Science Fiction Studies

#31 = Volume 10, Part 3 = November 1983

Daniel Gerould

On Soviet Science Fiction

Jacqueline Lahana. Les mondes parallèles de la science-fiction soviétique. Lausanne: L'Age d'Homme, 1979.160 p. FF. 45.00.

Leonid Heller. De la science-fiction soviétique: par dela le dogme, un univers. Lausanne: L'Age d'Homme, 1979. 296 p. FF. 70.00.

These two French studies, both published in May of 1979 by L'Age d'Homme in Lausanne as part of the series "Outrepart," deal with the same subject, the "golden age" of Soviet SF (1956 to the early 1970s), from distinct vantage points and with different goals in mind. Yet despite their contrasting approaches and methodologies, the two authors reach conclusions that are not at all dissimilar, and together their books provide a comprehensive survey of Russian SF.

Designed as an introduction for French readers who have little prior knowledge of the subject, Jacqueline Lahana's Les mondes parallèles de la science-fiction soviètique is a short and straightforward work, offering a brief history and analysis of Soviet SF and its antecedents in Russian literature. The author has chosen a limited number of stories and novels for study, primarily those most frequently cited in Soviet criticism plus a few others not tolerated in the USSR, such as Zamyatin's We, which Lahana calls "the first true masterpiece of Russian SF." After discussing how Russian SF evolved from a branch of popular literature akin to the adventure story, the author concentrates on the creative post-thaw period, ushered in by the publication of Yefremov's Andromeda in 1957, during which Soviet writers could find in SF a holiday from the restrictions of socialist realism as well as a cover for criticizing contemporary life in the USSR.

Lahana divides her study into four sections: the utopian world, the non-utopian world, parallel worlds, and critical responses. Focusing more on the picture given of the USSR than on individual works, Lahana describes the nature of the Communist utopia that emerges from Soviet SF, drawing comparisons with earlier works, both Russian and Western. Glass is the symbol of the Future Society, which will be free, luminous, and open--an image derived from the Crystal Palace in Nikolai Chernyshevsky's socialist utopian novel, What Is To Be Done? (1863), which provoked Dostoevsky's ridicule in Notes from the Underground. As opposed to the classic Western utopias, where leisure is glorified, Soviet SF celebrates the joys of work. Individuals are submissive to the collectivity. Lahana points out that Soviet SF utopias are seen only from within, not from the outside by a stranger critical of their values, and they thus appear in accord with official Soviet ideology, at least on the surface.

Although censorship makes it impossible to show anti-utopias except as capitalist, fascist, or dictatorial-technocratic, in the genre of "cautionary" literature with its negative examples there are oblique means for the Soviet SF writer to turn the criticism back on Soviet society. Parallel worlds reflecting contemporary life offer a model for contrasting the ideal with the real. Here Lahana discusses in some detail two master works by the Strugatsky brothers: The Snail on the Slope, which was suppressed, and The Ugly Swans, which could not be published in the USSR.

According to Lahana, Soviet writers of SF adopt a paradoxical double vision. On the one hand, they seem to endorse official Soviet "optimistic ideology in a communist utopia set in a vague and distant future; on the other hand, under the guise of anti-utopias set elsewhere, they give, through Aesopian indirection and allusion, a devastating picture of a corrupt, crushing bureaucracy and police state that exist here and now. Are these artists ambivalent, still believing in the ideal, while at the same time denouncing present abuses? Or is their depiction of the far-off utopia simply a smoke screen intended to bribe the censor so as to be able to utter the forbidden? In any case, the author of Les mondes parallèles finds the Soviet SF utopias subversive of official ideology and rejects as false the supposed distinction between pessimistic American and optimistic Soviet SF.

Unfortunately, as a result of the controversy stirred up by the Strugatsky brothers' more daring work, the Soviet authorities put the lid back on any attempts to deal critically with contem- porary reality; and by making SF subservient to political pressure and state doctrine, they have clipped its wings. Lahana concludes, however, that the best Soviet SF has been a genuine avant-garde and succeeded in doing what recent Soviet literature has rarely done: provoking, shocking, astonishing.

Several times as long as Lahana's modest study, Leonid Heller's De la science-fiction soviètique: par dela le dogme, un univers is a much more ambitious and partisan work, attempting to place Soviet SF in the context of Russian literature and above all to prove that it has been a powerful oppositional force to socialist realism and Marxist dogma. Written in Russian and translated into French by Anne Coldefy, Heller's book appears to be addressed not simply to those interested in SF, but also--and especially--to those concerned with problems of Russian literature and culture seen against the political background. Obviously the result of many years of reading and reflection, this dense study contains detailed summaries of dozens of works, both major and minor, and alludes to hundreds of others. It is packed with theoretical speculations on matters of genre and is wide-ranging in its references, venturing far beyond the boundaries of SF to consideration of many aspects of art and philosophy. In fact, one of Heller's basic arguments is that SF becomes truly significant only when it transcends the pure genre, whose function is to entertain a mass audience.

Despite the welter of details, meandering erudition, and digressions into curious byways (such as the Soviet "colonial" novel of the 1920s as written by Khadi Murat Muguyev in imitation of Kipling), the central thesis of Heller's study is clear enough. Soviet SF is seen as a weapon in the post-thaw struggle to liberate literature in the USSR from the stranglehold of socialist realism and to return it to the mainstream tradition of Russian social and philosophical thought and re-establish ties with the great writers of the 1920s, such as Zamyatin, Bulgakov, and Platonov. Thus the book has a sharp polemic edge. For Heller, the essence of SF is its presentation of the unknown, alternative worlds, and new possibilities, and therefore it is the natural opponent of the monolithic conformist aesthetic of a state-imposed ideology.

Unlike his colleagues in the West, the Soviet SF writer is confronted by a wall of pseudo- reality, whose phantoms he must drive off, before he can deal with reality. Although Soviet SF had flourished in the 1920s as a part of literature, under Stalin it became a third-rate genre because it had to scale down its utopian vision to fit within the scope of the next five-year plan. According to the Stalinist "theory of limits," only technological problems of the immediate future could be anticipated, and only the Great Leader could foresee things to come. Visionary thinking became suspect, and the Stalinists worked to eliminate the imagination altogether.

According to Heller, the new Soviet SF writers of the 1950s end '60s looked to the 19th-century religious philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov and his ideas on the conquest of death, to the Oberiuty group of "absurdist" writers in the late '20s? and particularly to the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, who became their first model for the potentialities of the liberated imagination. His Solaris (1961) showed them the fragility of man's pretensions to absolute knowledge and revealed the falsity of the established canons, although Heller points out that the Russian translation of Lem's novel was, due to censorship, trimmed of its descriptions of dreams and fantastic visions representing the unconscious, the irrational, and the terrifying, which for the guardians of socialist realism were even more subversive than the Polish author's unorthodox ideas.

In its return to the great Russian tradition of satire, represented by Gogol, Saltykov-Shchedrin, Ilf and Petrov, and Olyesha, the new Soviet SF made effective use of fantastic humor, the grotesque, and the absurd, all of which are destructive of an imposed ideological framework. Here Heller makes a number of interesting observations about the subversive role of satire and humor in Soviet literature, while also stressing the fact that socialist realism has cleverly assimilated and co-opted under its own aegis whatever it could salvage of popular satire. And in a speculative aside, the author of De la science-fiction soviètique ponders the difference between the restrictive formal canons of Russian icon painting that produced great individual art, like that of Rublev, and the dogmas of socialist realism, rigidly ideological but without formal substance, that have borne no lasting fruit.

Like Lahana, Heller considers the Strugatsky brothers the greatest practitioners of the new SF and ranks their suppressed novel, the satiric, philosophical, and fantastic Snail on the Slope, among the very best examples of modern Soviet literature. Its independence from the state-approved canons is shown in the novel's multiform handling of time and space, the plurality of points of view, the demise of the almost divine power of the author and his angle of vision, the autonomous existence of objects putting man in the background and destroying his total control over the surrounding world, and the rejection of the required alternative of optimism/pessimism.

In an unorthodox reading of Yefremov (usually viewed as a spokesman for the traditional socialist viewpoint}, Heller argues that this modern Soviet SF pioneer, despite his apparent conformism in using conventional form, has challenged the official ideology by exposing the inadequacy of dialectical materialism and showing the necessity for a new spiritual philosophy. To support his contention, Heller points out the similarity Yefremov's system has with the cosmic spiritualism of the French theologian and Jesuit philosopher, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, also like Yevfremov a paleontologist and also directly influenced by the Russian scientist Vladimir Vernadsky. A discussion of Yevfremov's earlier historical tales written in the late 1940s reveals that the future SF author was a "thaw" author even before the thaw.

Heller's conclusion is that the great period of Soviet SF, from 1956 to 1972, produced the finest literature of the thaw and a worthy continuation of Russian social and philosophical thinking, as represented by Dostoevsky, Tolstoi, Leontiev, and Fyodorov. Among recent literature published in the USSR, only SF has been able to raise fundamental questions and construct philosophical systems counter to obsolete Marxist dogma, although when in the early 1970s the ideological screws were tightened, philosophical and satirical fantasy could no longer find a receptive home in SF published in the USSR and was forced to take refuge in clandestine literature. (Heller's book, incidentally, is handicapped by the lack of any index, and the extensive bibliography is based on a totally different system for the transcription of Russian names than that used in the body of the text. Further confusion results from the fact that due to technical problems, the necessary diacritical marks in the bibliography have all been omitted, leading to unrecognizable orthography and what appears to be chaotic alphabetization.)

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