Science Fiction

Prediction or Warning?


Russian Spring, by Norman Spinrad, New York: Bantam Books, 646 pages, $20.00

Changing attitudes about, say, race and sexual relations often make fiction appear dated, but science fiction dates for another reason: History passes it by. Thus, landmark novels like Robert A. Heinlein's The Man Who Sold the Moon, in which an entrepreneur finances the first lunar landing, or Arthur C. Clarke's A Fall of Moondust, in which the craters of the moon are filled with enormous (and dangerous) seas of dust, do not reach an audience their intrinsic merits might otherwise provide. It is rare, however, for a book to be out of date before it is published.

That is the situation with Russian Spring. This is unfortunate, because it is a work of considerable power and enormous scope and ambition. It would be a shame if its audience were diminished by its depiction of a Soviet Union that will evidently never come to be.

Norman Spinrad has been laboring in the vineyards of science fiction for almost 30 years now and has produced a staggering variety of works, from jokingly radical political novels like Bug Jack Barron to fine, literarily sophisticated tragedies like The Void Captain's Tale. He is without question one of the most talented active writers of science fiction, and Russian Spring displays his writing at the pinnacle of his craft.

Two themes pop up over and over in Spinrad's work: the Summer of Love and American freedom. Spinrad came of age in the '60s, and his work is filled with the symbolism of Haight-Ashbury: free love, young men and women protesting against injustice, the exhilarating moment of rebellion when all seems possible, even the detail of colorful and exuberant clothing. That the '60s was a depressing time of intolerant explosion on both sides of the political divide is not, in Spinrad's view, relevant; he is yearning for some Platonic ideal of the Summer of Love, not for the reality.

For Spinrad, America is the home of freedom. In some sense, he views America quite as much as the embodiment of the ideals of the Summer of Love as of the ideals of Jefferson, and much of his work is concerned with the survival and extension of freedom, not only physically in this country, but throughout the human future. Russian Spring is very specifically about Spinrad's fear of what he sees developing in this country and his hope for the triumph of American ideals even as America abandons them.

The novel follows the family of Jerry Reed, an American aerospace engineer, and Sonya Gagarin, a Soviet businesswoman working for one of the Soviet Union's main organs of socialist entrepreneurship, Red Star S.A. Reed's enduring passion is manned space flight; his greatest dream is to participate in the space age his parents promised would begin in his lifetime. Alas, America has abandoned that dream, its civilian space program gutted to fuel Battlestar America, the ultimate descendant of the Star Wars program, a massive system of orbital defenses that will ensure U.S. supremacy over any conceivable opponent. He defects to Common Europe, where he joins the European Space Agency, which has ambitious plans for space stations and lunar bases. In fury, the United States bars him from ever returning.

Reed and Gagarin have two children—Robert and Franja. Robert becomes enamored of America and its history and, despite the opposition of his mother and the increasing anti-Americanism of his European classmates, he determines to go to college in the United States. Franja is proud of her Russian ancestry and of the optimistic, renascent Soviet Union; she shares her father's dreams of space and longs to join the cosmonaut corps and participate in the Russian exploration of Mars.

Both get their wishes, allowing Spinrad to show us his American and Soviet futures: the one militaristic, protectionist, and aggressive, fighting brush war after brush war in Latin America; the other peaceful, prosperous, and free. In the course of the novel, the Soviet Union applies for admission to and joins the European Community; the United States invades and annexes Baja California. The turnabout is virtually complete.

Is the picture plausible? It is. Spinrad's specific Soviet future will not occur; the union's dissolution is already too advanced. But something like it is inevitable. Soviet citizens are among the best-educated, most literate in the world. Intellectual capital is far more important to a modern economy than resources; given reasonably just laws and reasonably free economies, the formerly communist nations will inevitably transform themselves into economic powerhouses in a matter of decades.

Spinrad's Europe seems inevitable too. Though "1992" is unlikely to happen before, say, 1996, and though talks over political and monetary union are bogged down, Europe will, barring some catastrophe, become increasingly unified and increasingly prosperous.

The most questionable portrait is that of America. Spinrad's America is the perfect 1960s nightmare: an economy addicted to massive arms expenditure, jingoistic conservatives swilling cocktails while cheering the conquest of Latin America on TV, the inner cities squalid ghettos, blacks and browns fleeing in terror from high-tech bombardment, an impenetrable satellite defense shielding America from the justified wrath of foreign opinion. It takes, in fact, a genuine miracle, a novelistic device just this side of deus ex machina, to save his America from itself, to allow it to join the world community in a final transcendence of destructive nationalism.

Here lies Spinrad's true purpose. His America rings less true than his Europe or his Russia precisely because he wishes to portray the road he hopes America will not take, and fears it may. For almost two generations, we have poured the greatest part of our technical resources and untold quantities of our national treasure into the development of the weapons of war. We now make the world's best bombs, while the Japanese make the world's best cars. We had an excuse: madmen in Moscow with nukes. The best years of the American Century were spent keeping the Free World free.

But there aren't madmen in Moscow any longer, and our excuse has worn thin. We are at a crossroads. If we decide to exploit our military prowess in an effort to impose our vision of a New World Order on a recalcitrant world, Spinrad's nightmare is wholly plausible. Or perhaps we will bring the boys home, shut down the military-industrial complex, and devote ourselves to economic self-improvement in a free and prosperous international trade regime.

If we take the first road, might we not end up as Spinrad portrays us, a travesty of the very values on which the nation was founded?

Any novel of this scope runs the risk of didacticism, of becoming so caught up in international affairs and historic extrapolation that it turns into a sort of travelogue of the future, hardly a novel at all. And in fact, there is a long tradition of that sort of thing in science fiction, starting with Olaf Stapledon's First and Last Men.

Spinrad is too fine a writer to fall into that trap, however. Russian Spring is foremost the story of Jerry Reed's family and of his determination to one day walk the moon. Just as the international situation is precarious, so is Reed's family life. His career is stifled by his American citizenship in a hostile Europe; his Soviet wife's is jeopardized by her marriage to an imperialist; his children are torn by their heritage. Just as the survival of human civilization is in question, so is the survival and reconciliation of Reed's family.

The struggles Gagarin and the children face are wholly believable; so are the frustrations that face starry-eyed Reed—the agonies of his son as America turns more and more fascist, his daughter's exhilaration at space flight. Somewhat surprisingly, the family feels like a family in truth—surprisingly, because Spinrad's protagonists are generally young people, and because science fiction generally deals more with the adventures of the unattached than the introspection of family life. By the end of Russian Spring, each of the four is a wholly believable, sympathetic person—no mean accomplishment in its own right, and quite an amazing one given the novel's ambition on the larger scale. Science fiction is often accused, and justifiably so, of ignoring the personal for the grand idea. Russian Spring is unusual in succeeding not only as a powerful novel of ideas, but also as a novel in the more literary sense.

No finer novel of science fiction has been written in recent years; no more hard-headed, transcendent view of the human future has yet been written. And though science fiction may be generally viewed as the Artistically Challenged of the literary universe, perhaps even the non-genre reader might consider taking note.

Contributing Editor Greg Costikyan is a writer of fiction and nonfiction who has designed 23 commercially published games.