James has a nifty idea here--a futuristic scenario for the collapse of the Soviet system--but this long, disjointed, kitchen-sink of a novel is only erratically absorbing as it alternates between the big historical picture and a clutch of personal subplots. It's the mid-1980s; a Poland-like workers' revolution is perking in the USSR; nationalist fervors (Ukrainian, Armenian, etc.) are resurfacing with a vengeance; there are food shortages; and, after the death of Brezhnev, there's a messy power struggle between the top power-contenders (one of whom is a woman, Natalya Roginova, whose visionary ideas at first seem to backfire). But, though each of these factors is dutifully explained, James fails to make the overall course of events either dramatic or thoroughly authentic-seeming--with far too much static detailing (life in the penal camps, worker demonstrations) and far too little chronological momentum. And weaker still is the potpourri of character close-ups, which are presented in a mishmash of narratives: some first-person, some third-person, lacking in focus or structure. Two near-clichÃ‰ romances do predominate, however: the love between penal camp inmates Anton and Zoya (daughter of a Lech Walesa-ish figure), who escape the camps only to witness the massacre/uprising that results from a General Amnesty; and the illicit passion of Carol Yates, wife of a US diplomat, for Alexei Letsukov--a Soviet official who gradually is won over to the workers' cause. Plus: the tribulations of editor Igor Bukansky, who's ambivalent about publishing a Solzhenitsyn-style writer but winds up in a mental-hospital-cum-prison anyway. An ungainly mosaic, then, of fragmented melodramas and catch-all futurology, with two-dimensional characters and listless dialogue (""'You're safe, darling,' she whispered. 'The Kremlin's burning. The people of Moscow have risen'""); but the basic notion has a strong, obvious appeal--and readers who plow on through will be rewarded with a fair measure of interesting ""faction"" material, if little novelistic sweep or depth.