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Monday, February 01, 2016
For some, Evgeny Zamyatin is the man who gave birth to Russian science fiction. So, in honor of his birthday, here are eight (mostly contemporary) Russian novels that dip into the sci-fi and speculative fiction genres, and in so doing, reveal something about Russia and the world beyond.
Okay, so this is before Zamyatin. But as a pro-communist vision of an interplanetary future utopia, how could it be left on the sidelines? Here’s the gist: after the Revolution of 1905 fizzled out, resolute reformers continued to fight for the success of communism. Even if at that point success was only imaginable on Mars.
Bogdanov, who famously died attempting to administer a youth-restoring blood transfusion on himself, envisioned the fall of capitalism and the birth of a new society based on “tectology,” now seen as a precursor to systems theory. Even if his non-Leninist Bolshevism went the way of, well, non-Leninist Bolshevism, his view of a technocratic future has some eerie resonances with the technology-based world of today. Well, aside from the Mars part.
This novel is Big Brother’s big brother. And not only did Zamyatin’s magnum opus influence Mr. Orwell, its gloomy, glassy dystopia had an impact on the genre as a whole. Zamyatin’s vision of the One State is replete with people known only by numbers, an all-knowing Benefactor, and literal liquidation of dissent. No wonder Zamyatin faced some heat when his fictional world started to resemble the newborn Soviet Union a bit too closely.
Whether you interpret the novel’s glass houses and punishment of free-thinking as a symbol of the new Soviet government’s increased censorship (which, admittedly, is what Zamyatin did) or a sign of the Snowden era to come a bit (a lot) later, the result is a prescient portrayal of multiple futures, and none of them too bright for humanity.
Aliens pay Earth a visit, but just long enough for a PB&J by the side of the road. Thirty years after the aliens decided humans were too bland for so much as a “howdy,” humanity’s still cleaning up the extraterrestrial equivalents of forgotten candy wrappers and sandwich rinds – not to mention mysterious objects, body-invading slime, and enough mutations to go around.
The basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker (and a gaggle of video games), Roadside Picnic’s black market for alien goods and fixation on the forbidden unknown hints at the draw of the West, with the taboo blue jeans and rock ‘n’ roll that went along with it. But that alien utopia isn’t just an allegory: it warns that the desire for the foreign, in the late-Soviet context or anywhere else you can picture it, may end up no more than pie in the sky.
This novel imagines Moscow in (you guessed it) 2042, from the vantage point of 1987. The Moscow of the future has realized “communism in one city,” apparently a step-up from the socialism of the narrator’s day. In the apparent paradise of MoscowRep, the Party fights the rings of capitalist hostility, people receive according to their (state-determined) needs, and society runs on the recycling of secondary matter (just guess what that means), all while a Solzhenitsyn-esque tsar-wannabe plans the restoration of empire from beyond the grave.
Written as the Soviet Union veered toward disintegration, Moscow 2042 puts a parodic twist on all things socialist, yet levels a genuine critique against dogmatism of all sorts. Voinovich’s dystopian future may be based on the Soviet Union’s past, but his condemnation of a society based on absolutes and censorship seems increasingly relevant today.
Just a typical day in Moscow: riding the subway, office boredom, a first date, and battling to the death with the occasional evil mage. The first of Lukyanenko’s pentalogy introduces a world where “others” walk among humanity, engaged in a constant fight between light and dark while humans go about their business unawares – at least, until they step into the twilight and become a shape-shifter, vampire, or warlock.
In a saga focused on the eternal battle between Light and Dark (for the curious, Stalinism was a force of Light gone awry), landing on the side of morality isn’t always as easy as you’d think. And especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, escaping so black-and-white a view of good and evil seems almost easier to accomplish in the realm of magic.
Imagine a world where hobbits’ giant, fuzzy feet aren’t proof of their humble but ultimately moral nature – instead, they’re instruments of terror.
Yeskov’s inverted Middle Earth is a land where the Orcs are the good guys, and the Elves are the false prophets of light, liberalism, and other imposed (read: European) values. In this inversion of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the association of Russia with the traditional bad guys isn’t just acceptance of doom: it’s a statement that being the hero depends on who’s telling the story.
Russia’s complex affiliations with Mordor have been reclaimed in more ways than one. With the Ring of Power buried somewhere in the Middle East, Middle Earth is a fitting spot for transplanting Russia’s ideological sparring with the West.
The technology of the future meets the brutality of Ivan the Terrible meets some eerily familiar qualities of Russia in 2016. Following a day in the life of a henchman of the new tsar, the near future Sorokin depicts speculates on the intensity of violence and corruption that would (and could) accompany a new authoritarianism.
Sorokin’s restored Russian Empire, powdered with familiar Soviet strictures, is replete with Chinese-made mobilovs and Mercedovs, hallucinogenic fish, and violence that might seem gratuitous – except nothing is gratuitous in the name of the new order. Sorokin described his novel as a “mystical precaution,” but its mystical nature becomes a bit too realist in Putin’s Russia of murdered opposition leaders and accusations of corruption at the top. At least hallucinogenic fish are still a thing of the future.
History thinks of socialist realism as a genre whose tractors and positive heroes could bore the most patient readers to tears. In this novel take on a derided literary form, a set of just such tedious texts turn out to impart special powers to those brave enough to make it through them. Let the bloodbath begin.
Elizarov’s world is a twist on the violence, poverty, and despair of early post-Soviet Russia and a caution against blind belief in any system. The catalyst for that belief could be a charismatic leader, drug-like fulfillment, or the desire for something to make life worth living. And if there’s a book that can do all that, that’s as good an argument as any for literature’s role in paving the path to Russia’s future – speculative or otherwise.
For over 100 years, most of the science fiction produced by the world’s largest country has been beyond the reach of Western readers. This new collection changes that, bringing a large body of influential works into the English orbit.