Science Fiction

Science Fiction: Behind the Curtain


The expulsion of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn from the Soviet Union was only the latest episodealthough perhaps the most dramatic so farin the new repression of Soviet literature that has been gaining momentum for the last six years.

Soviet science fiction, which enjoyed a remarkable renascence in the decade following the late Nikita Kruschev's de-Stalinization campaign, has shared the reaction against "liberalism" in recent years. But, remarkably, the effect of the repressive movement has, until recently at least, been far less severe than on "mainstream" literature.

Science fiction has traditionally been the most "liberated"in a relative sense, of course, bearing in mind the nature of the Soviet systemliterature in the Soviet Union. This may account for its wide popularity with Soviet youthbook editions of 150,000 or more often sell out overnight, and total sales in the millions are not uncommon for some works.

Even before the Soviet Revolution, there had been a traditionalbeit a minor oneof SF in Russia. Besides the imitators of Jules Verne, most of whose works are forgotten, there were utopian SF writers, Marxist and otherwise. Best-known of these was Aleksandr Bogdanov, whose RED STAR (1908) and ENGINEER MENNI (1913), used Mars as a setting for Marxist utopias in much the manner the German Kurd Lasswitz had earlier used that planet to portray a Kantian utopia.

Bogdanov is a revered figure among Soviet SF critics, even though ENGINEER MENNI is considered to have "deviationist" ideas on evolutionrather than revolutionas the key to progress. After the Revolution, Bogdanov strove to be more Papist than the Marxist pope, founding a literary "Proletcult" that was so extreme in its views that even Lenin later disowned it.

Although the Revolution is credited with having inspired a rebirth of SF in the Soviet Union, this rebirth actually took place during the time of the New Economic Policy from about 1923 on, when restrictions were few and private publishing was allowed for a time. Even the Marxist utopias and "Red Detective" thrillers emphasized in official critical histories date from this period.

More than 200 SF works were published in the 1920's, and many were quite inventive. Graal Arelsky, a futurist poet, anticipated America's Raymond Z. Gallun in his moody treatment of interplanetary contacts in such works as "Gift of the Selenites" (1926) and "The Man Who Visited Mars" (1927), while N. I. Mukhanov independently invented space operacomplete with death rays and interplanetary spaceship battlesin FLAMING ABYSSES (1924).

Ivan Vinnichenko's THE SOLAR MACHINE (1924), a semi-Marxist utopian work, was remarkable for speculating on the possible impact of technology to abolish scarcity and make abundance a social problema theme that didn't become popular in American SF until the 1950's. "Red Detective" thrillers exploited such scientific frontiers as laser-like rays (Aleksei Tolstoy's GARIN'S DEATH RAY, (1926) and nuclear chain reactions (Vladimir Orlovsky's "Revolt of the Atoms," 1927) in much the manner American pulp SF thrillers didthough from an opposite ideological viewpoint.


Aleksandr Belyaev (1884-1942) was the most prolific, and creative, of the early Soviet SF writers. His best-known novel, THE AMPHIBIAN (1928), is a sympathetic account of a youth who has been surgically adapted to live underwater by a sort of benevolent Dr. Moreau. In conveying the emotions of a man to whom an entire new world has been openedyet who is cut off from normal human relationshipsBelyaev was far ahead of his time. THE AMPHIBIAN has an adventurous plotthe hero, Ichthyander, is a kind of undersea Tarzanand humanistic philosophy that gives it a lasting appeal.

Purists were suspicious of science fiction in general for its "cosmopolitan" attitudesforeign locales and an apolitical humanism were common in works by writers like Arelsky and Belyaev. Even the utopias were too romanticV.D. Nikolsky's "In a Thousand Years" turned on a love-triangle, with a time-traveller from our era vying with a man of the future for the affections of the heroine in a world of cities suspended from transcontinental skyways, singing plants and atomic energy (which Nikolsky, startlingly, predicted would be unleashed in 1945).

In 1929, the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP) launched a campaign against science fiction, and within a few years had virtually driven it out of existence.

Belyaev managed to keep workingas late as 1935, he could write of space travel in A LEAP INTO NOTHINGNESS, although the astronautical works which had been common in the 1920's (such as S.L. Grave's 1926 "A Journey to the Moon") had generally come to be frowned on. But for the most part, freedom of imagination was eliminated from what science fiction was allowed during the Stalin years.

Typical SF of the 1930's was devoted to down-to-Earth themes like the development of Siberia, as in Grigory Grebnev's ARCTANIA (1937), or to glorifying Soviet military power in its struggle with the Capitalist world, as in Grigory Adamov's THE SECRET OF TWO OCEANS (1939). When Yuri Dolgushin wrote THE GENERATOR OF MIRACLES—a highly imaginative work dealing with concepts like thought-transmission and immortalityin 1939, he couldn't find a book publisher for it (and didn't, until 1959). For the most part, SF plots were limited to melodramas about foreign spies trying to sabotage the Five-Year Plan.

World War II brought an end to the hard-line Stalinist SF, paving the way for an orthodoxbut low-keyschool of writers who emphasized scientific enterprise more than ideology. "Practical" science was stressedin Vladimir Nemtsov's "Shadow Under the Earth" (1948), a device to see through the Earth is used to make fabulous discoveries of mineral deposits; in Georgy Gurevich's "The Soaring Poplar" (1951) fast-growing trees are invented to reclaim deserts. Gigantic sheep revolutionize animal husbandry in Abram Paley's TAUSEN'S ISLAND (1948), and a shoe leather that won't wear out is the subject of Viktor Saparin's "The Magic Shoes" (1955).


Ivan Yefremov (1907-72), who wrote similarly conservative SF in the late 1940's and early 1950's, was the first to take advantage of de-Stalinization in 1957, with ANDROMEDA—a cosmic utopian novel set thousands of years in the future which, although it seems tame (both imaginatively and ideologically) to us, was revolutionary to the Soviets.

ANDROMEDA was the focus of a Great Debate between the "Warm Stream" critics who wanted change in SF and the "Cold Stream" critics who didn'tand the former carried the day.

Although Yefremov was the immediate beneficiary, his imaginative vision was relatively conservativein "The Heart of the Serpent" (1959), for example, he replies to Murray Leinster's "First Contact" by arguing that contacts between different intelligent species must always be friendly because they will all be good Communists. And his "aliens" are 100 percent humanoid, even though they breathe fluorine!

But Yefremov's victory over the "Cold Stream" critics opened up science fiction to dozens of new writers with fresh and often unorthodox viewpoints.

Most prominent are the brothers Arkady (b. 1925) and Boris (b. 1933) Strugatsky. Their most popular novel, HARD TO BE A GOD (1964) centers on a team of experts sent to "guide" the evolution of an extraterrestrial societyand the tragedy of the hero who comes to realize his superiors really don't know what is happening there, but can't get them to change their thinking before disaster strikes. Although hardly anti-Communist, the novel is a telling critique of ideological orthodoxy.

In "Wanderers and Travellers" (1963), the Strugatsky brothers counter the anthropomorphic blindness of writers like Yefremov towards intelligence in nonhumanoid forms, while in FAR RAINBOW (1964), a disastrous experiment gone wrong on a planet used as a scientific laboratory dramatizes their message against the dehumanization and overspecialization of science.

MONDAY BEGINS ON SATURDAY (1965) is a satire on the bureaucratic misuse of science, while THE SECOND MARTIAN INVASION (1967) attacks the sort of conformism and complacency that allows the "invasion" to take place virtually unopposed (the title is an ironic reference to H.G. Wells' "first" Martian invasion). And in THE TALE OF THE TROIKA (1968), a committee of bureaucrats originally created to check the plumbing system manages to take over a whole country in a brilliant satire of how Power Corrupts.

A sort of humanism that an earlier age would have condemned as "bourgeois sentimentality" marks many Soviet SF works of the 1960's. Individual heroism on the frontiers of space and science is emphasized in stories like Vitaly Krapivin's "Meeting My Brother" (1962) and Valentina Zhuravleva's "Storm" (1961). In Yevgeny Voiskunsky and Isai Lukodianov's "A Farewell on the Shore" (1964), a scientist who has contrived a means for the body to age all at once, instead of gradually, is faced with the certain knowledge of when and how he will dieand must learn to face this with courage and dignity.

Fadim Shefner's "A Modest Genius" (1968) is remarkable for taking the part of a solitary inventor who, for his own amusement, devises things like water skates so he can skim across the lake with his true lovewhile a mediocre scientist is showered with official honors for worthless inventions like a can opener that weighs five tons and costs 400,000 rubles. Vladimir Grigoriev's "The Horn of Plenty" (1964) similarly sympathizes with an eccentric genius against the bureaucrats.

Ilya Varshavsky built up quite a following with his satires on the foibles of science and society like "The Molecular Cafe" (1963) and "Preliminary Research" (1965), which are almost as free-wheeling as American social-satirical SF.

The relative freedom on the 1960's was also shown in works like Voiskunsky and Lukodianov's "Formula for the Impossible" (1964) in which astronauts come across an alien race that has degenerated by allowing a master computer to take over planning of its economy and society. Gennady Gor, in "The Minotaur" (1967) and other works dealt with problems of communication with alien systems of thought.

Soviet authorities sharply curtailed publication of science fiction after the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, but even after this some authorsparticularly the Strugatsky brotherswere able to bring out some works loaded with social criticism, such as THE INHABITED ISLAND (1969). They got in trouble when THE UGLY SWANS, a thinly-veiled attack on anti-Semitism, was published abroad last year, but are still writing SF with toned-down satirical overtones for home consumption.

More typical now, apparently, are conservatively ideological critiques of Capitalistic militarism, as in Sever Gansovski's "The Proving Ground" (1969). Orthodox social criticism had already been represented in the works of Anatoly Dnieprovsome incredibly simple-minded, like "The World in Which I Disappeared" (1961), in which a mad scientist sets up an experimental model that proves the Marxist exploitation theory; others modestly-imaginative for all their limitations, like "The S*T*A*P*L*E Farm" (1964), in which cloning is used to turn out standardized humans.

But the more liberated Soviet SF has been read by hundreds of thousands, and is undoubtedly still wielding its intellectual influence. This gives an element of hope to an otherwise dismal cultural outlook.

Note: I am indebted to the researches of Darko Suvin, John W. Andrews and Robert Magidoff for some of the information used in this column.

John Pierce's Science Fiction column alternates monthly in REASON with Davis Keeler's Money column.