[if you’re new to the Journey, read this to see what we’re all about!]
by Gideon Marcus
We hear a lot about the Soviet Union these days, but usually in the form of an unflattering cartoon of Premier Khruschev or photos of people trying to defect from Communism. Occasionally a hopeful reprinting last year’s meeting between Jack and Niki in Vienna or a scornful reprinting of Khruschev banging his shoe on the United Nations podium.
If we think about the Soviet people, head-scarfed Babushkas, gray-suited apparatchiks, uniformed goose-stepping soldiers, and accordion-playing dancers come to mind. We just don’t get many glimpses from behind the Iron Curtain. So when we do get a peek, it’s an exciting opportunity. For instance, Time-Life just released a new picture-book on Russia, which sheds a little light on a hidden section of the world.
Another surprise is a new collection of Soviet science fiction called (appropriately enough) More Soviet Science Fiction.
This book, along with the anthology’s predecessor and the occasional Josef Svebada reprint in Fantasy and Science Fiction, comprises all of the Eastern Bloc sf literature available in English. As such, it’s difficult to determine if these stories are representative of Soviet sf as a whole, or rather cherry-picked for their intended audience. There are some commonalities that are suggestive either of a Soviet style, or at least what the editor thinks would appeal to foreigners. Certainly, there is a kind of mild clunkyness one comes to expect from a less than expert translation, though it never detracts seriously from the reading. Rather, it just accentuates the foreign nature of the material.
Another universal aspect is the emphasis on explaining the science. Fully a page or two of each story gets extremely technical; the Soviets eschew more integrated scientific exposition. It’s almost as if laying out their case in full is a requirement of publication.
Finally, all of the stories have an edifying component. They are all parables – whatever entertainment value they may provide, you are supposed to learn from them. The lessons they teach tell you a lot about the teacher culture.
There are five stories, the first comprising more than half of the book:
The Heart of the Serpent, by Ivan Yefremov
Seven hundred years in the future, humanity’s first faster-than-light ship embarks on a mission to explore Cor Serpentis, a giant orange star 74 light years from Earth. The time dilation consequences of the ship’s hyperdrive mean that hundreds of years will pass back home before the crew returns. Yet, the demographically balanced team of enlightened Communists are stoically resigned to doing their duty in service to their species’ destiny.
On the way to their destination, they chance upon an alien vessel. As extraterrestrials had been theoretical until that point, this promises to be the most significant discovery in the history of space travel. The crew discuss at length what they expect to find. One camp believes that two different planets couldn’t possibly produce similar beings. Another feels that the human form is the natural end-point of evolution, much as Communism is the inevitable destination for all societies.
I’ll let you guess which guess is right…
I do appreciate the overwhelming positivity of the encounter, in contrast to other stories (Yefremov specifically calls out Murray Leinster’s classic, First Contact). And there is a stately beauty to the piece. The spaceship and its mission are depicted with a spare elegance that feels futuristic.
Siema, by Anatoly Dnieprov
The most old-fashioned of the pieces is a bit of Pygmalion gone wrong. An engineer constructs a brilliant robot whose computing power is such that she (it takes on the female gender) becomes a sentient being. A rather obsessed creature with an unquenchable desire for knowledge untempered by any tinge of morality. But if this electric Pinocchio can just get a conscience, all will be well.
It is a cute tale that will make you smile, but the lesson is heavy-handed and the plot is out of the 1940s.
The Trial of Tantalus, by Victor Saparin
By the 21st Century, a world led by Soviet science has eradicated every disease. The few remaining pathogens are kept in a highly secured vault for study. In Tantalus, one escapes back into the wild, causing a myriad of positive and negative effects that must be gauged to determine their net value. The moral of this story is that all life has purpose, even the nasty bits. And Communism will be the key to evaluating that purpose.
Despite the adventure-story trappings of Tantalus, I found this piece the least engaging. Sort of a creaky Astounding tale from the early 1950s.
Stone from the Stars, by Valentina Zhuravleva
Here is the one woman-penned piece in the book. I don’t know if Valya’s 20% contribution is representative of gender demographics in Soviet science fiction, but I’m glad the Reds didn’t neglect half of their “equal partners” in Communism. It is worth noting, however, that even worlds dominated by egalitarian Communism, virtually none of the characters in these stories are women…
Stone is another first-contact tale. This time, the envoy is a two-meter cylinder encased in a meteorite. Once again, there is the debate over the potential form of the creature, but the revelation is not nearly as clear-cut as in The Heart of the Serpent. An interesting, bittersweet piece.
Six Matches, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
The last piece involves neutrino-induced psionics. Yes, the premise is so much handwavium, but that’s not the point. Rather, it is that its inventor put himself at great personal risk to advance science. This foolhardy courage of Soviet science is lambasted with words, but praised in subtext. Perhaps they’ll trot this story out when the first cosmonaut dies.
I did not rate the stories individually because they really hang together as a gestalt. I can’t say that More Soviet Science Fiction is a great book, but it is an interesting one, and one I dispatched in short order. And if you’re a fan of Isaac Asimov, also a product of the Soviet Union, you’ll appreciate his introduction. Call it three stars – more if you’ve got a case (as I do) of xenophilia.
(P.S. Don’t miss the second Galactic Journey Tele-Conference, July 29th at 11 a.m.! A chance to discuss Soviet and American science fiction…and maybe win a prize!)