitors. By no means, especially in the era of Stalin.

So far I see this book is not absolutely useless, but for my Russian mind it's not convincing, yes :)

Is your "Deathless" set in Leningrad? Is it published? I'd love to read it :)

It is, and it's coming out next year in April. It's a retelling of the folktale of Marya Morevna set during the war.

(Deleted comment)
Ironically, a book in which yellow-blue tibia were an actual major plot point would probably be much better than the one he actually wrote!


Thank you. Thanks a ton for this post. I'm Russian, and you can't believe how the complete disregard for cultural details or common sense annoys me.

-ski surnames are RARE in Russia. Idiot authors know Stalin, Lenin and Trotski, but these surnames are in no way statistically representative. Seriously, there was a renaming campaign in the USSR: for a period of time, when people had IDs (re-)issued, it was recommended that they change their surnames to have a standard -ov (-ova for females) ending. Many -in surnames got that treatment. Furthermore, -ski is an indication of aristocratic background, not popular at all in a communist country.

Speaking of feminine surnames: every time an author assigns one to a male character, a kitten dies. Think of the kittens.

Nicknames. You know what? "Konsty" is fine. Stupid but fine, because other authors are unaware of the fact that Russians might have nicknames. Especially Russian criminals, a staple of bad action films. "Light the fuse, Anatoliy! Shoot her, Vladimir! Look out, Alexandr Yaroslavovich!" Oh please. Can they get on the Internet and ask a Russian? Just watch out for mat (swear words) unsavory people would try to sneak in, thinking themselves to be oh so clever, and you're set.

I can't figure out from the comments what was the deal with no one being able to speak French, but I have to say this: French was taught in school, the third most popular language after English and German. France was synonymous with Jules Verne (here's the НФ connection) and Revolution. Dammit, L'Internationale used to be the USSR anthem until 1944.

Looking forward to Deathless.

Also, here's a helping of excellent Russian poetry by Sergey Yesenin, to ease your pain.

Там, где вечно дремлет тайна,
Есть нездешние поля.
Только гость я, гость случайный
На горах твоих, земля.

Широки леса и воды,
Крепок взмах воздушных крыл.
Но века твои и годы
Затуманил бег светил.

Не тобой я поцелован,
Не с тобой мой связан рок.
Новый путь мне уготован
От захода на восток.

Суждено мне изначально
Возлететь в немую тьму.
Ничего я в час прощальный
Не оставлю никому.

Но за мир твой, с выси звездной,
В тот покой, где спит гроза,
В две луны зажгу над бездной
Незакатные глаза.

Well, I really hope I don't get anything wrong in Deathless!

Re: awesome (Anonymous) Expand

The above

Haven't bothered reading most of the above...I get the gist. I can only assume that the majority of you are a bunch of humourless idiots.

Yellow Blue Tibia is fucking hilarious.

Get a grip people.

Ok so, I read Palimpsest and it sort of fucked me up in the mind but I wasn'a sure if I LIKED it, you know? It was definitely very SOMETHING. H'anyvays, I came here via Eve's Alexandria (I'd link, but I don't understand livejournal...technology is hard) and this review is definitely buying real estate up my alley, hilarity and spot-onnedness-wise. And then I read your more recent post on sincerety and now I kind of want to make out. Mentally, I mean.

Anyhoodle, I'd subtly link to my aforementioned review of Palimpsest if I knew how to do that, because then it wouldn't look like I'm trying to pimp myself out, but on the off chance you have a raging case of Curious Cat, here it is: http://booksidoneread.blogspot.com/2010/01/palimpsest-catherynne-m-valente.html and that's all. Theese ees great, is what I'm trying to say.

THIS. THIS SO HARD. (Pointed here by popelizbet.)

I should at some point just turn to my Russian boyfriend and go "Yellow blue tibia!" and see him STARE in abject horror and confusion. That's like saying "Pilaf ewe" is "I love you" in English. He grew up in the USSR as well, and every now and then his coworkers start going "Obama's a socialist!" and he goes "NO, really, THIS IS SO NOT SOCIALISM."

My ex had a Soviet Russia shirt that was AWFUL. I'm trying to remember exactly what it was, but not only did it do awful faux Cyrillic, but it MIXED the awful faux Cyrillic, so sometimes it had Rs and Яs and Cs and Ss mixed in and all kinds of things. I would stare and twitch. When people use the random faux Cyrillic my brain EXPLODES and I end up being totally unable to read it, either in English or Russian, because my brain is just wholly incapable of parsing it.

Also, "gaga-grad" makes me laugh my ass off. It'd be one thing if it was, like, "сумасшедщград" or something, but seriously. It *does* sound like the sort of awful Russian a Russian second language class would say (we would go "Spaseebs!" to each other just to annoy ourselves, but NEVER to one of our Russian teachers or someone who spoke it outside our class) but MAN. It's something I'd say for my own sick entertainment, but oh my God, implying that someone Russian would say that as a Russian thing? Wha?

Anywho, thank you for an EPIC POST.

OMG Spaseebs is the best thing ever. I will try not to say it ALL THE TIME NOW.


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One good thing came out of this terrible, terrible book: my darling Magdalena, who when you wrote it was dating and is now about to marry a lovely Russian woman and speaks a good bit of Russian, use "yellow blue tibia" as our personal term of endearment after all these years. Just because this post made us laugh so bitterly thanks to your wit and totally justified criticism.

You're just jealous because Yellow Blue Tibia sold to people other than pretentious tumblrinas.