THE INTRIGUER, THE MINDBLOWER AND THE ROMANCER: A Look Back at Three Soviet period Science fiction writers – Generation P: Edward Crabtree’s blog.
Leaving aside the translated works of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky and, to a lesser extent, those of Alexander Belyaev, the science fictioneers of Soviet period Russia are not much trumpeted in the Western world.
So what a pleasant thrill it gave me to chance upon, in an
expat bookstore, three compendiums of translated science fiction stories by
authors new to myself and from that period.
Thank you Raduga.
From their base in Zubotsky Boulevard in the Park Kultury region of Moscow, Raduga (`Rainbow`) Publishers began making available foreign language imprints from their inception in 1931 up until the end of the Soviet Union. These publications included children’s books, language guides, photographic albums and popular fiction. As a part of a series called `Adventure & Fantasy`, Raduga brought some representative science fiction authors to the Anglophone world in the era when glasnost and perestroika where being spoken of in the Kremlin.
A futuristic doppelganger tale.
Vladimir Mihanovsky’s The Doubles was first published by Progress Publishers in 1981 but Raduga bought the story six years later when the Ukranian writer was 56 years of age. By this time Mikhanovsky had been a teacher of Maths and Physics at Kharkov University and penned a few tales speculating on humanity’s relationship with robotic technologies.
Mikhanovsky’s stories – there are four in this collection
-take place in an urbanized future that appears to be somewhere in America
(`the Rockies` get a mention in one story). Interplanetary travel is a part of
daily life (but not integral to these tales), domestic robots grace every home
and the cities are crisscrossed with moving walkways. The Land of Informa
is the exception, being a charming Wellsian tale of a man stumbling on an
alternate world near a railway station outside of Moscow. The Violet is
a sometimes zany detective tale set in the aforementioned future world (indeed
the author would later devote himself entirely to the detective genre).
The title story – The Doubles – seems to have as its
title a play on Dostoevsky’s tale The Double (1846) – the quintessential
doppelganger story. In it we meet Newmore, an obsessive and gifted scientific
researcher who, very much like Stevenson’s Doctor Jekyll, dreams of isolating
the more virtuous side of man’s psyche away from his baser part. He employs the
latest in particle physics to do so and creates a sort of ethereal anti-human
entity (which he calls `Alva`) which has the capacity to absorb the worst of a
human being and turn into their negative doppelganger in the process. However,
the original person and their Alva must never meet as this will result in
mutually assured destruction in the form of an explosion – yet the Alva is
drawn by magnetism to seek out it’s opposite and so needs must be avoided at
Despite these drawbacks, Newmore finds an all too willing guinea
pig. Arben is a man desperate to rid himself of the guilt and irascibility that
has overruled his life so far.
Indeed, after Newmore’s procedure, Arben does gain a new life: he receives a new approval from his workmates, forgets his guilts, gets back with an old, now adoring, girlfriend, acquires a swish new automobile and so on. However, the Alva is always Out There, seeking him….
Soon he is begging Newmore to reverse the whole experiment, particularly
as his double seems to be breaking the expected rules in its urge to meet him. With
a heavy heart Newmore agrees, but will the Alva get to Arben first?
Mikhanovksy tells a fine up-tempo tale even if some of the
dialogue (in translation at least) reads like something from a television soap
opera. His writing – not all that `Russian` really – resembles an Asimov but
with a more vivid appreciation of the pitfalls of technological development.
Signals from a doomed species.
The Odessa born Segei Snegov died at the age of 84 in 1994 after having become best known for his space opera extravaganza People as Gods which he tapped out between 1966 and 1977 delighting many fans in Eastern Europe who resonated with his galaxy spanning quasi-Biblical excursions.
First appearing in Detskaya Literatura in 1977, Snegov’s
addition to the `Adventure & Fantasy` series consists of twelve stories
which revolve around Roy and Henry, two scientific investigators tasked with
getting to the bottom of inexplicable events or unusual crimes involving
They live in a future world not unlike Mikhaonovsky’s. We are
not given a location but weather is controlled, we have interstellar travel,
robots of course, and a hinted at world government. The means exist to record
and project the thoughts and dreams of the human mind and this features in a
great many of the stories.
In the title story Ambassador
Without Credentials Roy’s job has become personal. He is investigating the
mysterious crash onto Mars of a spaceship which was carrying Hemry, his brother
who is now lying comatose in a hospital on Mars.
Events accelerate when it transpires that the catastrophe had defied the laws of physics. The crew were befuddled by receiving warning signals that had reached them at faster than light speeds (an impossibility). Meanwhile, in his coma Henry is dreaming about physical and mathematical concepts which are way beyond his own capabilities….
The plot, as brilliant as it is preposterous, goes on to encompass an imperiled civilisation trying to reach out by using pseudo-humans planted into Earth’s society and by moulding the dreams of performers who sell their own dreams for entertainment purposes. We also get an alien visitor masquerading as a monkey that feeds off electricity and the use of an invisibility suit.
The tone is upbeat, even jocular at times, yet it is a very
homosocial world. There are no women in this story, not even there as objects
of desire. Despite this Ambassador Without Credentials delivered one of the
most fun reading experiences I have had for a long time whilst playing with
such solemn themes as the nature of Good and Evil and personal responsibility
in the face of cataclysm.
An archeologist’s Mediterranean mission.
The still living Yuri Medvedev, from Krasnoyarsk, is the youngest of the three and his reputation still precedes him. Type his name into Yandex.ru and you will encounter shadowy insinuations about this writer including him being a key player in the “defeat of Soviet science fiction` no less.
Such accusations, which he has rebuffed, seem to refer back
to his time as the Editor of Molodiya Gvardira . He steered this publication in the
direction of pan -Slavic nationalism and in so doing set himself up in opposition
to such figures as Boris and Arkady Strugatsky.
This was all some time ago and it is now difficult to sort
out the facts from the gossip so – to the texts themselves!
The first and longest tale in The Chariot of Time (a
collection introduced by the cosmonaut Vitaly Sevastyanov!) is called The
Cup of Patience, a sort of science fantasy folk tale narrated by a young
archeologist called Oleg Preobrazhensky.
In the Far East of the Soviet Union, Preobrazhensky had unearthed the dwelling and preserved body of a legendary princess called Snow Face. Later, however, his breakthrough discovery gets buried under the rubble of an avalanche triggered by an earthquake.
Later an imperious teacher of his sends him on an unexplained errand in Sicily, where most of the action will henceforth unfold. In Sicily a strange epidemic is underway and there is talk of UFO sightings and fires that seem to be caused by them. Nearby there resides an American military base. What part does this play in it all?
Preobrazhensky then meets up with Snow Face – except she is
really the representative of an intergalactic community bent on safeguarding
the Earth’s environment….
This itemization of the main plot elements does little to convey the experience of reading it. Medvedev seems to be a part of the Ray Bradbury school of science fiction which has a lot of poetic ruminations throughout. Stylish and sophisticated though his prose is, it is also high-falutin and over-romantic and I came close to returning the book to the shelf unfinished. The Cup of Patience does reach a kind of focused conclusion however, and it seems to be a simple `Yanks Go Home` one (and which had already dated by the time of the translation of this story in 1985).
A Challenge to Stereotypes.
Encountering Soviet Period culture can so often be something of an eyebrow raiser, failing, as it often does, to conform to our prejudices. The only writer here with a clear ideological axe to grind is Medvedev although even his brand of Pan-Slavism meets Green consciousness was not exactly the party line in the Eighties. As for Mikhanovsky and Snegov, they were very akin to their Western science fiction counterparts of their day. They even gave their protagonists Western sounding names.
Mikhanovsky, Vladimir The Doubles (Moscow: Rasduga Publishers, 1987) (Translators: Raisa Bobrova, Miriam Katz, Katherine Judelson).
Snegov, Sergei Ambassador Without Credentials (Moscow: Raduga Publishers, 1989) (Translated by Alex Miller).
Medvedev, Yuri The Chariot of Time (Moscow: Raduga Publishers, 1988) (Translated by Robert King).