messier object


praaaaaaavda!

Communists Say Avatar Director ‘Robbed’ Soviet Science Fiction: Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia

Indignant party members say that Cameron, prepared to do anything to execute the command of the White House, surreptitiously entered the mysterious and romantic world of Soviet science fiction, and transferred all the action to his primitive propaganda film and to the Strugatsky-created world of planet Pandora.

Now, I haven’t seen Avatar yet.  But, of course, as we all know, the Strugatskys’ Pandora is a world given over entirely to scientific research giant crayfish hunting where when you try to go there you end up crashing off-course because you got hijacked by a time-traveling Red Army officer and if you try to go back in history you end up being menaced by a skull.  And does this mean Frank Herbert’s The Jesus Incident is also to blame for this?



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.



life has become better, life has become more cheerful

From its beginning at the turn of the 20th century, Russian communist science fiction had a strong focus on the history of the future. This developed through the 1920s before the issues of political correctness and the general crackdown on literature in the Stalinist period ended the publishing of science fiction in 1931 . Until the liberalization following the death of Stalin science fiction publishing was essentially nil, excluding a few stories set in the extremely near future. But this was blown apart by the publication of Ivan Yefremov’s Andromeda in 1957, a work that would inspire the re-creation of a Soviet science fiction writing culture. And with this new culture came new visions of the development of history into the future: long prohibited by code, authors began to not only set their stories in the far future but flesh out the imagined worlds – indeed the entire universes – in which their stories took place.

These universe creators ranged from Yefremov to the politically troubling works of the Soviet Union’s most popular native science fiction authors, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. Coded in these works, were the visions not only of what the future might look like, but how the science of Marxism would describe the progress of humanity. These new works also critiqued the notion of the linear progress of humanity in the strict Marxist mold, its inflexibility and its belief that the Soviet Union marked an endpoint for human history, raised questions of sharing progress and uplifting the less-historically developed states of the world, and reflected the issues and fears of the new generation of intellectuals in the Soviet Union.

The notion of historical uplift in Russian Marxist science fiction begins in 1905 with Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star. At its core, this 1908 novel is a tour of the futuristic utopia of Mars, a society which has reached its ultimate historical potential – and, thus, a description of what future communist states should be like. In Red Star, these Martians abduct (willingly) a single human of the most developed type: a Russian Bolshevik named Leonid. Their purpose in this is to attempt to acclimate a human to their fully communist society. While the Martians do not feel they can actively force communism on humanity, nonetheless they advocate for doing “the best [they] can to facilitate that development” to a position from which they can be considered by the Martians as equals . In many senses, this first work is a reverse of the situation found in later novels: it is the earthling who is undeveloped in comparison to the aliens, and is about his reaction to the advanced society and the efforts at uplifting him to the level of the Martians. Later works would turn this on its head, with humanity the universal progressor and stories told unfailingly from the perspective of those trying, subtly or not, to bring other societies to their level. Continue reading



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.