Science Fiction Though the Decades

Sunday, August 28, 2016

2015: Red Star Tales (Howell, Yvonne)

Across the boards of time, composition, and society (3.5/5)

I came across Red Star Tales while searching for online for translated Russian science fiction. I had already bought some collections and novels, but most had been from the 1960s and 1970s—nothing recent. Considering that this 2015 publication fit in perfectly with my project—as mentioned above: reading translated Russian science fiction in 2016-2017—I knew I had to contact the publisher, Russian Life Books.

Paul expedited a review’s copy my way, which I quickly opened and slowly made my way through. Interspersing the stories throughout July, I kept synopses of all the stories for a later full review of each, which I published on Tongues of Speculation. In addition, Paul was kind enough to even put me in contact with Yvonne Howell, the editor, and together we shared our favorite and not-so favorite stories in the collection… but that’s nearly true for all collections.

What’s significant about Red Star Tales? It covers one-hundred years of science fiction, from 1892’s Fyodorv essay to 1992’s Lukyanenko story; through pre-Stalin Russia, the USSR Cold War, and post-Collapse Russia; and also having translated new pieces of work that had never been the light of day in English (all aside from the Strugatsky brothers’ “The Spontaneous Reflex” [1958/1961], which was first published in Soviet Science Fiction [1962] and translated by Violet L. Dutt). All covers from the well-kept fantlab.ru website, which I used heavily when researching the titles below.

My favorites, you may ask?

  1. The most intriguing for me would be Valery Tsiolkovsky’s two stories—“Rebellion of the Machines” (1908) and “Mutiny of the Machines” (1915)—about machine rebellion, both unfinished pieces of work; both, however, are also fertilely ripe for a full-length novel that probes the human dependence on machines, our trusting nature of technological acceptance, and our demise when these two fail.
  2. The single best story of the eighteen would be Alexander Belyaev’s “Professor Dowell’s Head” (1926), which was first published as a novelette but later expanded into a novel. The novelette version is included in this collection, yet I naturally eager to get my paws on the novel. The story itself is filled with plausible and intriguing science, deception by many parties, appealing gruesomeness and darkness, and layers of social commentary.
  3. The Strugatsky brothers’ “The Spontaneous Reflex” is still one of my favorites of the collection and of Russian science fiction. It can be viewed simply as a robot-on-the-fritz story that entertains, but the undercurrents of analogy run deep here—What does the robot represent? Why does it go haywire? What exactly stops its rampage?

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”Karazin: Meteorologist or Meteorurge?” (1892, essay) – Nikolai F. Fyodorov (3/5)
Synopsis: In a scientific essay, the author writes about the extraordinary theories and experiments of one man names Karazin. Where weather used to be a passive study of incremental measurements and eyewitness accounts, Karazin has taken the initiative to make the weather work for him. With a sense of social unity needed for his project’s success, the government passes in favor of a competing theory that has more practical and militaristic application, much to Karazin’s disdain. 7 pages

Analysis: I’m no physicist, not even at the armchair level, though I do find pleasure in particular physical science problems: e.g. What length of wire is needed for a 1mm coiled turning the size of a CD and how many turns will take? Karazin seems to be approaching a similar nasty feat of science: How to conduct electricity from the neither-regions of the atmosphere all the way to earth for general use. His theories seem plausible for 1892, I suppose, as it was passed by boards for study, but I found it rather implausible. Consider:

  1. Karazin wants to run a machine up to the highest, most energetic reaches of the atmosphere. This region between space and the atmosphere is called the Karman line, which is 62 miles (100 kilometers) above the earth.
  2. He wants to usefully conduct the electricity down to earth, so let’s use 0-gauge wire as the standard. It weighs about 1,687 pounds/mile; hence, Karazin would need about 52.3 tons of wire suspended in the air (assuming zero stretch).
  3. To lift 52.3 tons, hydrogen would be a good gas to use, but it’d have to be the size of four Hindenburgs: thirteen times the length and nine tines the height of a 747. It’d be big.
  4. Then there’s the cost… but that’s enough.

Aside from theoretical science, the essay also offers a little glimpse at a centuries-long struggle of science: a government’s sinister urging to use all science for war. Karazin envisioned the use of his invention to benefit all of mankind, but the government was only keen to progress the state along by other means.

One additional and surprising theme is religion. Early in the essay, the author paraphrases, “humanity is not meant to compete with nature, but only to regulate her” (33) and further toward the conclusion claims, “transforming the blind forces … should unite all of us” (36), which, according to the author, is a Christian tenet of conceding that life is good; opposite of this is the Buddhist mindset that believes life is evil.  Following this Christian tenet, it is the author’s opinion that science, through Karazin’s own invention, to establish “the interdependence between sentient being and the blind, unfeeling forces of nature” (35).

Review: As it’s an essay, there’s neither plot nor character. It hypothesizes uses of purported scientific progress with a philosophy of “non-secular transhumanism” (22). So, technically it’s not fiction but it is speculative. If you can cringe past the science, there’s a deeper nature to this brief essay, even if it’s a bit flowery at times.

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“On the Moon” (1893, novelette) – Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (2/5)
Synopsis: The writer of the account and his unnamed physicist friend awake to find themselves to peculiar conditions that they soon realize to be the low gravity of the moon. Though their trip is unexplainable, they don’t dwell on the reasons for their presence; rather, they take to the originality of their position and explore the feats they can accomplish, the sights they can see, and the extremes they can endure. Curiosity gets the best of the duo as they travel further and further with dwindling supplies and worsening conditions. 40 pages

Pre-analysis: Most, if not all, men are kids at heart. Given the right opportunity, a man can gleefully snicker to himself, widen his eyes at a whim, and geekishly indulge wherever he pleases. Admittedly, that’d be me with Lego’s, but I’ve seen other men turn to putty with the thought of creating overly complicated and cross-referencing Excel spreadsheets or preparing to watch a new episode of Star Wars. Most, if not all, men are geeks at heart. Kids, geeks… you get the idea. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s particular niche was the following: the moon was his playground, his mind was the child; fantasy the joyous currents of air between the two.

Analysis: Like most—note: not all—early science fiction, “On the Moon” follows a whimsical plot purely based on imagination without any finesse. The introduction states very clearly that it is “almost devoid fictional grace or plot tension” (11). Although the so-called plot is a far cry from literature, it does describe some phenomena upon the moon, which the introduction also mentions as accurately describing “the physical sensations of weightlessness, low boiling temperatures, disorientating diurnal rhythms, and other things a human being would encounter during a sojourn on the moon” (11). However, it reads a bit more interesting than an employee manual or grade school science textbook.

Review: As mentioned above, there’s very little—if any—literary merit. As one blogger has been quoted in the introduction as saying, it’s “a tine baby step for Russian literature, but a giant leap towards humanity’s era of cosmic exploration” (11). It may hold a place in the heart of Russian science fiction, but its artistic merits make it an irksome read if for anything other than a historical curiosity. Regardless of the poor writing style, Tsiolkovosky remains a pioneer of thought regarding humanity’s relationship with space, be it the moon or in orbit. He was a visionary. To synopsis his achievement in this regard, consider the author’s own epithet:

Man will not always stay on Earth; the pursuit of light and space will lead him to penetrate the bounds of the atmosphere, timidly at first but in the end to conquer the whole of solar space.1

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“Rebellion of the Machines” (1908, unfinished) – Valery Bryusov (4/5)
Synopsis: In the thirtieth century, everyday life is immersed in electricity, technology, mechanisms, and gadgets. Across the world, all this technological sophistication is run by a generator in each of earth’s eighty-four machine zones. Descending from zone to district to county, the power trickles down to meet demand. The mysterious nature of technology and its constant service to mankind takes a more sinister role—it begins to attack. Accidents soon appear to be murder by machine. 8 pages

Pre-analysis: The title of the story—which Google translated to “Rise of the Machines”, actually—evokes the image of the Terminator stalking after Sarah Connor. The horror of the first Terminator movies (let’s leave it at that because the sequels were simply bent on action scenes, tropes of time travel, and destruction) lies in the single-minded stalking of the Terminator, the pinpoint obsession of the Terminator to accomplish this one task: kill Sarah Connor. From Sarah’s perspective, she’s just a normal woman, yet, for some reason, she becomes the prey of a futuristic monster. The future is manifested in the monstrosity of the Terminator, and Sarah, as a result, fears what the future holds.

Whereas Terminator personalizes fear in the form of a single-minded machine stalking after a seemingly harmless woman, “Rebellion of the Machines” disassociates the fear to embody the everyday, tactile world: the telephone, elevator, tram, or light switch.

Analysis: Ignorance is bliss, until that same ignorance bites us on our ass, or in the case of “Rebellion of the Machines”, it electrocutes us to death via the earpiece on our phone. Complacency with the modern-day wonders around us is tantamount to the same proverb; we don’t fear them, of course, but at the same time, we don’t understand them. Our reliability on these devices sets us on the precipice of fatally ignorant when they begin to falter, go on the fritz, act up, or when the so-called gremlins wreck the works. We’re left helpless by our ignorance.

Nowadays, this helplessness can be witnessed by our panic when our laptops crash, when our phones don’t reboot from a fall, or even when a fuse (hey, some people are helpless in all situations). Revert your technology back 110 years… I’m sure they dealt with similar problems: your phonograph’s quality deteriorates quickly, your Brownie camera takes poor photos, your radio receiver is too staticky when receiving Morse code, your windshield wipers smear something terrible, your Model T has some funky steering, etc.

Regardless of the era, occupants of the time will experience their own form of helplessness against the “ghost in the machine”, be it digital computer, electric typewriter, pneumatic pump, or even pulley systems, levers, flints, fire, or rocks. Whenever we use technology—see any of the above—our widespread use of the device is far ahead of our widespread understanding of the same device. Imagine how many cavemen damned their deities when literally playing with fire—Ugg damn it!

Review: The story is sort of a precursor to a novel, much like a historical outline prior to writing the actual novel. Given that the time was 1908, this may well in fact have been the very piece that was going to be extended into its entirety, be it a novelette, novella, or even novel. At the end of the story printed in Red Star Tales, the story ends with “”I froze in [Editor’s note: the text ends here]” (85). Though only eight pages long, the entire length of the story is compelling in one way or another. It needs some editorial refinement, for sure, but it comes off well. If the story had ended with “I froze in” without the editorial note, the reader could have assumed that the author had met their fate via an electric typewriter, ballpoint pen, or fountain pen—intriguing, to say the least.

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“One Evening in 2217” (1906) – Nikolai Fyodorov (4/5)
Synopsis: Aglaya isn’t a young girl with her mind set on beginning a family. This has never been her prerogative until repeated remarks urge her to seek a path toward marriage and reproduction. Inexperienced in these matters, she registers to “visit” the famous Karpov for one evening. Immediately struck with shame, the memories haunt her and compels her to visit a friend. There, the two are interrupted by Pavel Vitinsky, who, it turns out, holds many of the same ideas as Aglaya—they see eye to eye in both figurative and literal senses. 19 pages

Pre-analysis: Initial love, like dawn at the first light, is superficial when the participants are at their dimmest: the spectator sluggish in the morning, the spectacle only breaching the horizon. At first sight, touch, and conversation, the mind and body are saturated with hormones that encourage courtship, much like the dusty heavens spellbind the eye toward its painted skies. Linger the eye upon that same spectacle for a while longer and that same eye will be blinded—set the heart’s expectations upon the same target for ever after that love-at-first-sight and that same heart will be blinded; therein, the sun has no care for the spectator, only the latter is hurt.

Analysis: Aglaya is a loner. She shares her emotions with no one and no one shares her ideas; thus, she is left as an island amongst humanity. Just as the continents drift, so too does Aglaya as she realizes that, as an island, she cannot thrive and develop alone. She bows down to the lowest common denominator, thus lowering herself and her standards, before reaching heights she never before knew possible—those same heights are propelled by the shared ideological interests of a mere boy. From this spring of ideology, Aglaya finally feels a sense of bonding that she had never known. As the trio of conversation becomes a duo of dialogue, she firstly quietly reflects on her choices in life before openly confiding in her escort, from which a Shakespearian comedy ensues.

Review: I prefer not to read any introduction to a story prior to reading the story itself so that it doesn’t contaminate my opinion or perspective of the same story. After reading “One Evening in 2217” and forming a palpable view of it, I finally read the introduction and was pleasantly surprised to see my opinion confirmed: “It is remarkable to find most of the essential themes of Evgeny Zamyatin’s brilliant dystopian novel WE (1924) already present in this under-acknowledged harbinger” (11). Perhaps it’s a tad too keen on highlighting the emotional proneness of proud individuals, but it does foreshadow the coming ideological intolerance of the Stalin years. Not only this, but it also plays on the role of females in early twentieth-century Russian society with a surprising take on sexuality, reproductive rights, and purity (be it body or mind, which is where the twist is turned in this story).

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“Mutiny of the Machines” (1915, unfinished) – Valery Bryusov (3.5/5)
Synopsis: From the nineteenth century on, inventions have become so common that any simpleton could conjure one up. On through the thirtieth century, mankind has progressed with ample forms of power including the powerful source of radium, but much if that power is for automation: trade, production, transportation among them, save for accounting. Aside from inventing, people have little activity in their lives, which doctors warn about due to illness stemming from their sedentary lifestyle. Meanwhile, all whim within the city can be theirs. 6 pages

Pre-analysis: Aside from speculation of the future relationship between man and machine, Bryusov adds only one section of number that refers to the world’s urban population. Consider the United States’ urban population from 1890 (29.2%), 1910 (46.3%), and 2010 (80.7%), which doesn’t account for the so-called megacities, only the urban areas. In 1910, megacities hadn’t even existed—New York was the first in 1950.

In “Mutiny of Machines”, Bryusov predicts that a quarter of earth’s five billion people will live in these same megacities (those with populations of over 10 million). While Bryusov predicted 112 cities, the figure in 2015 (with a global population of about 7 billion) was actually only 35, or about 47% of the world’s population. He may have overshot the mark in regards to the number, but considering that he tried to nail it more than 100 years ago, you can’t say he was far off the mark.

Analysis: With the population’s influx into the megacities, everything is at their convenience, which makes them all the most sloth. Power for the machines is readily available, and so all ways to implement this supply of energy is used, many ways, of course, are useless but not wasteful. As the unseen energy use increased, the population’s physical activity decreased, leading doctors to “issue warnings about muscular atrophy, decreased mobility, or impairments in arm movement” (110). Automation followed the population for dusk to dawn, from eye-rise to eye-shut; their entire world was provided by a press of the button, all carried out by machine.

Review: Unfortunately, the story stops there with the editor’s note, “the text ends here” (110), similar to the other Bryusov unfinished story “Rebellion of the Machines” (1908). If this, in fact, were the true end of the story, it might signify the laziness of the writer in modern times, unable to summon the effort to put pen to paper or to document not the mutiny of the machines, but the meekness of the masses (I love alliteration). Perhaps extended three- or four-fold, the story could have better taken a glimpse into life in the megacities… a bit of dialogue wouldn’t have hurt either rather than the didactic delivery of this story and “Rebellion of the Machines”.

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“Professor Dowell’s Head” (novelette, 1926) – Alexander Belyaev (4.5/5)
Note: The version from 1926 is a novelette while the 1937 version is the novel. The Macmillan and Collier editions are both novels; however, the Russian Life Books version is the novelette, which his reviewed here.

Synopsis: Miss Adams took an unusual job under the supervision of Professor Kern, even with his threats and temper. She soon meets the subject of her time while under employment: the detached yet still living head of Professor Dowell. Disregarding Kern’s threat, Miss Adams secretly opens an innocuous valve, which allows the head to speak and confess. She soon alliances herself with the head prior to beheading two other corpses for a scientific exhibition, where Miss Adams takes the soapbox for a hysterical rant. 45 pages

The Author’s Work: Belyaev is one of most accomplished SF writers from Russia with eight novels and nine short stories having been translated and published in English. His work began to be published in 1926, so considering that he died in 1942, he was quite productive and, posthumously, has been a shining example of Russian and Soviet SF literature.

Pre-analysis: You may never read such a tragic biography as the one of Belaev. After birth (1884), his father forced him to take a religions path in his life and entered him into a seminary, but, not feeling particularly religious, declared himself an atheist in a seminary. After his success as a lawyer, he became a writer, but during this time (1814) he contracted tuberculosis, which spread to his spine and paralyzed his legs. Not wanting for care for a crippled, his wife him. He convalesced in Yalta with his mother a nanny, took a few odd jobs in Yalta, but eventually found himself back in Moscow as a law consultant. He had two daughters, one which died in 1930, and lived until 1942, when he died of starvation after he refused to evacuate the town as he was recovering from an operation. The Nazis gave him an Orthodox ceremony or his interment, the exact place of which is not known. His wife and remaining daughter were sent a Nazi camp yet later returned to Russia only to be suspected of collaboration with the Nazis, thus being exiled to Siberia.

Analysis: The most pivotally traumatic point in Belyaev’s life came when his wife left his as he lay diseased, defenseless, and unable to care for himself. He must have hated his body for the state he was in, the hatred of which must have been a double-edged sword whose two edges were honed to lethal lines that attacked his body and mind. Surely, a better life could be had in the future, if not in reality than at least in fiction. Perhaps this is where Belyaev’s motivation came for some of this SF themes: organ and brain transplants, a procedure of which that only became reality in 1954 with the world’s first kidney transplant.

Belyaev’s 1928 novel The Amphibian revolves around the transplantation of gills, while his 1930 novella is about a brain transplantation from a man to an elephant. Prior to these two stories is “Professor Dowell’s Head”, which doesn’t feature a transplantation, as such, but the revival and sustainment of a detached, bodyless head. Perhaps in Belayaev’s grieving for the abandonment of his wife and the dereliction of his body, being a healthy living head would be preferable to having an ill body.

Professor Dowell actually headed (oops, a pun) the research that allowed him to have a detached the living head; his co-researcher—Professor Kern—is exclusively using his ideas to further his career and gain fame from the success. If Dowell doesn’t agree, what’s Dowell going to do—violently blink at Kern? With a good mind, Dowell concedes in doing to literature review for Kern, but he oddly doesn’t become morose with his stationary state. When Kern brings in two more victims for their bodyless experiment, the duo don’t fair as well.

Tom and Miss Watson are the next two heads, but their occupations don’t involve the use of their mind: Tom is a physical laborer while Miss Watson used to occupy her time with another physical use of her body. Now bodyless, the two don’t adjust as well to their state as Dowell. The rigors of occupying one’s mind doesn’t suit all walks of life, so only Dowell is able to withstand the hours of by using his mind. Here, Belyaev may be simplifying and exploring social class in that the intelligentsia is fine being secluded to their whims while the common laborers aren’t suited for a similar life.

Review: Not only is this story compelling from start to finish, but it also has some social overtones as mentioned above. Take these two perspectives in parallel with Belyaev’s personal history and the story suddenly becomes intensely personal. This doesn’t necessarily make the story better, per se, but it does bring it sharply into a contextual focus. Admittedly, the idea sounds corny from the 1920s, but Belyaev masterfully carries the idea through its plausibilities and social perspectives. This is much better that “Hoity-Toity”, which I didn’t care for at all.

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“The Lunar Bomb” (1926) – Andrei Platonov (3/5)
Synopsis: An ex-miner with big ideas better suited for the big city, Peter Kreuzkopf heads for the capital with his technical plans for sending a sphere into space. Surprisingly, his plan is passed by the board for approval and initial construction begins. Ignorant of his device’s own power, he electrocutes to death forty workers and soon is found of administrational malfeasance. Found guilty and imprisoned, he tries to take his life but is later restored to his own project that he had lost hope on. Still with a deathwish, he impresses upon the government for him to ride on his own device to the moon. 23 pages

The Author’s Work: Platonov was once heralded as a significant writer in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, just after the famine and right before the first Five-Year Plan in 1928. Both readers and critics found his work significant, but later drew unfortunate scorn from the State for his criticism of the system. Today, he better known for his novels Chevengur (1926, untranslated) and The Foundation Pit (1930/1987). According in Wikipedia:

In terms of creative works, Platonov depicted one of the first state-controlled dystopias of the 20th century. The novel is often compared to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. However, both English novels were published long before a translation of The Foundation Pit became available. (link)

Analysis: Though this story was written in the same year as he reputedly significant novel Chevengur, I didn’t find much of an anti-establishment or dystopian theme throughout; rather, dedication seems to be of importance here… perhaps with social parallels.

Peter Kreuzkopf is and always has been a common man, a working man. His marriage ended in disaster as she herself was a proletariat. They never managed to see eye to eye or share the same interests. As he is and always has been an engineer at heart, he could never adapt upward to the proletarian lifestyle of which his wife was so fond. Though he tried to dedicate himself to his socially lofty wife, he failed.

In the capital awaiting word of the success of his submission, Peter Kreuzkopf takes a freelance job testing cars. He only needs to take the car out and drive it so many kilometers before bringing it back for them to analyze the data. On his first drive, he swerves to miss an animal only to hit a small boy. Stopping the car and going to the boy’s aid, he sees that the youth was already dead. Solemnly, he buries the boy and promises to dedicate his life to the poor commoner boy. Though he tries to do so, one obstacle gets in the way: himself.

Bent of suicide, his last hope rested with the State to allow him to board his own experiment to fly to and orbit the moon. When even they denied him, he cut his last thread of dependence and fell back on the only person he had left: himself. With the legal system on his side, he takes a step closer to the death that awaits him, a death so righteous for such a man with limited perspective—the death of a hermit rather than a voyager.

Review: If you can think past the contraption that spins/revolves thousands or millions times per minute, maintain its integrity, and allow a human to survive on board before it’s flung—with precision, mind you—into the orbit of the moon… then there’s a mildly compelling tale of a man trying to find a toehold in the jagged façade of his society, where relationship fails him (wife leaves), his dedication fails (seems to forget the boy he killed), even his work fails him (he accidentally kills come workers). As he himself is the obstacle to all of the above, his last goal also finds himself as the obstacle—can he commit suicide? It may not be heroic, but it’s what his fate defines.

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“Rays of Life” (excerpt, 1939) – Yuri Dolgushin (2.5/5)
Synopsis: Collaborating, Nikolai and Ridan have a device and a method that’s able to literally kill a body and later revive it free of its previous symptoms of disease or illness. A number of other mammals have undergone the routine, each taking longer to revive as they move up the evolutionary ladder, so the current experiment with Anna is taking considerably longer. Amid the tense atmosphere, they discover a German spy who is bent on sabotaging their experiment, but their angst at success weighs more heavily upon their shoulders. 15 pages

Pre-analysis: “Rays of Life” comes between Belyaev’s original novelette “Professor Dowell’s Head” (1926) and Curt Siodmak’s novel Donovan’s Brain (1942), both dealing with prolonging the life of a disembodied mind. This vivification of life or the sustenance of the spark of life seems to be a trend during these three decades. Dolgushin isn’t a widely known writer in the sphere of English literature, neither in the literary sense nor in the genre sense. According to my resources, only the above-mentioned novel has been translated into another language—Romanian (1961). So, with Red Star Tales, this excerpt from a novel is the English-language sphere’s first exposure to Dolgushin.He’s also published screenplays, so-called sketches, and articles, but Generator Wonderland (1939) remains his only stand-alone novel.

Analysis: As this novel (the spy element of which involves a Nazi) was written on the eve of Europe’s descent into total war, perhaps the novel is best taken into context with the chaos that ensued from the war: shifting alliances, redrawing of borders, and the millions of deaths. Hitler invaded Poland in the same year as the story was published, the same year, also, when Russia invaded their own “spheres of influence”, according to their non-aggression pact in August, 1939.

“War is hell” is largely attributed to the American Army Civil War general named William Tecumseh Sherman. Hell on earth wasn’t limited to the American civil, but found more fertile and expanse grounds in Europe with World War One (around five million military deaths, one-third of which was Russian). World War Two, however, saw more than eleven million military deaths in addition to more than seven million civilian deaths. Russia knows hell very well, all too well.

But what if the plague (war) could be eliminated by killing the body (government)? Acts of aggression between nations can only be perpetrated by heads of government and their respective bodies of government. Suppress, quash, or eliminate said government, and war with another nation is thereby cut off… in theory, of course—remove an aggressor and there’s no aggression. This is abstract, naturally, as the opposing aggressor would remain steeped in anger and would take occasion of any situation to gain an advantage (like flogging a dead horse, as if it were an enemy).

It’s a romantic vision of life as a simple routine: A becomes infected with B, suppress/deaden A, B passes away as a consequence, revive A to its full natural state. This romanticism works in parallel with the excerpt’s themes; on the cursory level, it’s meant to be the thriller rather than a thinker, a science experiment rather than a social experiment.

Review: Dolgushin has a different take on this disembodied-mind theme yet spices it with romance, spy thrill, and science. As the introduction states: “Dolgushin wanted to fill his novel [505 pages of which] with lightly fictionalized, but genuinely exciting information about new discoveries in the biological and physical sciences” (14). This mere excerpt captures all these themes: revivification, romance, spy thrill, and science… and the chapter excerpt feels as forced as you might expect. Stated again in the introduction, the original full-length novel “does not stand out for its artistic merits” (14).

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“The Nur-i-Desht Observatory” (novelette, 1944) – Ivan Yefremov (3.5/5)
Synopsis: Having staved off death while fighting on the front, Ivan Timofeyevich gets off only wounded and is sent to the isolated and desolate Kazakh steppes to recuperate. A soldier at heart, he’d rather toil away; when he sees a woman named Tanya standing alone at his destination, he gets just this chance. They cross the land to an ancient observatory that’s built of stone and clad in mystery. While their joyfulness is unexplained, they bide their time amid the inscriptions and spectral emissions that lay deep within. 28 pages

Pre-analysis: Radium was a wondrous discovery in 1898. Its luminal effect was mesmerizing to the human eye, thereby attributing the element with health and vigor. Soon, products began to be promoted with the same element: radium and it radioactive properties in salts, in toothpastes, and even water1. Even today, the restorative properties of low-level radiation is a hypothesis (radiation homeostasis) but remains a borderline pseudoscience along with its kin homeopathy (“like cures like”).

Eventually, scientists and other who professionally dealt with radiation became aware of its harmful effects yet kept it a secret from the frontline employees (see the watch painters known as The Radium Girls). Even up through 1934 when Marie Curie died, not many scientists—let alone layman—knew the truly fatal side of the beautiful luminosity of radium and the other radioactive elements. However, the notion of radiation homeostasis stayed alive and touched nearly all borders of the world: America, Japan, and even the Soviet Union (see on left).

Analysis: This story ties together three elements: romance, adventure, and radiation homeostasis. Aside from these and a sense of entertainment, this story offers very little else. The most trying part of the story is the romantic friction between the solider-cum-archeologist (Ivan) and the translator-cum-archeologist (Tanya). The ebullition of well-being isn’t their own company, as they had first thought, but only the radium-rich soil on which the observatory stands. Tanya is disheartened by this as she had thought that their love was real and not the curative effects of radium; Ivan, however, discredits the unnatural forces of the radium as all sorts of spectral emissions are around them all the time, so who is to decide which ones cause which effect?

Here, my heart had come back to life, and it had opened… to you. Who knows? Maybe the scientific advances of the future will offer a deeper understanding of the effect radioactive substances have on us. And who’s to say that we aren’t under the influence of many more radiations—cosmic rays at the very least. Up there … all sorts of energy could be streaming, emanating from the dark depths of space… the particles of distant world. (223)

Like living and working around radium, long-term negative effects on the central nervous system would also result from the same sort of exposure of cosmic rays. If Ivan wishes to exclude all types of radiation, then only love remains; hence, their love is real (ugh, this ended on a mushy note).

Review: The keenest aspect of the story is the adventure one: a real archeologist is digging through the remains of an ancient observatory in search of inscriptions, a hidden vase, the story underneath it all—in both figurative and literal senses. The romance adds extra machismo to the story as the soldier wins over the girl… then there’s the cringe-worthy looting of the observatory that the professor condones. Each bit of the story is irksome—the adventure, the romance, the radiation—but it actually ties together into a semi-decent story.

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“Explosion” (novelette, 1946) – Alexander Kazantsev (2.5/5)
Synopsis: In April 1945, an editor of a science journal is approached by two men with competing theories for 1908’s Tunguska event, which the editor actually witnessed himself. Fuelled by the theories, the man digs through his trove of historical data and commentary of the event in order to defend his own theory. After August 1945’s events, however, one of the previous two theorists returns and spouts forth an outlandish tale involving a native black-skinned Siberian and a mystical source for the huge explosion. 26 pages

Pre-analysis: According to Kazantsev’s Wikipedia page, he was a pioneer of Soviet UFOlogy whose writings dealt mainly with pseudoscientific theories. The page also says without a citation that “He believed the Tunguska impact was caused by an alien spacecraft that crash-landed on the Earth.” So, prior to reading a Kazantsev story, you need to be prepared for two things: some focus around the Tunguska Event and some other outlandish pet theory that goes hand-in-hand with it.

Analysis: As Kazantsev has indulged himself with a few pet theories of the pseudoscientific realm in the form of a short story, there’s very little to analyze. I think the aura of the story is best captured by the collection’s introduction:

Kazantsev went on [after the story’s publication] to have a long and less-than-admired career as a cultural conservative and Party hard-liner who pushed back against literary innovations and artistic freedom in the 1960s … As a Communist Party stalwart, Kazantsev wrote a macho, fun-to-read, mystery-catastrophe in which the figure of the dangerous alien is easily summed up in two words: “female” and “black.” (14)

Review: This is the third Kazantsev story that I’ve read and it’s the third story of his that involve the Tunguska Event—at this point, it feels like Kazantsev is a one-trick pony. The lamely titled “Explosion” is a variation of the previous theme in “A Visitor from Outer Space” (1951) and “The Martian” (1958) that posit a Martian UFO for the explosion. “Explosion” shrugs off this prior theme in favor for something more mystical and less science fictional. His personal interest in Martian canals, a fabled planet in the asteroid belt, and the Tunguska Event taint his stories to the degree of obsession.

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“The Spontaneous Reflex” (1958) – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (4/5)
Synopsis: With numerous sensors, Urm is able to sense the world to a more thorough degree than any human; however, like a human, he too can become bored. Unsatisfied with its underground concrete cube as its sole known location, it opens the door, satisfied with its squeak. In the halls, in approaches danger without fear, destroys without conscious, and frightens without shame. As it reaches the surface, its Master attempts to bargain with it and, in the end, to find a way to disable it. A victim of its own success, mere bulldozers are able to pin it. 23 pages

Analysis: High technology, especially of military value, is often a closely guarded secret as it’s usually of sensitive nature. The robot named Urm—an acronym for Universal Robot Machine—is a superior robot to such a degree that it can learn and develop while left on its own; in essence, the robot was given free-thought. Indeed, this would be a dangerous thing if given free movement through the land, but even Soviet citizens didn’t have free movement, instead, Urm is confined to a subterranean prison devoid of sensation.

If Urm had not been given free-thought, it would have been content to stare at its bleakly grey environment; however, with primary urges to experience the world and adapt, it tests the door, the halls, the walls, and even under the open sky. Not made of flesh and bone, its curiosity is backed by metal and mechanizations, propelling it through walls and radiation without harm. Its two weaknesses are its most human-like: (1) As it has had very little experience in human communication, its salutations come off as horrifically abrupt; (2) Its locomotion is an adaptable one for all terrains—two legs and two arms.

Having been suppressed for so long, it fails to find allegiance among the men at the base; also having been given the fallacy of man’s locomotion, it fails to escape… only o be defeated by a much simpler technology and one that doesn’t rely on human fallacy: the treads and scoop of bulldozers. As it wallows in frustration, the only rational thing for its creator (its Master) is to simply switch it off.

Review: This is a familiar trope of a robot gone berserk, complete with undeveloped human emotions while following a foundational, pre-programmed prerogative. What it makes up for in originality is its allegory of the danger of free-thought, inherited human flaw, development in seclusion, and reliability of tried-and-true methods. It’s a well-fitted glove for a Soviet story compounded by the repeated haunting salutation of the robot: “здравствуйте как поживаете?” or “Zdravstvuite, kak pozhivaete?” or “Good day, how do you do?” Even taken at its most literal level, the action story would be a good, short romp yet with a lackluster ending if you weren’t aware of its allegory.

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“Soda-Sun” (novella, 1961) – Mikhail Ancharov (3.5/5)
Synopsis: The man nicknamed Soda-Sun has an odd and patchy background, especially when considering that he has no previous degree or experience to warrant his position as a research assistant. He ought to be science-minded, but his theories rattle the nerves of all around him, thereby referring to him as a clown: the devil is real and takes the shape of a man even today. When the same science group uncovers an unexpected giant mammal, Soda-Sun is there again with another crazy theory, a well-dated skull, and a frank letter of explanation. 58 pages

Pre-analysis: Promotions are hazardous, like lion-taming or base-jumping. The opportunity for success exists and if you put in the honest effort, your chance for success climbs along with your awareness of the situation—i.e. put in the extra hours at the office, log your work, exhibit your accomplishment, take on extra responsibilities… and your work will be rewarded with a promotion. This, however, isn’t the hazard; rather, it’s the people who don’t bide by the “honest effort” credo for a level playing field: the suck-ups, the ass-kissers, the bribe-payers, the false-flatterers, the yes-sir-right-away-sir-what-a-nice-tie-you-have-on-today-sir kind of people, the…  you get the drift. Oh, the numerous examples from my own life…

Under normal circumstances, there are only two kinds of victims when the latter kind of person wins: (1) the honest johns and janes and (2) quality company management. Yet, when this sort of ass-kissery (Is that a word? If not, it’s mine.) occurs at academic and governmental spheres, the number of victims becomes exponential. When those same I-kiss-ass-so-much-I-never-see-the-light-of-day scum are also deceptively clever people, everyone is the victim. You know the kind of tools I’m talking about…

Analysis: Soda-Sun was a clever man or resources during the war; some may have called him a courier, others a smuggler. Regardless of his official title, he provided goods to those who asked. Yet after the war, his specific talents and connections were no longer needed, so Soda-Sun used his well-honed cleverness on an unsuspecting realm: academia.

Considering his position in academia, he holds a dangerous idea that the devil is real, which is certainly a position that could never be analyzed quantitatively. Still, his superiors keep him on staff where the damage only grows because of his stalwart stance and immature interference. When one urbane discovery becomes a absurd exhibition of impossibility, surely Soda-Sun is behind the extravagant prank, yet when academia probes deeper into a part-prank/part-discovery, they are witness to one of two realities: (1) either a very extravagant prank or (2) the discovery of an impossibility.

Even when Soda-Sun is ousted from his position, the repercussions of his harm remain as the mystery of his supposed prank unfolds. His series of juvenile notes of explanation prolong the suffering of the serious academics, the hunt of which leads them into deeper and darker terrain. It’s this “deeper and darker terrain” that could possibly be an analogy for pseudosciences, or areas of knowledge that academia refuse to probe because of the taint of skepticism from the greater scientific community.

Review: This isn’t an easy story to read. I’m not sure if it’s because of the story-telling or my state of mind; regardless, I had a hard time following the ins and outs of the unraveling prank and/or mystery. The introduction of the collection mentions that this story is about “creative genius”, humanity’s “untapped capacity” of genius, and the source of his genius (18). Certainly, that’s buried in the story somewhere along with my idea of what the story is about. It’s the longest story in the collection but also one of the most convoluted—again, maybe my mind was broken on those days that I read the story.

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“The Exam” (novelette, 1979) – Sergei Drugal (4/5)
Synopsis: Within the Institute for the Restoration of Nature, Nuri walks amid the tame musings, comments on, and holds conversations with its various gene-adapted animals. The numerous mammalian and human denizens of the Institute offer their advice and urge Nuri to consider a freestyle parable, but he considers it beyond his ability. Possibly inspired by his experience with speaking to anthropomorphized animals, Nuri is finally able to spin on a parable while under observation—but to whom and to what end? 20 pages

Pre-analysis: As a small spoiler to the story, the aim of the inquisition through parable is to become a teacher. This raised both of my eyebrows as I have some experience in research into Soviet educational philosophy when I studied my M.Ed. a few years ago. The class had been through s good chuck of the educational philosophy book when I overheard two students talk about “Who’s your favorite educational philosopher?” My first utterance to self: “Total nerds”. My second utterance to them: “Mine’s Anton Makarenko”, to which they replied: “Are you serious?” Then I was like, “Oh, I’m sure you’re all in love with John Dewey, right?”, to which they agreed.

Long story short, thank you Wiki: Makarenko saw integration as one of the key aspects of education: “the activities of various educational institutions — i.e., the school, the family, clubs, public organizations, production collectives and the community existing at the place of residence — should be integrated”… think of Hillary Clinton’s It Take a Village to Raise a Child (1996) but seventy years earlier.

Analysis: The exam in the story is an example of “authentic assessment”. To summarize, thank you again Wiki, an authentic assessment is:

[T]he measurement of "intellectual accomplishments that are worthwhile, significant, and meaningful," as contrasted to multiple choice standardized tests. Authentic assessment can be devised by the teacher, or in collaboration with the student by engaging student voice.

Beautifully worded. Nuri is the student in this regard while the random denizens are his teachers who are trying to encourage him to create a parable by framing the situation. They give him multiple chances to engage his voice, his narrative, but he only offers his first parable at the end of the story when he has to define his “moral profile” to a bunch of toddlers. As ridiculous as the situation may be, it’s about as authentic as a test can be for a teacher… minus the lofty language of non-toddlers: “What kind of moral profile does a bachelor have? We’d rather see if he can tell us a good story” (349).

And so, Nuri’s formal education ends with the application of his knowledge to a situation he may actually face when he becomes a teacher; thus, he allowed to go into the world and into the workplace to begin his informal education… the ins and outs of everyday authentic assessments.

Review: The story was a bit spastic in its delivery as it tended to bounce between new characters—both human and animal—urging Nuri to tell a parable. It was frustratingly disconnected but it really snapped into focus for me at the end… perhaps only because of my knowledge of Makarenko and authentic assessments. The re-read of this story proved to be more satisfactory. Tantalizingly, this story is the tip of an iceberg that belongs to Drugal’s collected works of called The Institute of Nature Restoration (19??/1980), which, sadly, was only available in Ukrainian and Russian. It seems that its publication origins are forever lost. So, you may have to be happy with the tip rather than the whole berg.

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“Mixed Up” (novelette, 1980) – Vladimir Savchenko (4/5)
Synopsis: When an alien race beamed their personalities across space to Earth, mankind learned the secret of interstellar travel; not everyone, however, was able to sustain the transfer, as evidence by the death of several so-called psychonauts. When M. A. Kolotilin returns from his beamed journey, his eyes sense sound while his ears register color. Initially perplexed by this mental cross-wiring, he soon begins to accept and adapt to the uniqueness of his state even while his wife leaves him and his fellow scientists urge treatment and experimentation. 47 pages

Pre-analysis: Let’s shun the cliché “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” in favor of David Hume’s “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them”. I think this appropriately shifts the subject from the person beyond the senses: the mind and that which registers the senses. If you were to change the mind, you’d change the perception of beauty, but not the memory of that beauty—for better or for worse.

Analysis: Kolotilin knew of beauty in the form of sight and sound prior to his psychonaut jaunt—the stars, the forest, the symphony, and his wife. When returning to Earth into his own body, these two senses swapped in indescribable ways. As his mind had only known a world where eyes and ears registered their respective sense, Kolotilin was left bewildered and left reliant on his reliable sense of touch and space.

For want of remembering beauty, he plays music and sees his wife, but both of these instances fail to imprint a new sense of beauty in his mind. His isolation in the laboratory doesn’t inspire this same fledgling sense, so he prescribes himself a walk outside where beauty reigns in his memory and to his new senses, the latter trumping the former. When the scientists urge him to experiment in transliterating his senses so that he can experience the so-called real world again, he adamantly refuses to cooperate so that he can perfectly adjust to his new found sense of beauty… but he also achieves a greater sense of life:

And that which is petty, stupid, empty and low is people and in the world will remain for me incomprehensible noise and visual trash. And good riddance. I hear that which is seen and see that which is heard, but I perceive not sounds nor light, but that which lies beyond them. So am I poorer or richer for it? (385)

If we use our subjective sense of beauty as an analogy, could the same be same for a philosophy, an ideology, a system of governance? I’m no Soviet historian, nor am I savvy with political science, alas:

The Soviet Union in 1980 was seeing a growth on the global scale thanks in part to its military strength, indeed it also was experience an economic growth, from $1 trillion in the 70s to $2 trillion in the 80s. Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary, had been holding the reins of the party and the State for sixteen years. Aside from cold deathly stares of the Americans across the intangible yet noticeable Iron Curtain, things were looking good for the Soviets.

Democracy isn’t for everyone. It’s one form of beauty in the form of governance, but what works for one people in one country doesn’t necessary apply across the board to all peoples and all countries. The American ideological crusade to push democracy around the world is an attempt to replace one subjective beauty with another. Take Thailand, for example: Elected government after elected government have only brought the country to the brink of civil war; since the coup two years ago, however, social stability is finally savored, a fact supported by the recent referendum approved by voters to allow the military junta to elect its own government for the next five years.

To speak for the Soviets, perhaps the hard-line communists truly believed in their form of society and government. Democratic rhetoric (Kolotilin’s scientists) can’t ideologically understand non-democratic systems (Kolotilin’s happiness). The former may see things as they are—beautiful, natural, and perfect—while the latter may also see exactly the same things—just as beautiful, just as natural, just as perfect—yet though completely different senses. Who’s right; who’s wrong? Like my mum says, “As long as you’re happy…”

Review: It’s a bit hard to envision what Kolotilin experiences. The framing of this unique experience on Kolotilin’s part is due to the equally unique method of traveling among the stars. How this method was discovered and who used this method were a two additional unique aspects of the story—so, to sum it up, the story is pretty unique. Regardless, it’s hard to wrap your head around and rather lengthier than need be.

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“Jubilee-200” (short story, 1985) – Kir Bulychev (4/5)
Synopsis: Nearly two centuries prior, a chimp breeding program began with the ultimate purpose of producing a lineage with the traits of Logic and Reason. Limited success has been observed with the elderly chimp named Johnny as he’s able to hold a mundane conversation but is still prone to his wild nature. Meanwhile, through the eyes of the Leader and the rest of his herd, the scientists are dumb to their true intelligence and cunning, with which they hope to steal a plane and make an escape to Africa. 17 pages

Pre-analysis: I’m having trouble tracking down the direct quote, so I’ll paraphrase: someone was said that monkeys don’t speak because they don’t want to be put to work. I believe this was a serious attempt at reasoning why apes don’t speak like humans, so it must have been a fairly early non-scientific approach to the theory (say, early or late nineteenth century). This theory would imply that apes have (1) a vocabulary and grammar as well as (2) the anatomical structures to form thoughts and produce speech. Whoever said the paraphrase above had one thing right, however: apes are capable of deception and lies, but not to the great extent as collectively fearing being put to work.

Analysis: A coup would be a sudden overtaking of authority while one definition of revolution omits authority in the sudden change of a situation. The chimps in “Jubilee-200” had no intention of throwing a coup as they simply wanted to escape from authority rather than replace it. Their secret revolution, therefore, was their well-planned escape through their decades of deception. If the scientists are seen as the government and the chimps as citizens, the story—written in 1985—takes on an ominous glow only six years before the intergovernmental coup d’etat.

Sometimes Big Brother knows; sometimes, too, Big Brother lets things go the way he wants because the means agree with the end, even though those means aren’t his own: protests could be a useful pressure valve for the population or some terror may spark much wanted changes in law enforcement. Though the perpetrators of the protests and terror may be getting their way, the authorities sometimes smile down at their actions and silently play into their hands. I won’t expound on any conspiracies (domestic or international). If a popular grassroots means meet the same end as the government’s intended forced means, surely it would allow the popular means to unfold… possibly with an unofficial blessing and/or a well-informed mole.

On August 18, 1991, Yeltsin led a coup against Gorbachev; both wanted freer economic systems, yet the former wanted reform faster than the latter. Perhaps Gorbachev had his hands tied for policy but wished for faster reform, which Yeltsin was able to accomplish through swifter means. Surely, Yeltsin hated Gorbachev, but if Yeltsin could pull off the coup in favor of greater reform, then perhaps Gorbachev would have applauded it? Gorbachev had the opportunity to send Yeltsin to a far-off ambassador errand when the firebrand openly criticized Gorbachev, but Gorbachev kept the man on, though through a demotion. Gorbachev says he regrets keeping Yeltsin, but…

Review: Another story ripe for analysis! Much as the chimps unfold their plan in secret to a greater end, the story, too, unfolds from a basic onset toward a greater end with a twist in the end (as analyzed in the analysis portion of this review). It’s well structured, well thought out, and unique – add in the twist and the fertile ground for analysis and you have yourself a satisfying story!

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“Those Burdened by Evil” (excerpt, 1988) – Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (3.5/5)
Synopsis: The dark, towering figure casts a deceptive appearance amid the otherwise vacant apartment building that overlooks the dreary scene of a town and its society, both on a downward spiral. He questions their ethics, he scorns their composure, but most importantly he hopes to help them in one way of another. Under his expansive parka rest the folded wings of his true nature, and at his figurative side sits the statuesque assistant who tells him of this earth yet walks a tenuous line of disobedience. 8 pages

Pre-analysis: Leaders tend to come in two forms: agents of maintenance or agents of change. There are times when maintenance is greatly needed in order to find a base understanding, standardize whatever’s needed, and get it on track. Any element of change can greatly skew its ability to assess itself, thus hindering its progress. In contrast, sometimes systems needs a kick in the ass; here, an agent of change would be beneficial as they—hopefully—have the also have the ability to analyze problems and find efficient methods of change… efficient, here, being the key.

Analysis: Anyone with a shred of knowledge about the later years of the Soviet Union will know that Gorbachev had been introducing many changes to the Soviet government (e.g. elections and the economy) since 1985. Some saw these changes as damaging to the communist vision while others saw the same changes as not being progressive enough to change what really needed to be changed—e.g. the head of power. Though Gorbachev was an agent of change in contrast to the lineage of premiers who strived to maintain Cold War tensions and backwardness on the global scale, but sometimes some change is not change enough.

The agent of change in “Those Burdened by Evil” is a winged angel of impressive stature whose origins are well known in general yet here veiled in the story (will avoid any spoilers read from fantlab.ru). If Gorbachev wasn’t an angel with power enough to scare its flock to alter its moral fabric, then was he just a saint with good intentions. So who was the archangel who wielded God’s word for democracy? I’d hardly compare Yeltsin to an archangel let alone a saint, prophet or priest, but as he was ushered into th seat of power after the USSR’s collapse, he must fit the role of angel.

As this is only an excerpt to a novel, there’s more room to postulate the allegories and parallelisms. Perhaps the Strugatsky brothers also felt that their society was crumbling from underneath them and that Gorbachev wasn’t the agent of change that they needed. Creating an angel as that agent would be one form of worry, but creating an even higher spiritual body as that agent would be complete desperation.

Review: Of all the stories included in Read Star Tales, the novel-length edition of “Those Burdened by Evil” is the one story that received the highest rating (8.41/10) and had the most reviews (54), according to the fantlab.ru website. The reviews heavily point out that the novel is deep and ripe for analysis with its religious allegories and social parallelisms. Most mention that they need to re-read and compare it to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita (1967) for its themes of religion. Even though this is an excerpt, there’s still a tangible depth and enough setting to intrigue the reader. By itself, however, the general theme of religion is only superficial and doesn’t come into focus by the excerpt’s conclusion. To placate the reader, the conclusion does offer a certain motion: expectation of change. Pray that this novel is translated to English, one day.

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“Doorinda” (excerpt, 1990) – Daliya Truskinovskaya (3/5)
Synopsis: Ksenya is seeing hard times since her husband left her and their son to live alone in their apartment block. Returning to her home on evening, she realizes that she had forgotten her keys, and at that moment of good fortune, a man on the run offers his help, which he does with several strange devices, but it also benefits him—as soon as he’s through the door, he disappears. When Ksenya tries the door on a rainy day, she suddenly appears at work. First, thoughts of food and medicine stir in her mind. 17 pages

Pre-analysis: A few words from Wiki regarding supply and rationing in the USSR in the 1980s:

Perestroika was a political movement for reformation within the Communist Party of the Soviet Union during the 1980s, widely associated with Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his glasnost (meaning "openness") policy reform. The literal meaning of perestroika is "restructuring", referring to the restructuring of the Soviet political and economic system. Perestroika is sometimes argued to be a cause of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the revolutions of 1989 in Eastern Europe, and the end of the Cold War. (wiki)

In the 1980s shortages continued in basic consumer items, even in major population centers. Such goods occasionally were rationed in major cities well into the 1980s. Besides the built-in shortages caused by planning priorities, shoddy production of consumer goods limited actual supply …. By the time of the Soviet Union's collapse at the end of 1991, nearly every kind of food was rationed. Non-rationed foods and non-food consumer goods had virtually disappeared from state owned stores. While the gap was partially filled by non-state stores which started to appear in the mid-1980s, the prices in non-state stores were often five to ten times higher than in state stores and were often out of reach for the general population. (wiki)

Analysis: Desperation settles upon Ksenya as she struggles with her life at home as she has to raise her son by herself. She considers their lack of food and medicine yet is hopeless against the inertia of perestroika to obtain anything useful. Her stroke of fortune comes from the fantastic run-in with a fugitive who enables her door to open to wherever she pleases. She allows her to immediately bypass to a number of everyday annoyances: (1) she can forego inconvenient public transportation, (2) she can pick and choose victual items from hoarded stockpiles, and (3) she can obtain medical supplies just when she needs it most.

In essence, the gift that Ksenya had been given was the gift of capitalism. Consider: (1) if she had a private car, she could avoid most the rain and arrive at work on time; (2) if she could go to a supermarket, she could purchase items for her two-member family within her budget; and (3) if she had a decent hospital, she could get the supplies and care she needed for her son.

Review: As she considers her life to have become magical, she interweaves herself into the fairy tales she tells her son, an aspect of the excerpt that adds a meta-fictional element to the longer novella-length story, which, according to various translated reviews, sees Ksenya travel to romantic fantasy lands. So, as a reader show doesn’t fancy anything related to “romantic fantasy”, perhaps its better that the story was abbreviated before it go into the magical lands. The full-version of the story could, however, offer a little more detail into the meta-fictional element of this excerpt that, at first glance, seems to follow the 1930s or 1940s pulp tradition of “inexplicable devices doing wondrous things without any reason”, if that’s a sub-genre or something.

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“My Dad’s an Antibiotic” (novelette, 1992) – Sergei Lukyanenko (3/5)
Synopsis: Alik is proud of his father, who is with the Assault Force Corps responsible for special mission to quash revolt among planetary colonies. His dad is an impressive figure of Herculean strength, but he’s thoughtful too in bringing his son a gift after every mission—usually war loot. When his father gives Alik a bracelet from the same planet as his best friend, he digs a little deeper into the bracelet’s veiled origins, only to later learn that the, on that same planet, boys his own age are recruited to fight in the resistance. 23 pages

Pre-analysis: Trophies from hard-fought wars have been a source of pride from countless wars across countless lands wherein countless people died. These trophies were the aim of the conquest and/or conflict, so the winning of the trophies is doubtlessly a sign of victory—the conclusion to the war. Spoils of war, on the other hard, are sort of like tokens of combat, items had by chance. But the trophies and tokens shouldn’t be held to the same standard—the trophy came through power, the tokens came by chance, so fate dealt the gifts of the spoils of war… and haven’t we always been told to not look a gift horse in the mouth?

The intangible trophy from the victory on the distant planet is the suppression of dissent, the end to a rebellion—the soldiers probably feel very little pride over this trophy, so they resort to spoils of war as tokens of their victory. Pride in these tokens/spoils is vacant as these items are kept merely for interest like a memento from an event, a keepsake from a ceremony, or a souvenir from a holiday. These same items are kept on shelves, stored in boxes, or given to family or friends.

Alik’s father paws off one such spoil of war to his son without much thought about what the bracelet meant to its now-deceased owner. It was given to Alik in a sort of low-key manner without much forethought as to the significance of the gift—neither of them looked the gift horse in the mouth, until the boy’s curiosity gets the best of him.

Analysis: Considering the story is from 1992, the year after the USSR’s change to modern Russia, the story is ripe with reference to this transition. There’s certainly the intangible trophy of the people—democracy—but what are the tangible spoils of war had by chance? “Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers…” (Trainspotting, 1996) – ah, the plentitude of capitalism!

The older generation (akin of Alik’s father) may not give second thoughts to these tangible spoils because having is much better than having-not—perish the queues for bread, the rations of gasoline, and permits for travel. The shift from inefficient communism to at-hand capitalism must have been warmly welcomed and embraced! The more modern generation—what with their Pepsi, Walkmans, and Levis—should have been more skeptical of these wondrous gifts from the West. Who were they to shrug off the yoke from decades of tradition and hard work? They must have learned their lesson from the proverb “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, unlike the wise young Alik from the story. The youth don’t see the danger in what they have; meanwhile, Alik quickly learned what the bracelet represented, thereby saving his life.


Review: This story, much more so than any of the others, has a certain Western feel to it, akin to Joe Haldeman. The analysis have may dug a little too deep into the story for want of a juicy morsel, but on my initial read of the story, it really felt straight forward, unlike many of the other stories in the collection. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times or simply the author’s style, but the collection ended on a fairly weak note with this inclusion.