messier object


yellow blue tibia, pt. 1

Yellow Blue Tibia is probably the most (personally) important book I didn’t get to read last year because Amazon was shitty at mailing it to me from the UK – a science fiction novel about Soviet SF authors secretly convened by Stalin in ’46 to think up a new threat after America collapses.  The opening is equal parts Bakhnov-style riff on politically correct Soviet science fiction and wide-eyed parody of Herman Kahn’s nuclear planning and wargaming at RAND, which should sound more promising than it is.  So far Adam Roberts seems to have a pretty shaky grasp on Soviet SF culture; the world he’s created has no notion of the “near target” (blizkaia tsel’) or Stalin’s conflicts with SF authors that led to the end of all SF publishing before the Great Patriotic War.  Also, it brings up a question I’ve never pondered before: can an author make references to real figures he probably doesn’t know exist?  The narrator, Konstantin Andreiovich Skvorecky, appears to be something of a vague parody of Ivan Yefremov, having written science fiction about alternate classical worlds, while another seems to be a vague reference to Vladimir Obruchev.  Of course, I’m only about a third of the way through, so we’ll see how it develops…

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old news, apparently

Image comics presents: the Soviet Syd Mead!

But there’s a Soviet SF manga?  As bizarre as it seems to me to create socialist-inflected science fiction in this day and age*, it’s certainly interesting both as an aesthetic (ushankas for everyone!) and as a stylistic experiment.   I think the fact that it’s comics makes it even more fun, potentially, in the former – there’s certainly enough neatlooking abandoned Soviet futuristic hardware. But I don’t know how far it actually is going to go as a style experiment.  In Subversive Imaginations: Fantastic Prose and the End of Soviet Literature, 1970s-1990s, Nadya Peterson wrote that (and I think I agree) “the Stalinist novel and Soviet science fiction are both formulaic structures whose protagonists ‘know or discover the laws governing their social existence, and the ultimate outcome of those laws in a Great Society of the future.’ Which, if you’re writing a Soviet-style science fiction history of the Soviet war in Afghanistan, leaves you with a pretty depressing Marxist world-system – something that could be cool, but might not be attractive for most authors.  So will it live up to the maxim**?  I dunno, but I just ordered the first volume, so we’ll see.

*and, yes, I’m not counting China Miéville here.

**so, so hard to avoid a Mac Sim/Strugatskys pun.



kings & new men

Here’s one of the biggest differences that’s struck me since I’ve started reading science fiction written the the USSR & East Bloc states: the future histories are uniformly – completely uniformly – republican & democratic & optimistic.  Communist, of course, but the rule is always by interested parties who self-select from the masses to engage in rule.  In the west, though, there’s not only a strong, strong tradition of future monarchy (Herbert, Foundation, Pournelle’s CoDominion series where the monarchy is formed out of the leadership of the combined militaries of the United States and the Soviet Union, of all things), never mind Heinlein and his wa-a-acky elitism (which, I think, I will get to later).

Of course, some of these are more anarchistic than others – in the Noon Universe of the Strugatsky brothers, easily the most popular Soviet SF shared universe, rule is essentially anarchistic – there’s a few committes that take care of important stuff that can’t be left to chance, like first contact with aliens or licensing starship pilots, but even those are just made up of interested citizens and seem to have relatively little power, at least in the early stories (the increasing dystopia of the shared 22nd century of the Strugatskys isn’t so much a theme in their work as it is their increasing distress as they realize that their imagined universe just won’t ever work, and can’t actually be a future history – but more on that distinction between imagined future history and fictional future history later, too).

In this sense, it shares a lot with Iain Banks’ Culture novels and more modern western SF generally – especially stuff written after the end of the Cold War.  Meanwhile, everyone on earth seems to live happily in houses on plenty of land and grow food as their good Marxist labor – something the brothers caught a fair amount of flak for, when they weren’t catching flak for being Jews or criticizing working conditions for the intelligentsia or any number of other things.  The houses, that is, not the return to the land – the line was still that, by 1980, every Soviet citizen would have an apartment, so why go rushing ahead with things?

Efremov’s Andromeda shows a governance that is similarly democratic, if somewhat less anarchistic – there seems to be evidence of plenty of freedom of rule, although there is still a world government of some sort, run by all the racial stereotypes of the world.  But everyone seems to be equally able in this far-distant future (some time in the fourth millenum), in distinct difference from western authors of the same period.  And unlike all those western authors, who at some point or another reason that a single strongman has to rule humanity because that’s the only power that can – as Herbert, I think, makes clear in Dune although it’s been a while since I’ve done that book right by itself – humanity has never been ruled by a dictatorial figure since the long-gone ages of capitalism and emergent socialism.

On the other hand, the western SF tradition is full of supermen and monarchs and collapses of great societies and rebuildings, with, well, I can’t actually think of any major exceptions among authors who tried to do future histories – even Le Guin had the Hainish society collapse from some high where they could manipulate whole planets down to their colonies forgetting about each other for millenia.  Why so much more pessimism in the west?  There are a lot of parts, I think, but there are two that I think are especially key – Spengler and, after the Second World War, more open fear of the bomb.

SF, like pretty much all writing in the USSR, had to go through ideological censorship, so it more or less always ended up conforming to Marxist ideas of the progression of the future.  The only real western-comparable pessimistic societies we see come before the harshest censorships or were writings destined for the desk-drawer: things like Tolstoi’s Aelita (where the Marxists lose but there is some hope for a second revolution at the end) and Zamyatin’s We, the direct predecessor to dystopias like 1984.  But all the full-blown future histories, like Efremov and the Strugatskys, had to conform with the constant upwards developement of humanity.

In the west, this was not nearly the most popular idea: even in The First & Last Men humanity rises and falls and rises again, palingenetic, to even higher heights (on Neptune).  While this is getting longer than I thought it would, why?  Partially, I think, because I think a lot of these authors were influenced by early fantasy writers, and because a galatic Empire allows for Galactic Knights and other sorts of Galactic Hero Figures and just strikes you as somewhat alien compared to what you’re used to now; partially because the rise of science fiction sees the end of the last western empires after the First World War.  But I’ll expound on these reasons more fully next time.