Science Fiction Studies

# 15 = Volume 5, Part 2 = July 1978

Rafail Nudelman

Conversation in a Railway Compartment

Translated by Daniel Scoones

It was noisy in the railway compartment. Everyone was talking. The conversation was begun by a fellow who, somewhere next to the ceiling, was reading Science Fiction, 1964.1 He was not simply reading — he was experiencing. After each story he would laugh loudly, each story he would punctuate with a heavy exclamation mark. All SF was for him a continuous exclamation mark. The very process of invention appealed to him. New hypotheses and conjectures were raining down on us continually from the ceiling.

It was precisely this invention in SF which the neighbor to the right didn't like.

— They invent, — he grumbled, — so overinvent....

He did not explain what it was precisely, but it was clear that SF threatened mankind with the greatest troubles.

A young man at the window was offhandedly shattering, one after another, the SF hypotheses pouring down on him — each one of them was, as he invariably pointed out in conclusion, "insufficiently correct." Here the law of conservation of energy was violated. There the authors were picking an unfair quarrel with the second law of thermodynamics — it was as if SF writers had agreed to doubt all laws, starting with the multiplication tables.

A sarcastic man opposite was derisively droning:

— Do you know what SF suggests to me? Academician Lev Landau once remarked: "The paradoxical nature of the present situation in physics consists in the fact that the logic, the intellect, of the scientist functions successfully where his imagination is powerless." Now in SF it's the opposite: the imagination of the SF writer works especially well just where his reason is absolutely powerless....

No, in fact it was not like this at all. It was empty in the compartment. I was sitting by the window, and opposite me, exactly reflecting my pose, sat my double, the wonderful robot Anti-I, constructed in full accordance with the forecasts of Gennadiy Gor.2

With characteristic straightforwardness I put the question point-blank:

— What is science to SF?

Anti-I timidly protested:

— But surely it is scientific....

I gave him a sinister smile.

— Tell me, where is the "scientificalness" in the stories of Bradbury? Or the stories of Lem? Don't you think that the term "scientific" was used by Wells in a completely different sense? It was after that that the confusion arose. Wells was talking about scientific romance in contradistinction to, for example, the purely folktale-like fantastic. But we today understand....

— Hold on! — flared Anti-I — No one is restricting SF to the demand that it unfailingly forecast scientific discoveries or advance hypotheses. Here is how Efremov defines it: "A demonstration of the influence of science on the development of society and the individual ...."

— Are you demonstrating your mechanical memory again? — I remarked coldly.

Embarrassed, he fell silent.

— In my opinion, there is a contradiction here. On the one hand, Efremov talks about SF as literature, and on the other hand, he attempts to narrow SF down to one problem, one definition. But who has ever limited literature to one problem?! Its problems are innumerable — they are reality itself.

— All commonplaces, — he sighed. — You have said nothing, in essence, so far. And to criticize someone else's definitions....

— All right. Evidently it's necessary to ponder the correlation "Science Fiction and Science".... We observe a curious fact: the more science becomes a determining factor in the life of society, that is, the larger the role of science as an element of human life, the less of the purely human there is in it. Science "dehumanizes." The theory restricts the experiment, and theory itself is less and less reconcilable with naive attempts at interference by the human imagination, with its narrow, visual images. Remember that this was said by the malicious fat man who cited the words of Landau. Lomonosov perceived his atoms with their little hooks just as concretely as Descartes did his vortices. Even a student is wary of this now.

— You are partly right....— muttered Anti-I.

— SF, however, strives to unite the rationalistic knowledge of the world and the artistic knowledge of man. Thus it paves the way for all literature.

— Unite? — he repeated thoughtfully.

— To unite is of course at the same time to contrast. SF takes up the rationalistic, which goes beyond the limits of human emotion, of experiences of daily life. Therefore, in a collision with this cruel rationalism of science, human emotions always face a serious trial. From this there arises what is essentially the single conflict of all SF — man faced with the unknown. And essentially SF's only subject is the history of the recurring human attempt to expand man's self to a new islet of the Unknown.

— I understand: man changing in a changing world. But is the alteration of the world, the addition of these islets of Unknown, a function of science?

— On the whole, yes. But not always.

— For example?

—In Čapek's War With the Salamanders, or in the works of Swift there is no science at all.

— Excuse me — Swift is also SF?

— The very purest. To the same degree as Lem's Star Diaries.

— All right, let's leave that. Another more interesting question is then how does this differ from "simply literature"? A changing man in a changing world — this is what all literature is. Where is SF here? Have you by chance lost it along the way?

— I don't think so. I am against definitions narrowed like fashionable trousers. As far as the differences are concerned, they consist not in essence, but in method.

— You mean to say — in form?

— No, form is on a different plane. In form, SF can be most realistic, as in the stories of Wells, and realism can be most fantastic, as with Gogol or Shchedrin. The distinction is precisely in method. "Simply literature," realist literature, is created out of the material of concrete reality, out of the alterations actually occurring in the world, whereas SF takes nonexistent situations. Its Unknown is hypothetical, sometimes conventional. Therefore the fantastic element in realism is always just an artistic device, just a conventional form, whereas in SF the realistic element is a form embodying a nonexistent world, a possible and not a real situation.

— Oh, modeling!

— A surprisingly unfortunate term. Any literature models the reality which it expresses.

— Yes, of course. But as opposed to models of the present, SF creates models of a future world?

— Not so. Models of the future in pure form are the privilege of the social utopias, which are almost never found in SF.

— And Efremov? The Strugatskys? Lem's Magellan Nebula?

— Neither the Strugatskys nor Lem ever created special utopias — something else interested them. And Efremov? True, it's impossible to eliminate the utopian element from SF — it is a component part. But on the whole it gives not a model of the future, but a model of the nonexistent. In this lie its colossal possibilities. Just think, if SF writers were to make it their aim to model, to foresee the future, what would this amount to? To a terminology — inventing contest, no more. What does this have in common with literature? No, the projection of time into the future serves another purpose. Every author knows just how conventional is the "world" that he has created. Could it be that he is somehow attracted by this conventionality? Could it be that there is some kind of artistic possibility concealed in it?

— The possibility of what?

— Of discovering or revealing something new in man and his history.

— No, all the same I don't agree. If we're talking about the shape of the men to come then I agree with you: here one can foresee something, can attempt to divine, but this will, after all, be the "modeling" of the future to which you object. But if we're talking about the man of the present, then why put him into a nonexistent situation — surely it must be possible to reveal the depths of his soul better and more fully in a real situation in the real world?

— Well, the nonexistent world is only one of the characteristic peculiarities of the SF method. Its basis will be a certain hypothesis — as a rule, a rational, logical idea. The hypothesis is the second peculiarity of this method. It is a bridge by which science enters literature. Here lies the path from man to that Unknown which has no place in real, daily life. Therefore the hypothesis presupposes the necessity of the nonexistent world.

— I don't completely understand.

— Well, possibly it will be clearer if we consider cases when these aspects of the SF method are disjoined. In a lampoon, a fantastic satire, we are often presented with a hypothesis squeezed into a model of a fully real world; in adventure-SF the model is one of a nonexistent world but it is without a kernel or core, without a hypothesis. It is here, I think, that the greatest danger of not attaining a significant literary level lies in wait for SF.

— An excessively fine line?

— Yes. An excessively direct conformity to the hypothesis distorts involuntarily the proportions of the real world, but then the arrow of lampoon goes past the mark — it hits a target representing an arbitrarily distorted reality, a way of life admittedly oversimplified.

— Properly, in adventure-SF something very similar frequently takes place —due to the absence of conflict, the author can only describe his thought-up reality, a description enlivened then by adventure.

— True. Lower-grade SF lacks that Unknown in collision with which truth about man is revealed. Such SF limits itself to a description of an invented world which goes on until its exhaustion; and the details can be increased arbitrarily, even to infinity, so that there appear cosmic dilogies, trilogies, and epics....

— I don't understand completely. Isn't the unknown world your own Unknown?

— Oh, no! The world is only a form of its appearance.

— So we're not coming to the heart of the matter. Please be more concrete.

— All right, I'll try. Take, for example, Solaris. Lem introduces a rational element, that which is only to be apprehended logically — the endless variability of forms of life. This is the inner main idea of the book. It is embodied in a hypothesis about the living Ocean of Solaris. The world of the planet with two suns arises by necessity — try to place this idea within the framework of a model based on our everyday reality.

— Oh, now you are speaking almost simply.

— Evidently, there are problems which cannot be placed in a model of everyday reality. It's impossible — at least for the time being. That is why I called SF the path-layer, the bridge-builder.

— But what's the sense? Surely the point is not in the propaganda of the previously mentioned, vaguely scientific idea?

— Of course it isn't. Right here is the most interesting thing — when man tries to emotionally assimilate these so-called perspectives, a curious phenomenon arises: human emotions strongly resist accepting them. It's fully comprehensible by reason, by the intellect, but one has only to glance into that abyss — brr!

— But this is not always so. In an average SF story, or in Efremov, nothing of the kind happens.

— Not exactly, of course, but something similar always takes place — in any collision with the Unknown, man learns something about the unknown within himself as well. In Lem this always takes place intensely, for his Unknown is almost always the Other, something sharply opposed to the usual world; in Efremov it is more restrained — his unknown is most commonly a logical consequence of the already known, the usual.

— Yes, this is very likely true, and it is noticeable even in their favorite plots: in Lem, people (generally comprehensible, near to us, that is, personifying a world known to us) are immediately cast into a world absolutely mysterious and unknown; in Efremov, on the contrary, there are heroes unknown to us in a world familiar and customary for them. But we have got away from the issue. You were talking about the hypothesis and had begun to give examples....

— Well, they can be cited ad infinitum. The main point is not in examples. I would rather add that behind the hypothesis (which is often taken as the main thing in SF), behind the material which appears to be connected with the factual data of science, there is always concealed a deeper problem, a more general idea. Take a hypothesis as widespread as Contact of Civilizations. In the case of Efremov, it allows him to pose the problem of cosmic brotherhood, whence arise thoughts about laws of the development of intelligence in the universe; Lem uses it differently, for the problem of Understanding and Non-understanding; while the Strugatskys are interested in the acts of people, their moral criteria, their evaluation — their problem is Interference and Non-interference, more precisely, which ways and means would distort neither the ends nor man himself. This happens with any hypothesis: it allows one to express a problem, or a perspective, which would be impossible in a "real" model simply because it is not within the real experience of man. I have in mind the ordinary man, the hero of the book. In SF, in its nonexistent world, the problem can be shown purified of "superfluous" concreteness, in all its logical purity. Try putting man before the infinity of space or time. Let him see a new horizon of the world in which he lives, as this horizon is seen from the heights of science, giving a whole view of the world. Open before him the old sheaf of "eternal themes" as it is seen in today's scientific picture of the world. All these problems are endless, in the sense that in their "general" form they require all of mankind — in a model based on everyday reality. And this itself already disqualifies the "real" model. The hypothesis becomes the sought-after final form of this infinite content, the nonexistent world — its setting....

I took a breath and looked at him.

— I'm listening to you, — he said.

— Conflict in SF begins where man collides with what is to him unknown. Where these two opposing sides are not found, there is also no "resistance of material," only the overcoming of which can yield something new about man, and no "stuff of reality," for in the end SF is cognition of reality. There remain only pseudo-invention, arbitrariness, all-permissiveness.

— I've almost stopped understanding you,— he said unexpectedly. You have introduced some of your own terms, not explained them, and now you are forming a concept — from what? What is your "rationalistic knowledge of the world?" What is this notorious "hypothesis" after all? All of this is general and vague. I could cite dozens of examples not fitting into this scheme....

— It's not surprising. I too could supply them.... You need the complete truth, but....

— No, it is you, I see, that want truth in the last instance. But this is nonsense. Don't you notice that you yourself have begun to force SF into the narrow limits of definitions? The whole trouble is that you take the SF of today as a single static picture. An instant in the literary process you identify as the process itself, erasing historical boundaries. SF is diverse, as you have already been forced to acknowledge. But surely it is still developing!

— Yes, of course. You want to tell me that SF cannot appear at all, until science....

— I'm not about to repeat Dneprov.3 I only want to instill life into your scheme. Just think, the fantastic method of SF has existed for a long time. It has been said that all of Shakespeare may consist only in the fact that Hamlet is chattering with a shadow. And Macbeth with the witches. And Pushkin's Evgeny with the Bronze Horseman, Ivan Karamazov with the devil. Or do you think that the whole point is the religiousness, as it were, of Dostoevsky or Shakespeare?

— There you are! Probably there do exist problems not fitting into a "real" model. But with you they strongly smell of nonexistent problems. On the contrary — they already exist in the logical abstract thought of man, or if you like, mankind. Otherwise what kind of a cognition of reality would that be? And these are, in my opinion, ideas in their pure form. Pushkin needed to bring together the little, "simple" man with the idea of autocracy and forcible progress. Not with Peter the Great as a person — that would have remained within the usual framework; no, but with the bare essence of that grandiose phenomenon in the history of Russia that was Peter. This essence does not have a place in real time and the space of real events....

— Essence is inseparable from concrete existence! — I intoned edifyingly.

He screwed up his eyes.

—Should we begin an old argument — where do general concepts exist?

—Oh, no,— I responded. — I had just this in mind — the higher thought advances through degrees of generalization, the higher the literary hierarchy: allegory, symbol, SF as a device — that is what you were talking about just now; and finally, the establishment of SF as a method.

—Yes,— he interrupted, —but of course this stage has its own degrees. Wells, Belyaev, Alexei Tolstoy in their models as a rule do not wander far from the existing. For they work on problems which spring from the philosophy of science in their own time, and which are often of a sociological, satirical, sometimes purely cognitive character....

— I don't agree with you about Belyaev. The world of Belyaev only strongly resembles the already existing one, but it is in reality just as far from it as the world of Aleksandr Grin.4 Belyaev's world is a fairy-tale world, dressed up in contemporary clothes.

— Well, now that we have come to the fairy tale: it was the first attempt to explain the world, to see, behind the phenomena, their causes and essences. If you like, the fairy tale was an original, pre-scientific philosophy about the world, pre-scientific science. And SF, which first arose out of the fairy tale, the myth, was already at that time scientific in the wider sense, that is, connected with a general picture of the world. But with the development of science new problems arise, still more abstract ones — since that is in line with such development — and then models of the "purely" nonexistent, prevalent in contemporary SF, become unavoidable.

— It seems that you are right. We are getting to know better the general laws of our existence and the existence of nature — that gigantic field of science in the narrow sense of the word. Is not the striving of literature to assimilate this colossal unknown expanse what creates the growing role of stylization or literary convention in the 20th century? It is curious indeed that parallel with this we observe the rapid rise of SF from a device to an artistic method of cognition...

— Now you have really got off the track!— he looked at me somewhat strangely. —SF, then literature in general, then you undertake to solve the main question of philosophy....There is no "convention" in general, there are only particular conventions, dictated by the problem. One may push one time into another — as Wells did — and reveal by this contrastive superposition several essentials of our epoch with unusual sharpness. One can carry out a spatial superposition, placing a nonexistent world into the real one, as with Swift. Sometimes it is sufficient to introduce into the real world only the blasting wire of hypothesis in order to detonate the habitual, established maps of perception and the caked layers of notions, and reveal underneath them the sought-after value. Didn't Čapek do just this? You are right, all of this is SF, but differing in level of development, in aims, and hence in means. And aims as well as means are provided by the age, by history.

What if it turns out that it is not the hero of the SF story who faces the Unknown, but the reader?

— To my mind that is the whole point. Otherwise it would not be art. The Unknown is that which the SF writer has realized, but which the reader does not yet know. The complexity of SF is that it is not interested in showing to the reader certain events, nor certain essences concealed within them, but that it more or less straightforwardly shows him the essences, and not all of them at that. Swift and Čapek, Wells and Lem, take on the entire world, the whole history of mankind; they proceed not from the cell of the organism to the whole, but vice versa.

—Yes, I'm prepared to agree with such an interpretation of my "rationalistic knowledge of the world." I'm reminded of a good term — "making it strange" or "estranging."

— Presenting the habitual as strange, as though it were foreign, unexpected, and thus forcing one to see it in a new light?

— Yes. This is what happens in stories of the "Robinson Crusoe" type — every thing, every human action, the atoms of existence, all seem to be seen anew. SF is a continuous "Robinson Crusoe" story, its desert islands are its models. It makes strange or estranges our political, ethical social reality, taking it in the main, as a whole....

A pretty picture! And what does the usual SF story estrange? You have run to an extreme again!

— Oh, no! That is very simple. In such a story the hypothesis is the hypothesis, and the unknown is simply the not yet known. The reader appropriates a piece of scientific reality, a piece of the world in which he lives without suspecting it, just as M. Jourdain did not suspect that he spoke in prose. Our hero has grown accustomed to billions of electron-volts: accustomed without having understood. It is just these billions which are estranged in the story.

— Somewhat strained. You started off more simply and surely: the hypotheses of the SF writer introduce the reader into the world of the rationalist conceptions of science, a world which you cannot express through real life, if only because in life you don't run into either infinity, or electrons, or the mystery of time or of entropy.

— The point is not that they introduce him. You are narrowing things down. The books about scientists by Daniil Granin or Mitchell Wilson5 can also introduce you into that world...

— They are quite different. The infinity you were mentioning can appear there only as an object of the reasonings and reflections of the hero, but not as something material, standing before man and forming the world in which he lives. In order to create such a materialized situation you can't do without SF.

— Even if that is so, you overlooked that the SF hypothesis often speaks about that which can never be!

— No, I have taken that into account. You said yourself that science supplies to SF not only the factual content of the hypothesis, but, more important, the problem behind it as well. The main thing is to familiarize the reader with concepts and problems, and not with facts. Popular scientific literature familiarizes him with facts.

— Rubbish! Does not Granin give the reader concepts and problems?!

He became confused.

— The point is evidently that popular scientific literature cannot give us the main thing — vicarious experience. It is in the pursuit of the Unknown that the enticement of the SF story lies.

— But this is a false Unknown! The "discoveries" which the stories talk about do not exist, and possibly never will!

— What matters is not to discover one more strictly scientific fact, but to feel oneself as a cognizing person. In a most unusual synthesis, the instinct of cognition is here satisfied in an artistic form. This is artistic cognition, sensory, in images. The simplest examples are our conceptions of the future — surely they are as a rule collections of abstract concepts. Our dreams about the future are helplessly logical, they lack sensory framework, imagery.

— And here the SF writer comes in?

— Yes, it's here that he appears, and provides a form for these vague notions. The average reader of SF pictures the future in an immeasurably more precise and concrete way than one who does not read it....

— But surely these are arbitrary forms!

— No, that is just what they are not. Their concreteness is in some ways arbitrary and subjective, but through it there shine the same general laws which the imagination of writer and reader necessarily submits to, the laws of history. Thus, through subjective and concrete artistic forms, the reader becomes more deeply and intimately associated with these laws. SF goes from known general laws to concrete representations, to the reality of the senses, and through this — to an estranged sensory comprehension of these general regularities. In "normal literature" it is almost the reverse: from the familiar concreteness of its life it goes to the generalization discovered by the artist, and through it to a deeper understanding of the concrete.

— If this is so, then it will be true for all SF. In one case the object will be the concepts of science, in another the concepts of morals, sociology or philosophy, but the purport will be identical. SF "humanizes" science anew, in the wider sense of the word. Not depriving it of its rationalistic privilege, it lays an artistic, emotional bridge to it. But, of course, not in the form of those naive comparisons, with which the popularizing booklets abound.

He became pensive. Then he shook his head.

— I agree with some of what you have said. One can, for example, understand the inclination of SF and so-called "eternal" themes: the literary, or more precisely, human tradition plus the new possibilities.... Estrangement? Hardly anyone has shown us so precisely as Lem, in Solaris, our human conscience, our strength and weakness, in its terrible concrete form; and probably, he is right.... You know, the "plot time" in SF, its nonexistent world, is really strange. In Lem's philosophical works, it is a purely "logical" time, timeless, so to speak. But in Wells, in Efremov, in the stories, let us say, of Dneprov — it is truly a future time. Generally speaking, SF creates a sort of special literary space, a space and time of pure problems, of rational essences of the world....

— Are you getting off on a game of definitions now?

He shrugged his shoulders.

— What are we to do? It's evidently firmly established in us.

I grinned at his face, now good-natured.

— Well, tell me, what is science to SF?

He smiled.

— I could quote the words of Wells. He says that he merely replaced the intervention of a magician by an interview with science. For him the role of science is reduced to that of the lever transposing events into the place of the nonexistent; there, on this plane, Wells unites both aspects of the fairytale ("intervention of a magician") — the fulfilment of wishes, and social critique. His world of fulfilled wishes also turns out to be the best social critique.

— That is acceptable,— I responded. —It is fully comprehensible why Wells, defining the role of science in SF, points out the genetic link with the fairy tale. Such a definition would also suit Bradbury. A lyricist, a romantic, and a storyteller, he is closer to Wells than is the analytical Dneprov. And, of course, Dneprov has his answer to my question: it is based on a conception of SF as a means for demonstrating scientific progress. For this is what Dneprov's SF is. Science is necessary to SF in all of its aspects, for SF begins with a scientific interpretation of the world, be it the world as a whole or any part of it, but always taken in motion, in tendencies, in hidden regularities which have no sensory existence and therefore exist in concepts.

— And so, speaking of science, you have in mind not concrete sciences, but a general scientific method of approach to the world, a world view?

— Have you only now understood that? Of course. And to the degree to which the SF writer's vision expresses — correctly expresses — a scientifically based picture of the world, his SF is scientific. It is not integrals that decide the fate of this definition, but correct divination or comprehension of laws governing integrals and the fates of people. But the meaning now covered by this definition is narrow. In the last tales of Lem, for example, in the tale about the machine which knows how to make everything beginning with the letter "N"6 — the use of science in that narrow sense is purely terminological. The "machine" has for Lem the same function as Gulliver's ship had for Swift. In his times the way to the Unknown lay across the ocean; now it is through space or the laboratory, but both are only a tribute to tradition, to the habit of the age. Where others were discovering Spice Islands, Swift revealed a whole world, its history, politics, morality.

— This means that both Bradbury — about whom it has been written that he is considered an SF writer by misunderstanding, since he hates science — and American SF with its "war of each against each" at all times and for all space, are also SF?

— In my view, yes. How, essentially, does Bradbury differ from Wells, or Asimov from Dneprov, as an SF writer? Bradbury and Asimov express one side of a scientific view of the world and history, while Wells and Dneprov see both aspects. This is the difference between metaphysics and dialectics. But they share the same initial impulse — they all start from science.

— Your science began by gaining in scope, but by now it's lost all of its outlines. You are speaking now not so much about science itself as about the interpretation of its results, about the understanding of its paths and, in essence, the paths of history? Anyway, if you talk about world — view, you must take it just this way.

— I'm talking about science as a picture of the link between phenomena, their interaction and development, which gives an understanding of causes and consequences. This is not a catalog of facts.

— But without facts....

— Who is arguing with this? But if you look into SF, you will see it needed just this, a scientific world-view. That is what fertilized SF, determined its main objectives and the direction of its interests. And that marks the boundaries of the camps....

— Of what camps?

— SF has its camps. If you like, directions.

— You're talking about metaphysics and dialectics?

— No, with metaphysical SF all is relatively clear. Deriving from science a metaphysical lesson, the SF writer, voluntarily or involuntarily, stops movement, takes its congealed element, and in that very way immediately violates the proportions of the world which he is investigating. He ruins his own method.

— Even Bradbury?

— Bradbury, and Asimov, and Szillard — they brilliantly analyze the frozen instant, but because of this they have nothing to predict. Their worlds are without exit, closed, an eternal, agonizing, torture-like repetition of one and the same thing.

— Well. This means that for you metaphysics is identical with a final pessimism?

— In the final analysis the whole American fantastic apocalypse grows out of a metaphysical view of history and the role of science in it. But Bradbury, Szillard — they defend man in this hell, they can, in the moment torn out of time, reveal the fears and doubts of the human soul, and although they cannot show the hopes, they can call forth in us empathy and understanding. But the others — all these "Black Hundreds" from cosmic haunts — they defend nothing, reveal nothing, behind them is emptiness....

— All right, continue ... and dialectics gives a final optimism?

— Historical optimism.

— Again pretty pictures?

— No, I simply don't know a more generally accepted term. More succinctly, I am for a complex optimism, and against unthinking cheerfulness.

— We fit the universe to our own measure?

— The matter is not so much in the universe, as in man, in relating to man: acknowledging his complexity, his contradictions, at times tragicalness; understanding that history is not manna from heavens, not a through highway into the kingdom of reason and humanity. In it there are blind alleys, back ways, enormous turns on which mankind's head spins; at times mankind has to retreat. We still know very little about the future, and thus about the past, about ourselves.

— But where does SF come in?

— SF still attempts to foresee. In each of its models, in the very collision of man with the Unknown, there is a concealed necessity of precognition, a purely fantastic element.

— But you have rejected modeling of the future!

— As the essence of SF, but not as one of its elements. Here we're talking not about the future, but about the possible, not about imaginary achievements, but about the price of these achievements, the human price.

— So it is not so much the possible facts as their consequences?

— Something of that sort. And this is where the SF writer's vision of the world, his understanding of man and history, comes into play. And optimism turns out to be of various types.

— More precisely?

— I would define these camps in this way — relativism and anthropocentrism. The main method of the first is doubt, a denial of today's myths and dogmas. This yields the possibility of demolishing established concepts, of stirring up a living, searching thought, of guarding against rosy optimism. The main method of the second is a straightforward affirmation of the ideal.

— Relativism — this, surely, is Lem and his warning?

— It is not only Lem. It is a whole trend.

— And your sympathies, naturally, are on Lem's side?

— These are my personal sympathies, but it seems to me that there is something objective in them. You understand, there is a most attractive myth — the myth of all-powerful man. It is attractive, for it gives meaning to our life, our struggle, but danger lurks within it as well....

— But why anthropocentrism?

— Because there is a real danger of crossing over from faith in all-powerfulness to faith in being chosen, in the chosen nature of earthly man, and not of an intelligent creature in general. In anthropocentric SF the universe and history lose their qualitative richness, and become only variegated — quality degenerates into external differences.

— You are right, in the sense that in SF, anthropocentrism really lies at the basis, albeit invisibly, of many, many things. Efremov....

— Efremov — he is the height of anthropocentrism. His Andromeda Nebula develops this theme fully; for all history and for all the universe. Strictly, such a sweep in one book became possible only due to an inner conviction in uniformity. In this grandeur is the greatness of the book, and its role in SF. It is not for nothing that it seems almost impossible after Andromeda to add anything to the Efremov picture — it would just appear to be a detail.

— That means, the success of Andromeda is connected, in your opinion, with its anthropocentric spirit?

— To a significant degree. One is impressed by the magnificent picture of the triumph of reason, by the unexpressed but evident thought of the great calling of man in the universe, which furthermore coincides with one's inner, unconscious conviction and conducts it to its logical completion. This picture seems especially near to one also because, wandering in the cosmos with Efremov's heroes, nowhere does one meet the Unexpected, the Other — the diversity of forms of matter is, in Efremov, shaped like a pyramid: at its height is one point, human society, in essence repeating our Earthly society (e.g. the humans of Epsilon Toucani in Andromeda, or of the fluorine planet in Heart of the Serpent). And this is not accidental — otherwise we could not have had the yearning of Mven Mas and experiment of Ren Boz, nor the (generally speaking, strange) proposal in Heart of the Serpent to recast the humans of the fluorine planet into the "oxygen" model.

— So you deny this pyramid?

— I wouldn't take it upon myself to assert it. The myth of being chosen may easily turn into anthropocentric narrowness. From faith in man, complacency and reluctance to acknowledge the possibility of anything other can arise. The Andromeda Nebula is a scientific variant of this myth, projected onto the future.

— And Efremov's later novel The Razor's Edge continues this trend?

— No, it rather precedes it. It is a treatise on "singleness of solution" of the system of historical equations. Razor's Edge deals with the transition from the past to the present: it is asserted that the laws of nature and society operate with iron consistency and select only what is expedient. All the complexity and accidental uniqueness of social conditions on Earth are passed over as though they did not exist. It follows that our contemporary society, our inner world, our aesthetic and other criteria, cannot help but recur in each little corner of the universe: Razor's Edge complements Andromeda. Not only society — even the man-like external form of intelligent beings is brought about by a rigid linear necessity which makes it possible to claim for it a universal nature — remember his early story Star Ships!

— You don't agree with this idea?

— No. Kolmogorov's idea about a reasoning mold, like Lem's hypothesis about a reasoning Ocean, despite all their biological inexpediency, even implausibility, seem to me significantly deeper: they allow us to see ourselves as one small part of a great world of intelligence, to see ourselves from the side — as a great common phenomenon....

— That means the writers should think up beings as different from us as possible?

— Oh good Lord! How could you have become so slow-witted? SF writers should bring mankind into collision with itself.

— Now I understand: a collision not simply with the next mystery of nature or with the "difficulties of growth," but with the Other, of the same rank as man or mankind, so that in this collision one can comprehend the measure of one's strength and weakness, the measure of what reason and emotions can accept, the measure of limitedness and limitlessness — is this what you have in mind?

— Yes. And not the myth of Man the All-powerful. No, there is incomprehension and nonacceptance, there is often defeat — but of what a kind! How much higher is man in this defeat than in his victorious procession through time and space! Anthropocentrism sweetly lulls man's thought; the Other frightens him — already he cannot think otherwise than in analogies. Whereas the sense of SF lies in giving mankind another view on itself: a view from the side. Science contains within itself the latent possibility of such a view, and SF realizes it. What is revealed in this collision — the endless repetition of our world, or the relativism of our conceptions — depends on the direction of the author; for the potential "results" of science are double-edged.

— And is that all you are interested in? Where, after all, is SF as literature: its images, its correlation with reality, its artistic methods?

— Read Prutkov: it's impossible to grasp the ungraspable.7 And as for images, I'm not convinced that all of SF will take up the human image as a solution for its problems....

—Hm-yes ... mmm....

I glanced at him: well of course! He was sleeping, shamelessly sleeping, having disconnected all receptors but the auditory ones and set himself on the automatic program of "affirmation."

Here ended the fantasy. A noisy railway compartment, arguments, a robot-double. Night, and a train speeding — where to? — and my unfinished pursuit of the unknown.

NOTES (by DS and D. Scoones)

1. I.e. Fantastika, 1964 god (Moscow: Mol. gvardiia, 1964) — the SF anthology in which this article first appeared.

2. Gennadiy Gor — contemporary Soviet Russian SF writer, wrote first a number of novels and stories about scientists, and then began publishing SF in 1961, stressing the problems of consciousness, time, and artificial personality. The article most probably refers to the stories in his book Kumbi — Strannik i vremia (1963). See for his publications Darko Suvin, Russian Science Fiction 1956-1974: A Bibliography, US 1976, part 1, for the translations into English and French the same book, part 2, and for criticism about him the same book, part 3. This bibliography should also be consulted for the other references to Soviet SF, such as those to Belyaev, A.N. Tolstoy, Dneprov, Efremov, and the Strugatskys.

3. Anatoliy Dneprov (pseud. of A. Mitskevitch) — contemporary Soviet physicist and SF writer, began publishing SF in late 1950s, stressing cybernetic themes. In the first half of the 1960s he also published a number of critical essays pleading for a close reliance of SF on natural science. With the dominance of "socio-philosophical" SF of the Strugatsky kind, he has almost ceased publishing SF. See note 2, and also his stories and the Introduction in Darko Suvin, Other Worlds, Other Seas (US 1970).

4. Aleksandr Grin, Soviet writer of numerous romantic and symbolical fantasy novels between the World Wars; has exerted a great influence on later Soviet SF.

5. Daniil Granin, postwar Soviet writer of novels about the life of scientists, such as Into the Storm and Those Who Seek; he later also wrote an SF story. Mitchell Wilson, contemporary US writer, wrote two novels on science and scientists.

6. Stanislaw Lem, "How the World Was Saved," in The Cyberiad (US 1974).

7. Kozma Prutkov, pseudonym for the Russian 19th Century humorists A.K. Tolstoy and the brothers Zhemchuzhnikov.



In a freeform imaginary dialogue, the author and his robot double Anti-I debate the role of science in science fiction, touching also upon the genre's modes of artistry, its significance in contemporary life. What is science to science fiction? Is it important in the work of such major writers as Bradbury or Lem? Perhaps an adequate definition of SF would insist only that the genre always portray the conflict created by humanity's encounters with the unknown. The purpose of science fiction is to give mankind another view of itself, a view from the side. Science contains within itself the latent possibility of such a view, and SF realizes this. What is revealed in SF's staged collisions between humanity and the Other depends on each author, however, for the potential impact of science and technology is always double-edged. The writers discussed range from Wells, Bradbury, Asimov, and Swift to Lem, the Strugatskys, Efremov, Belyaev, Alexei Tolstoy, Čapek, and Granin.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes)Back to Home