Science-Fiction Soviet-Style


IT WAS Toynbee who said that the dream and soul of a society are a measure both of its future and its success. So shortened this concept may seem a bit too pat and clever an extension of psychoanalytic insight onto the scale of history. But it is a useful thought nevertheless. For in the dream are the symbols, the hopes, the frustrations around which a life proceeds. It is the measure of a person’s or a society’s hold on reality. It is the imaginative writer today who is the prime visualizer of these dreams. Consciously or not, he exposes the conflicts, hopes, and personality of at least one facet of his time and place.

We know that the USSR is training engineers at a faster rate than we are; that she has almost all the basic atomic theory; that her plans for intercontinental missiles, space ships, and satellites, and visits to the moon are as far advanced, if not farther, than ours. But how deeply has the Industrial Revolution — coming late to the vast, agrarian Russian scene — really bitten into the Russian soul? Is Russia’s amazing recent industrialization a relatively shallow facade — a “Potemkin village” — or has she entered the lists in earnest, net only with her forced, rapid industrialization, but with a comparable change of the dream and soul. How free, how well equipped is the Soviet imagination to play with the fantasies, facts, visions of a new technological, scientific age? How far can it see down the exhilarating corridors of “space and time”?

The fact is, then, that interplanetary spacemen have landed in Soviet literature and in the Soviet imagination. It is a very significant measure of Russia’s scientific progress. The first known Russian S-F story, “Ships from the Stars,” written in 1953 by science-fictionist I. A. Yefremov, has reached this country, and we must report that it is full of all the weird and proper niceties.

“Ships from the Stars” is laden with the latest in astro-galactic physics, the latest in Soviet atomic theory, the latest in the best geological thinking. It has an astute theory concerning the evolution of life on other planets. It has space visitors with strange hard metals, inconceivably powerful weapons, ugly manlike creatures with beaked hawk-faces that are “without nose or ears,” but creatures, nevertheless, with highly developed brains. Yefremov’s creatures land on earth in order to replenish their own planet’s atomic fuels and ores.

To millions of Americans this should taste at once like the staff of life. It is the stuff of S-F’s daily bread. But let us stop a moment before sending out for copies. This is not one of our streamlined, jet-propelled, pulp-written pieces of science-fiction. This is Soviet S-F, and a relatively slow horse still.

Science-fictionist Yefremov moseys along as leisurely as a medieval theologian. There are no shattering battles between star-men and earth-men, either as between space armadas or desperate scientists. In fact earth-and star-men never meet. And as a result there are none of the usual interplanetary exchanges of threats, insults, diseases, philosophies, knowledge, or women. This is a breach in S-F protocol that would have an American reader writing indignant letters to the editor. Second, there is no sex, either of the straight variety or of any of the many science-fiction aberrations. With this lapse Yefremov loses more readers, particularly those for whom the word “fiction” has come to be another word for the unrepressed sexual daydream. And third, there is no writing. “Ships from the Stars” is, of course, written. It merely lacks an adequate number of those necessaries which transmute ordinary handwriting into fiction: a believable character or two, a forward moving plot, and the rest of it.

This may be laid simply to Yefremov’s and the Soviet Union’s apprenticeship in the new field. In as brave and admirable a gesture as any in publishing, Yefremov says in his foreword:

I am aware that my style has its faults, that my heroes are all alike, that my psychological line is inadequate.

One cannot long beat a man who so precisely confesses his shortcomings.

But then, having lost the thrill-seekers and abandoned the literary set, Yefremov leaves himself alone with the amateur scientists. And this, I am sure, is as he wishes it. The USSR is in a rush to create a jet-age, atomic-age mentality. The new science-fiction is quickly popularizing the concepts of the new age. It is creating a Romanticism of Science in precisely the way the Russians created a Romanticism of Labor for the era of their industrialization.

THIS science-fiction, then, is intended not so much to entertain the truckdriver, commuter, or collective farmer. It is intended to teach, to teach science, and to awaken a popular interest in what the Russians feel clearly to be a socially necessary direction. In the forward to his first volume of science-fiction Yefremov claims:

To lift the curtain of mystery, to speak of scientific achievements yet to come as realities, and so lead the reader to the outposts of science. But this is not the sole aim of Soviet science-fiction. Its philosophy is to serve the growth of the imagination and the creative power of our people in the study of life. Its chief aim is to search for the new, and so gain an insight into the future.

This is a creed, actually, not far different from that of our own writers of science-fiction. For all are, in a sense, proselytizers on the frontiers of science. And while the American writer may tell a better, faster tale, he has the same defense and rationalization. Neither wishes to bear the onus of writing “merely escape literature.” But rationalizations for science-fiction apart, Yefremov’s prime concern, like that of any writer, is to win readers. And these he has. Soviet science-fiction has picked up a wide following. It is well enough established for the Russians to translate it and attempt its export.

If we take “Ships from the Stars” at its own valuation, it is profoundly revealing of the Soviet problem, of the Soviet mind, of the Soviet hope. First a word on the story. Yefremov’s space-men land on earth for a short stay fully 70,000,000 years back, in the Cretaceous period — long before man himself had come on the evolutionary scene. This was the great age of the reptile, and the dinosaur was a dangerous nuisance to the space-man. In a simple freak accident one of these space-men is killed. His skull is buried in the alluvial mud. That is all. That is the extent of their visit, and all the drama of their stay.

Millennia later the prehistoric event is pieced together by Soviet paleontologist Shatrov and Soviet geologist Davidov in a series of Sherlock Holmes deductions. A “fragment of the left shoulderblade of a predatory dinasaur” is found in central Asia by a young Chinese geologist. It has in it the clean hole of a peculiar gun shot wound. Tracing this clue Shatrov and Davidov pause to give the reader a history of the formation of the earth and of the whole evolution of life.

The chance theory by a pupil in astronomy that the solar system, whirling in the Milky Way in its immense galactic orbit, sometimes approaches other solar systems leads to the conclusion that 70,000,000 years ago it passed near enough for some outer spacemen to chance the hop. This leads the author into a lengthy popular exposition of the universe, its structure, and the complexities of modern astronomy.

So it is that the bone and astronomical theory are pieced together. More bones with weapon wounds are found on a hurried geological expedition into Asia. This leads to a long exposition of Soviet geological methods. Finally the space-man skull is found. Since he came to earth seeking atomic fuels, we go into a long popularization of atomic theory, radioactivity, and the transformation of energy and matter.

Despite his own space-men Yefremov (and perhaps Soviet science, for Yefremov is a practising scientist) does not believe in interstar travel. He admits the possibility of life, even human life, in other solar systems, and he does a good job of theorizing it, but he does not envision any visits to or from these creatures:

The distance of the nearest stars having planetary systems is tremendous. So tremendous it would take a score of years traveling at the speed of light. No space craft can develop such speed, and lower speeds would make it a thousand-year journey.

One should take note that this popular Soviet exposition of the modern sciences is entirely passable. There are few errors of scientific fact or theory. Even Yefremov’s fantasy about harnessing the radioactive reactions occuring deep in the earth’s crust, though far-fetched, conforms pretty closely with current geophysical thinking, which puts parts of the cause for the massive formation of mountains to the energy of these reactions.

YEFREMOV comes forth also with the tantalizing thought that the very minute radioactivity of the earth’s crust may have played a part, over many hundreds of millions of years, in the evolution of life on earth. The idea leads to fascinating genetic possibilities.

If he is not a writer, Yefremov is not at all a bad teacher of science. But “Ships from the Stars” is not just a fiction-coated classroom. Yefremov not only teaches science, he debates key public questions:

“Our geology and paleontology” [says an assistant waiting for geologist Davidov in the lab] “are far from being the most important fields of science. That makes me wonder whether I’ve chosen the right field to specialize in. I can’t help feeling myself outside the center of things. I’d give anything to be with those who are building the atomic might of our country.”

“But what if a person has no talent for math?” [asks Zhenya, the girl].

“That’s no obstacle. There are parts of physics almost free of math.”

“Physics is certainly more important,” Zhenya admits, “but paleontology is also useful. Knowledge, you know. . . .”

A second girl, listening, grows sarcastic, “Huh! Chuck paleontology and diye into atomic research! Everybody’s just waiting for you to make the big decision. Atomic genius finds the true vocation! Better ask the Prof what he thinks.”

Professor Davidov, of course, says, “I like answering questions,” and goes into a four-page editorial to the students of the Soviet Union:

It is a serious question. Every technical revolution makes those fields of science outside seem unimportant … I am not a physicist, and do not engage in what is today most important, but my way is right for me because it is in harmony with my taste. … A people concerned with its future must ensure an all-round development of knowledge and culture. … In the West culture lags behind technical progress. . . .

It is in the “coffee-breaks” between these long lectures that the story proceeds.

The strange bone, as smooth as if it were polished, shone with a dark mysterious light at the bottom of the pit. Slowly, patiently, and gently Davidov began to remove the sand around the dark-violet dome. It did not grow larger, but its walls became steep and it assumed the form of an irregular, slightly flattened hemisphere. Davidov suddenly felt the blade sink into the soft sand, as though the bone went no further. He groped gingerly for a while and then decided to risk it — a few turns and he loosened the sand under the bone, then he removed the sand with a soft brush and saw that the bone had two round bulging hoops cut in the wall.

The roar that escaped Davidov’s barrellike chest chilled the blood of everybody around him.

“It’s a skull, a skull!” Davidov yelled, digging furiously . . .

And then later:

The two scientists seated themselves, lighted cigarettes, and with one accord fixed their eyes on the star-man skull.

It was quiet in the room for a long time.

Davidov gazed at the bulging forehead with the tiny cavities behind which, ages ago, worked a large human brain. What were the feelings and the knowledge that filled it? What memories did it preserve of its owner’s native planet? Was the feeling of nostalgia known to him? The thirst for eternal truths? The sense of beauty? What was the sex of this visitor from a stellar ship who had remained on a strange planet forever? What were human relations like in their world? What was their social order? Did they rise to the highest social order of all; was their planet one great working family, free of oppression and exploitation, knowing nought of barbaric and senseless wars which drained mankind’s strength and wasted the planet of its sources of energy?

“Ship from the Stars” ends with lines that are as significant as any in indicating the “realism” and the sermonizing of this new Soviet genre:

Mankind is powerless to perform the supreme exploit of bridging the formidable interstellar gulfs, of taming the murderous forces of the cosmos which threaten all living matter that dares foresake this planet . . . Shatrov and Davidov tried hard to believe that a meeting between the planetary islets of the universe would soon take place. But their minds laid down the verdict that millennia of creative thinking were required before we could fling out the borders of our world.

Our first task is to unite the peoples of our own world into one great family, to do away with inequality, oppression, and racial prejudice — to do all that, and then to work confidently for the unification of the many outer worlds.

To which, of course, “Amen.” If we may add the second task, the necessity even in the brave new world of telling a good story well.

The Saturday Review, June 2, 1956, pp. 20–21, 36.

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