18 August 2012

I, for one, welcome our new alien overlords

I've just finished reading Adam Roberts' 2009 book Yellow Blue Tibia, which is handily subtitled 'Konstantin Skvorecky's memoir of the alien invasion of 1986'. The edition I read sported a suitably Soviet-esque cover design with mock Cyrillic text to drive home the point that this is a tale set in the USSR, and the date of 1986 should signal to most readers that the Chernobyl disaster plays a major supporting role. 

The jaded, broken hero Skvorecky is decrepit from a life of vodka abuse, and his career as a science fiction writer has dwindled to nothing. However, he still recalls the dacha in which he and a coterie of other young writers were corralled by Stalin himself, back in 1946, to conjure up some great alien menace to replace the Americans as public enemy number one once the Soviets had inevitably crushed them into defeat. Skvorecky and his writer colleagues came up with the seemingly ludicrous notion of 'radiation aliens' - non-corporeal, super-intelligent, immensely harmful to humans, and bent on our destruction. But now 40 years later in 1986, more and more people intersect with Skvorecky's life and try to convince him that the radiation aliens he dreamt up are real, and that the USSR and the world are beset by a perilous alien conspiracy.

It's difficult to quote from the book out of context, and doing so might inadvertently reveal plot spoilers. Suffice it to say, Yellow Blue Tibia is a cleverly-constructed, witty view of the last decade of Communist rule, replete with villainous KGB operatives, mysterious disappearings and reappearings, implacable goons, and a hilarious set-piece devoted to the Soviet art of queuing. It also boasts a strong supporting cast, in particular the entertainingly frustrating Ivan Saltykov, who inadvertently gets many of the best jokes. I also particularly enjoyed the fact that the book's title is not explained until page 289 of a 324-page novel.

In his afterword Roberts sets out his premise (no spoilers):

The kernel of this novel is an attempt to suggest a way of reconciling the two seemingly contradictory facts about UFOs: that, on the one hand, they have touched the lives of many millions of people, often directly; and that, on the other, that they clearly don't exist. I have sought to suggest one possible explanation for this odd paradox of contemporary culture.   
Roberts also mentions the well-known incident at Petrozavodsk on 20 September 1977 in which thousands of eyewitnesses claimed to see 'an extraordinary, massive, luminescent UFO phenomenon', which sounds like something that should've featured in 'Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World'. Skeptics Yulii Platov and Boris Sokolov discuss the details in this 2000 article on state UFO research in the USSR:

The description of this event, based on accounts of eyewitnesses, appeared in the newspaper Izvestiya on September 23, 1977, under the headline “Unidentified natural phenomenon: The inhabitants of Petrozavodsk were witnesses to an extraordinary natural phenomenon.” According to the article, on September 20, about 4:00 a.m., there suddenly appeared in the night sky a huge “star” radiating pulsating beams of light to the ground. This object slowly moved toward Petrozavodsk, lingered over the town like a “huge jellyfish,” and illuminated the area with tendrils of radial beams, described as being similar to a downpour of rain.

After a few minutes, the luminescent “shower” stopped. The “jellyfish” wrapped into a bright half-disk and began heading toward Onega lake, in an overcast sky. There, a round depression of bright red color in the middle and white on each side formed in the clouds. This phenomenon, according to testimony from the eyewitnesses, lasted for ten to twelve minutes.

Yuri Gromov, the director of Petrozavodsk hydrometeorologic observatory, told a correspondent of the Soviet news agency TASS that the workers at the hydrometeorologic station in Kareliya observed no such anomalies. Nevertheless, eyewitnesses to this colorful phenomenon were numerous. They included workers of a first-aid unit, on-duty employees of the militia, seamen and the longshoremen at Petrozavodsk’s port, military, local airport staff, and even an amateur astronomer.

This sighting was eventually attributed to the launch of the Kosmos 955 satellite from the cosmodrome in Plesetsk, USSR.

Speaking of Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious World, which I loved as a kid, the UFO episode below opens with the notorious Kaikoura footage from December 1978. The subsequent RNZAF investigation into the lights contains a useful analysis that shows how seriously the Air Force took the UFO allegations, and also notes that Prime Minister Robert Muldoon 'took a close personal interest in what went on (he spoke with DCAS [the Deputy Chief of Air Staff] twice, and specially asked he be informed of Defence's conclusions to the study it was undertaking'. The Air Force summary concluded the lights were probably either Venus rising or lights from the nearby squid fishing fleet, and since we've yet to be invaded by plane-stalking flying saucers, they were probably close to the mark.

The declassified file also contains a pleasing array of correspondence from local New Zealand UFO nutters, in which the mental instability of the authors are best judged by their innovative handwriting styles and helpful illustrations of alien waveforms, circuitry and alphabets (like this one) or tangential intelligence about angels (like this one) that have revealed themselves to the informative and perceptive authors.

See also:
I, for one, welcome our new insect overlords (Joan Collins, 1977, and Kent Brockman, 1994)
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