There’s an old Russian joke that runs, ‘What is the tallest building in Moscow?’ Answer: The Lubyanka. Because you can see Siberia from there.
Siberia is long way from London; however, Londoners do not always realise it is also a very long way from Moscow. This is a story which will move between London, Almaty and the Blue Eye of the novel, Lake Baikal, in Siberia. It starts:
‘Winter 1991: Irkutsk, Siberia. Five time zones east of Moscow’.
Almost 20 years ago, I was buying Rhenium, the 77th most abundant element in the periodic table, from a crumbling copper mine in the middle of the Kazakh steppe. The seller was represented by Tracy Elner, a former Rolls-Royce aerospace engineer turned commodity trader, who was working for the company managing the plant. Rhenium, as it happens, was a classic peace dividend product. Four parts per billion in the earth’s crust, at that time no more than 40mt of primary world supply per year, and yet required as a 3% addition in a new generation of alloys for high pressure turbines in gas turbine engines. It was the first time the element had moved from east to west.
Carty, Elner’s protagonist in Blue Eye, is a City derivatives trader, who finds himself on a chartered Tupolev plane heading from Almaty across the Kazakh steppe towards Russia.
…he noticed that the lush vegetation of Almaty had been supplanted by an arid shrub-land and in the midst of the low sandstone mountains, arched an enormous lake. Its shimmering surface was obscured in part by a dense yellow haze billowing up from the chimney stacks of the Kazakh copper industry, a legacy of Stalin’s gulags
I too saw a similar view for hour upon hour as my small plane headed to Dheskasgan. I can still recall that below me it was possible to trace the ancient pathways that tracked across this land, once a giant sea bed, from where today traders and oil men seek to liberate the fossil life into oil riches which will power our energy-hungry world.
But the lake Carty sees below him - Balkhash - is not the one he is heading for and it will contrast both symbolically and actually with the pristine purity that is Baikal. As Lena, Carty’s Russian guide, says to him
‘Our cosmonauts see it from space as a thin blue eye the same shade as the oceans, not the light blue of other lakes....Baikal contains more water than all of your so called Great Lakes…and it is more than 20 million years old’
This novel is at times as racy as a James Bond but you will have to hang on to your GCSE Chemistry and Physics to keep up. At the heart of it is a London trader, of which both I and Elner were two, who comprised the new invasion of the former Soviet Union, whether it was to grab oil, aluminium, nickel, chrome or, in my case, rhenium. For commodity people, the collapse of the 70 year old experiment was too good to be true. The opportunities were immense, and the riches made by some are to be seen parked in the marinas at Antibes or in the baubles of Premiership football clubs. Elner’s novel transmutes this experience into something much greater, a novel of immense depth and resonance, as crystal clear and ice-cold in its clarity as Lake Baikal.
There is a superficial comparison to be made with the genre of fiction that gave rise to James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, which most people know as Frank Capra’s 1936 film. Emerging from the legacy of the First World War, and just before the onslaught was to start again, people were struggling to make sense of perpetual conflict. Here was a novel and film that transported a rag bag collection of people in a hi-jacked plane to a place called Shangri-La. Of course, no one believes the story of the world that the Ronald Colman character speaks of when he returns, and the world muddles on much as before. Carty’s unwilling journey drags him into a world that is far more real than the fictional Shangri-la, but its purpose is the same.
In Elner, you will find yourself in safe and interesting hands. There are many of us who have rubbed shoulders with the collapsing Soviet Union, and we cannot deny that there were more than a few frissons of excitement along the way – in my case, a recent short journey of 20 hours on a corridored train to the Urals, nights spent in guest houses attached to plants once only known by a number, meetings at submarine bases to discuss the sale of titanium freshly scrapped from the hulls of Komsomolets-class submarines etc etc
In Carty’s case, the unwilling trader is sent by his double-dealing boss to present to a conference in Kazakhstan and take a hit; and from this starts a journey that brings Carty up face to face not with the El Dorado of commodity deals but something altogether more interesting. This novel is not a rehearsal of the twilight world of post-Soviet oligarch-infested metal trades.
For Ivan Yeogorvich Isotov the state had been his life
What we as traders saw as a feeding frenzy in 1991, sure, was the unexpected collapse of an empire. One that allegedly had been plotting our destruction and that had been building up the weaponry to do so. Where traders feared to tread is towards the idea that beneath the fog of Soviet implosion and murky trade was another story; of pure science – advances that might even change the world for the better. This is the terrain of this novel.
The Soviet Union was a system that in the 1950s could boast a million geologists, this was a state where scientists were gods, where the best brains involved with metallurgy, aeronautics or nuclear physics were given of the best, pampered in compounds separated from others, paid salaries and pensions that made life less harsh. From this came a kind of renaissance period of science entirely cut off from the west, where all experimentation tended towards discoveries and evolutions without any reference to a market place or capitalist imperatives.
In the case of metals we know this because elements were separated and put down like fine wine whether or not there was any present use for them.
During this period the central scientist of this novel, Isotov, makes an important discovery that, if proven, could fulfil the needs of a voraciously energy hungry world and the trader, Carty, stumbles across it….
Who will want him not to get his hands on it and what will its discovery mean for the industrialised world? You will have to read the novel to find out. The rip-roaring plot, the chases, the deceptions, double-bluffs, chicanery of financial deals, the litter of bodies and even the spare well written sex scenes, disguise a book that will leave you wondering in all sincerity ‘What if…?’ What if this isn’t science fiction? What if this could really happen?
At the end you will be left wanting more. Luckily, more is on its way as Blue Eye is the first in a planned trilogy and the subject of its successor is predicted in the last sentence of the book.
'Blue Eye' by Tracy Elner is published by CompletelyNovel.com
This article is by Anthony Lipmann; all views expressed are strictly his own.