Science Fiction Studies

#42 = Volume 14, Part 2 = July 1987




Daniel Gerould

Alexander Bogdanov, Founder of Soviet Science Fiction

Alexander Bogdanov. Red Star: The First Bolshevik Utopia. ed. Loren R. Graham & Richard Stites, trans. Charles Rougle. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984. x+257pp. $12.50 (paper).

Best known as a Bolshevik activist, one-time co-worker with Lenin, and theorist of proletarian culture, Alexander Bogdanov (1873-1928) was also a physician, man of science, creator of tectology (systems analysis and organizational principles), and founder of Soviet SF. Less a novelist than a thinker who uses fiction to express his ideas, Bogdanov is the author of two utopias combining modern technology and "scientific" Marxism: Red Star (1908) and Engineer Menni (1913). Except by reputation, these important works have until recently been inaccessible to all but Russian specialists; the first English translation of Red Star appeared in the anthology Pre-Revolutionary Russian Science Fiction, edited and translated by Leland Fetzer for Ardis in 1982. Now a second English version of Red Star, along with Menni, its sequel dealing with the prehistory of the Martian socialist utopia, is available in the Indiana UP series devoted to Soviet history, politics, society, and thought. A believer in the power of collective creativity, Bogdanov is well served by the team of two editors and a translator, who together have prepared the new volume. The English versions of the novels, which in the original make no pretense of being stylistically distinguished, are free and lucid, and the Introduction and Afterword offer valuable historical and critical interpretations, stressing Bogdanov's ambivalent vision of utopia. In order to appreciate Bogdanov's accomplishment, it is necessary to put Red Star and Engineer Menni side by side and read them together.

Bogdanov's imaginative predictions for his utopia are both technological and social: radioactive energy, rockets, computerized factories, data retrieval, as well as sexual liberation, unisex clothes, genderless grammar and names. Even more farsighted are the author's anxious forebodings about the limits and costs of the utopian future. Bogdanov's revolutionary optimism is tinged with existential despair; the new Golden Age is menaced by inevitable apocalypse. Technological triumphs bring the dystopian problems of a post-industrial society to Bogdanov's socialist paradise. An ever-growing population faces shortages of food and natural resources, over-exploitation destroys the environment, prolonged life leads to suicide clinics, dangerous underground industries threaten health and cause nervous disorders.

Drawing upon Wells and Western SF for the myth of superior beings on Mars with advanced technology, as well as upon the then popular theory of Martian-made canals, Bogdanov in Red Star uses the already classic formula of the visitor from outside voyaging to the alien country and then returning home. During the revolution of 1905, Martian agents on Earth choose the social revolutionary Leonid as the human most fit to come with them to their planet and see the future in operation, both because Russia is the country most attuned to the times to come and because Leonid personally is endowed with "as little individualism as possible" and therefore stands a chance of adjusting to a collectivist and egalitarian society. Just as in the 1920s and '30s the Soviet leaders would bring leftist visitors from the West to show them how well communism worked, so the Martians offer their guest a model for subsequent human social organization.

Told as a first-person narrative, Red Star presents Leonid's increasingly troubled reactions to the experiment; even such a progressive specimen of humankind cannot overcome residual individualism; and the bedeviled hero, feeling himself inadequate to the demands of collective life, grows demented and ultimately violent. Utopia on Mars is essentially anti-authoritarian and non-coercive; labor is voluntary, and there is an absence of politics and parties, but everything tends towards uniformity (including neutralization of differences between the sexes, although sexual life is unfettered and polygamous). Except for their bulging eyes, Martians resemble humans, but because their planet is farther from the Sun than Earth is, they have a lower metabolism and lack the vitality, diversity, and aggressiveness of humans; more subdued by nature, Martians are better suited to socialism.

To an earthling, such a utopia may seem drab and grey, and the future it proposes a nightmare, in which philosophy has been eliminated in the name of a monistic science and truth reduced to what produces results. It is not a happy or joyous society that Leonid discovers on Mars, but rather a disciplined one, doggedly struggling to survive against a hostile environment. For conflict has not been banished from Bogdanov's utopia, but instead of armed struggle against a class enemy (already vanquished), warfare is ceaselessly waged against nature. In these non- idyllic conditions, Martians retain a consciousness of  "the tragedy of life," although their art favors an idealizing neo-classical functionalism (anticipating Soviet socialist realism). The most surprising contradiction inherent in socialism on the Red Star is its active policy of colonialization. Refusing to limit its population on the grounds that any check on natural growth would be a capitulation to the elements, Mars must export its revolution and be an expansionist power. In fact, Venus or Earth is next to be colonized, and when Leonid learns that at a debate on which course of action to take, the Martian Sterni advocates exterminating all humans because socialism on Earth could only take deformed shapes (such as militarism, patriotism, and nationalism) the terrified earthling strikes dead the threatening enemy (who also happens to be a lover of the woman Leonid loves). Unable to rid himself of possessiveness and paranoia, Leonid must be sent back to Earth, where, confined to a mental asylum, he is diagnosed as the victim of a hallucination.

Usually considered inferior to Red Star, Engineer Menni, written five years later, is essential for understanding the earlier novel and quite as fascinating in its own right. In Engineer Menni, Bogdanov deals with the construction of the Martian canals in the 17th-century and the social revolution that results from this vast project. The author traces the history of Mars from feudalism through capitalistic enterprise to the beginnings of collectivism by means of family differences between father and son through three generations of the Aldo clan. When old Duke Ormen dies in battle, the aristocratic ethos perishes with him, and his son, reared according to democratic ideals, becomes Engineer Menni, the mastermind of the canals, who is in turn challenged by his illegitimate son, Netti, union leader and organizational theorist concerned with bridging the gap between the technocratic elite of specialists and the workers.

Unalike as the protagonists of Red Star and Engineer Menni at first seem--Leonid being the least egocentric of earthlings, and Menni the most individualistic of Martians--they emerge as functionally similar in the developmental structures of the two novels in which they appear, thereby suggesting a common theme: the dilemmas of adjustment to a new utopian order on the part of representatives of the past, even when they are eager to make the transition. When threatened as to their self-conceived roles, Leonid and Menni commit instinctive murders and eventually attempt suicide--Menni successfully by taking poison, Leonid in intention only, by flinging himself into violent revolutionary activity. In both cases, the two men--the radical earthling and the liberal Martian--are caught between the actual and the ideal, between an old order already obsolescent and a new one yet to be realized. As Leonid puts it, he is torn by the contradictions of living in two different historical epochs and plummeted toward the dark abyss.

Acute historical consciousness dominates Bogdanov's utopia; in the Martian language, even nouns have tense signs, indicating past, present, and future. In the short poem, "A Martian Stranded on Earth" (included in the Indiana Press edition of Red Star), Bogdanov gives a sketch of the final, unwritten volume in his projected trilogy: there the unhappy Martian states that humankind is captive to "the inherited past," and "Roads to the ideal...are paved with illusions and pain." In order to join Earth and Mars, the real world and the ideal, space and time must be conquered, death must be vanquished.

Before he dies, Engineer Menni has a series of apocalyptic visions--of the exhaustion of energy, of the dying Sun, of the end of life, of the engulfing void--and he must somehow overcome his nihilistic despair.

We have exploded and cast into the sun all of our planets in turn, except the one upon which we stand at this moment. The energy released gave us an additional hundred thousand years. We have spent most of that time trying to find the means to resettle in other solar systems. Here we have failed utterly. We could not completely conquer time and space. (p. 226)

The only hope lies in imagining that there are intelligent beings in other stellar systems to whom the Martian legacy of control over nature can be passed on. An almost superhuman figure in the guise of his son Netti appears to the dying Menni and predicts that as the planet comes to an end in a "huge explosion of atoms," our dead bodies and living cause will be cast out into infinite space "To our brothers, whoever they may be!"

Before Engineer Menni can find such solace in death, he must first confront a Satanic double (undoubtedly influenced by Ivan's similar encounter at the end of The Brothers Karamazov), who takes the form of the man he murdered and parodies his own individualist beliefs, revealing their reactionary basis. Declaring "I am the Vampire," the specter claims Menni as one of the same breed. Transforming ancient folklore and superstition into a "theory of the vampires," Bogdanov creates a parable to explain the evolutionary development of society; people, classes, ideas, and institutions outlive themselves and become vampires. They drink the blood of the living and are the enemies of the future. To fight the vampire within himself and escape the logic of history that would make him a corpse giving birth to corpses, Menni commits suicide.

In Red Star, the Martians practice mutual blood transfusions ("comradely exchanges of life") to prevent aging and promote health. Bogdanov himself believed in such exchanges and established a Soviet Institute for Blood Transfusion. In 1928, knowing that such an experiment could well prove fatal, he exchanged his blood with a young student who had both malaria and TB; as a result of the transfusion, the author of Red Star died; the "brother" to whom he passed on his life blood is still living in the USSR. Bogdanov, who thought that only ongoing creativity could triumph over death, was an inverse vampire, letting his blood be sucked for the future.

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