Reviewed by Alexandra Pierce
This novel is billed as an autobiography, “Konstantin Skvorecky’s memoir of the alien invasion of 1986.” Skvorecky had an established reputation as a science fiction writer in the USSR in the mid-1940s, when he and a number of other SF authors were called together by Stalin to write the story of a new enemy for the USSR, on the assumption that the defeat of capitalist America was nigh. Their task was to invent an alien nemesis that Stalin and the Communist Party could use as a focus for the hatred and fighting spirit of the people of the USSR. As quickly as this was all put together, though, it was shelved.
Skip forward to the mid-1980s, and Skvorecky is an old man, near-alcoholic and bitter. His writing career has largely been a bust, as has his personal life. All of a sudden, however, Powers That Be are taking notice of him once again – including some people whom he has not seen since those frantic weeks in the 1940s, creating Stalin’s new enemy. His (mis)adventures take him to Chernobyl, lead him to meet an intriguing American woman who is an ambassador for Scientology, and bring him into conflict with the KGB. All of this within the possible context of an actual alien invasion.
The above premise sounds delightfully intriguing. Even if these adventures were happening to an ordinary person, I would be anticipating at least an entertaining adventure, possibly with some discussion about the functioning of the USSR at this time. Add in the fact that the narrator is a science fiction author and Roberts appears to have all sorts of possibilities in front of him, of exploring how a science fiction mentality can influence perceptions of the world, or at least jokes about turning everything that happens to the character into a story.
Sadly, Roberts in no way lived up to my hopes. The opening section, with the SF writers comparing notes and striving to out-do each other in Stalin’s eyes, is a wonderful look at Stalin’s influence and the way that writers (sometimes) interact with each other. That’s 26 pages of 323. From there … Skvorecky was a soulless narrator, for whom I had little sympathy or time, not even a “I wonder what will happen to him next” car-crash fascination, largely thanks to the stilted dialogue. This problem may in part be attributed to wanting to sound like it has been translated from Russian, but that’s not enough of a reason to make me forgive it. More than that, Skvorecky is unpleasantly arrogant and boring. Events happen to him, and he is pushed around by them – which didn’t have to make him unappealing (just look at Arthur Dent), but added to dull dialogue and an overall frustrating plot, it just didn’t work .
Aliens being responsible for the Chernobyl disaster, as part of their invasion plans, and all sorts of possibly-crazy people – including a KGB officer – running around believing that there is an alien invasion underway: this has lots of potential for madcap adventure. It did not eventuate. It was not fast-paced enough to sustain my interest when the characters were unappealing; the diversions away from plot were not interesting discussions of life or politics or the writerly craft, which would also have mitigated the lack of pace, but were instead mostly boring discussions between characters about little of consequence.
This is not a book I can honestly recommend to anyone.