# 15 = Volume 5, Part 2 = July 1978
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
— 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
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
— 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
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
— 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
— 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
— 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,
— 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
— It's not surprising. I too could supply them.... You need the complete
— 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
— 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
— 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
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?
— 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
— 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
— 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
— 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
— 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
— 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
— 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
— 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
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.
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