Occasional subsurface allegories intrigue the reader (3.5/5)
April was the third consecutive month that I had read collections of science fiction from the
Soviet Union. The dully yet aptly
titled Soviet Science Fiction (1962) collection was a tightly bundled
trove, comprised of six stories, with only one weak story. Its successor, More
Soviet Science Fiction (1962), was less successful, however—none of its
five stories really stood out.
Here in The Ultimate Threshold, Ginsburg has translated and provided and ample thirteen stories for the reader. In her introduction, Ginsburg states that the collection was selected “first and foremost, for its literary excellence” but also stories that were “written with skill and wit, interesting in their ideas, free of clichés, and, above all, free of political dogma” (xi). While the political and/or social rhetorical may not be explicit, it can never be completely scrubbed away; nearly all the stories have inferences to Soviet state of mind. The best stories are Olga Larionova’s “The Useless Planet” (1967/1967) and German Maksimov’s “The Ultimate Threshold” (1965/1970). Both really drive home a social commentary that isn’t purely Russian—rather, it applies to the human condition.
As each of these thirteen stories are synopsized, analyzed, and reviewed, the total length is more than 7,000 words... you've been warned.
“Icarus and Daedalus” – Genrikh Altov (shortstory, 1958/1968) – 3/5
Synopsis: Two men journeyed to the sun in such a heroic feat that only legend is attributed to an ancient Greek lore: that of Icarus and Daedalus. Icarus—his actual name lost to time—was a brash young pilot between Earth and the distant Stellar World where he made many important discoveries of large portions. Daedalus, meanwhile, had only been on Earth yet had also made innovative breakthroughs of minor portions. Together, they believe that can enter the heart of the sun, where both small and large reign. 8 pages
Analysis: Truth capitalized, the Plan capitalized, and Nature capitalized: These are the hallowed utterances of the State (capitalized), the keywords that lead the progress and pride of the Russian people during its communist era. As they are capitalized as proper nouns, each refers to a singular, undiminishable yet intangible object.
Regardless of the importance and capitalizations, they are but names, only transitory letters affixed to an object. Call it “this” or call it “that”, its name doesn’t change what it is unless time and image are attributed to the name change. Byzantium was a very different place from Constantinople or Istanbul, as Diana Spencer was from Princess Diana, as was the New World from the United States of America… same place and same person, yet a completely different idea of the same.
The same goes for Icarus and Daedalus, whose real names are lost to time but only their feat remains. Their real names don’t matter as the name would only be a prideful attachment to who they were, who their families were, and what they stood for. With the dissolution of their actual names, the monikers Icarus and Daedalus are thereby only attributed to the singular Feat… so which is more important? The Feat or the Men?
The two heroes each embody a different explorative effort: Icarus explores the macro-scale of outer space (planets of solar systems) while Daedalus explores the micro-scale of inner space (mathematics and physics). Separately, they each believe that studying the sun’s inner core is technically possible, but only when together is it actually possible. Yet, in the mission, when Icarus wants to push forward, Daedalus urges him to go back. Though opposing in many ways, together they can achieve an incredible feat.
Review: If critical analysis of the story isn’t your forte (I prefer to read for pleasure, but these translations woo my pseudo-intellectual side), suspension of belief is one hurdle to enjoying this story. In order for the ship to explore the sun’s core, the only material that will allow it to do so is plates of neutrite—the stuff from which white dwarves are made. The density and gravity of the neutrite allows them to stand the pressure within the sun, but it doesn’t affect them, yet they are warned away from the Earth due to their mass. This seems illogical to me. In addition, the last hoorah of success at the conclusion is a bit too camp for my tastes, an ending that’s reminiscent of SF Golden Age whim and juvenility.
“Erem” – Gleb Anfilov (shortstory, 1962/1963) – 3.5/5
Synopsis: When molten silicon begins to leak then spew from a fault in the wall of the crystallizer, an engineer and a cybernetics expert agree that the best recourse is to dispatch Erem, the intelligent emergency robot. Having been schooled in handling emergencies, an experience of which it fondly remembers, Erem understands the dangers yet has time to reflect about his existence amid the rising temperatures. Though the heat is dastardly as it wishes respite, Erem remains diligent while the engineer only asks for results. 6 pages
Analysis: Erem was built to serve. Rather than being a common servitor robot, Erem’s nature naturally put it in peril with every job. Emergencies were its specialty, so emergencies it what it did. When it served, it saved the factory and thus saved human lives. But in its specialized service, it ultimately found death through sacrifice.
Its fiery death of sacrifice can be seen in two regards: (1) death through duty or (2) death through caste.
- In the case of duty, as Erem was part of the team, part of the factory, its duty was bound to that collective: what’s good for the group is good for the individual; therefore, its individual death is a benefit to the collective factory. It was just one machine, after all.
- In the case of caste, Erem was born and bred for one purpose: to tackle emergencies that are too dangerous for human intervention. Here, Erem is more disposable than a human so it’s given a lower job, thus a lower caste. In his over-specialized caste, he meets death when death was a certainty in its life. The engineer and expert have no feeling toward the lowly caste and have no second thoughts to sacrifice it for the factory.
Regardless, Erem was proud of its sacrifice for the factory while its superiors felt inconvenienced by the disposed machine. Though the machine could think and feel, they simply sacrificed the lowly caste machine for the greater good, for human good.
Review: Given the short length of the story—only six pages—it does a pretty fair job of generating some sympathy for the little robot. If its length were doubled, I think the author could have better captured the scenario a little better. The rushed feel encapsulates the emergency and the human panic in contrast to the calm and collected thoughts of Erem, which is actually in the face of danger. Overall, it’s a compact little story with a couple layers of analogy.
“Formula of Immortality” – Anatoly Dneprov (novelette, 1962/1963) – 3.5/5
Synopsis: Albert is a second-generation geneticist whose father has done much pioneering work in the field yet, nowadays, is incapacitated by age. After a brief trip, Albert returns home to find a cherubic sixteen-year-old girl who his father than adopted as her parents had died, yet she was told they were away in Australia. The subterfuge deepens when Albert befriends the girl who speaks of a mad doctor named Horsk. As he investigates the mystery, he suddenly becomes personally and physically involved. 32 pages
Analysis: The written word is a record, usually a retelling of experience, a track of numbers, or the whim of creativity. Some records track change, formulize routine, or even predict the future—a calendar is such a piece. Calendars give the illusion that we have some sort understanding to the workings of our minute universe, that we are masters of greater time even though we poorly manage our own time. Calendars are so accurate that we’re able to make them for decades, centuries, and millennia in advance.
This control of time gives us a measure of control in our lives—we’ll never wake up on a Tuesday with an announcement that it’s been changed to Thursday due to unforeseen circumstances. Granted it’s not super accurate: one day is actually four minutes shorter than twenty-four hours; however, the modern calendar is semi-accurate only now. About 620 million years ago, one day equaled 21.9 hours; in 4.5 billion years, the Earth would hypothetically have a month-long day.
Anyway, the calendar is written and written it stays: tomorrow is Wednesday, next month is May, and next year is 2017—nothing will change that… call it fate. Could the same be said of DNA? It’s also a record of sorts: who your parents are, what characteristics you’re likely to have, and what diseases you’ll be prone to. Would you want your DNA to be read like a calendar, albeit with less certainty?
· That mole on your arm is 45% likely to metastasize by the time you’re 25
· I hope you like kids cuz you have 90% chance of birthing twins
· There’s no way you’ll ever see 80 with heart valves like that, buddy
· Use it before you lose it cuz you’ll be impotent by the time you’re 40
What if the reading of your DNA could tell you the time in which you’ll die, sort of like a ticking time bomb? Would your life be any more valuable? Would you be worked to death while you’re still able-bodied? Would people with similar “expiration dates” be grouped in castes, made to labor and produce while still viable?
Review: The story lends some nice brain candy—something to linger over and savor like a never-ending gobstopper. The story itself, however, isn’t particularly as savory as the thought behind it. The thirty-two-page lead to the conclusion is full of hints like directional arrows and assumptions like bull’s-eyes. Within the story, there is very little left to the imagination; outside the story, however, there are a few things to consider.
“When Questions are Asked” – Anatoly Dneprov (shortstory, 1963/1963) – 2.5/5
Synopsis: At Moscow State University, a group of alumni gather every year to discuss all things related to science. In this auspicious year, however, science only comes second to the philosophy of science and how no one captures the creativity of scientific experimentation like Faraday. When discussing trains of thought, they recall their odd classmate of old—Alyoshka Monin—and his observation of powder on the surface tension of sink water. After some wine, two of them visit Monin to witness another odd experiment: the source of memory. 15 pages
Analysis: Stupidity is a common trait of the young—and of everyone in general, but let’s keep it simple. So, yes, stupidity runs rampant amongst the youth, but so does adventure and curiosity. To the wizened and sometimes wise, stupidity often equates to reckless adventure and curiosity. Little do they remember that they, too, were once young and took risks in life and for science. Where did they lose this passion for life, the same spark that caused them to be curious also urged them into the unknown realms of science. When did their innocence die and complacency blossom in place?
Monin was a foolish boy, always errant with his inquires in science, always a subject of mirth among his classmates. That was true until a phenomenon in the bathroom involving powders, suds, and a sink drew them all together to investigate the properties of the physical science. Most—actually, all—aside from Monin eventually found a rut with their scientific inquires; Monin, however, continued his whimsical research wherever his interests took him.
The alumni at the university may gather their noble minds to discuss greater matters together, but their sense of intrigue had long left them. Monin is a man who, even after all these years of complacency, stirs their interest. The old men see themselves as complacent and need to reaffirm their whim in visiting their capricious old friend. Fortified with a bit of wine, they venture to Monin steeled against whatever odd investigations he may be partaking in. The wine, however, doesn’t prepare them for that they find—should they take the old ding-bat seriously or brush him off like they used to?
Drunk with wine and disbelief, the well-rutted minds of the old men shrug away the coincidence their mutual friend levied upon them. Complacent with their own scientific inquiries, the fatal blow of close-mindedness comes when they can’t even face the truth of a curious mind’s experiment. Truly, stupidity comes full circle for them.
Review: It’s neither too serious nor too comic, but teeters upon the fulcrum awkwardly. The story feels like it’s missing an essential element—in presentation and in the plot. I mentioned that the analogy came full circle, but the story doesn’t come around at all: Monin, even in his advanced age, still pursues odd tangents of science at his odd job while the most distinguished alumni sit and talk. Monin’s background and experience isn’t explored, leaving only the analogy standing on its own: discover and live, or stagnate and die.
“The Horn of Plenty” – Vladimir Grigoriev (shortstory, 1964/1969) – 4/5
Synopsis: Stepan Onufrievich Ogurtsov was a simple handyman with electronics and an amateur inventor before being inspired by the rusted sign at a scrap dealer. He turns the rusted horn of dereliction into a beneficial horn of giving—when he inputs refuse, the horn of plenty, in return, gives random tidings of prosperity: left-footed shoes, a bicycle, woolen socks, etc. As a feature, it can also reverse its function. At a public exhibition, the notorious naysayer Parovozovs gets sucked into the horn, along with its creator. 18 pages
Analysis: This story reminds me of the proverb, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, which has a Russian equivalent that means, “Don't look at the teeth of a horse you've been given”. Both descend from the 400 A.D. Latin version that means, “Never inspect the teeth of a given horse.” Regardless of which language you use as the proverb, the meaning is the same: don’t be ungrateful for a gift.
From this story, the spin on this proverb is that the gift is the man’s own creation; he was inspired to build it, actually built it, and attempted to patent it, yet he doesn’t exactly understand how it works. Regardless of his ignorance, he pushes through with his own rudimentary testing followed by a public showing. His pride rests in what his machine is capable of doing: it can turn rubbish or scarp into useful items; however, it can also turn the same useful items back into scrap—thus, it can renormalize material.
Perhaps the same pride blinds him as he doesn’t realize the senselessness of his enigmatic machine; by “senseless”, this is in the perspective of a communist, or anti-capitalist. When the machine produces, it seems to have no control over what it produces, so there is no demand for any of the items nor is it any part of the State’s central planning—i.e. The Plan. If there is no demand (by “consumers” or the planners) or use for the item, it is, by definition, useless; in turn, the machine itself is useless.
Further, in his pride and eagerness, he also doesn’t realize the limits of his machine. Certainly, it can produce samovars and bicycles and boots at random, but it can also reconstitute the original rubbish from the finished product—all but rubbish by definition. Only items what the machine had created were thrown back in, but no new items—items that hadn’t been created by the machine—had been reversed through.
These tangible items definitely have a source from natural resources, but what is the source of an intangible object, or an abstract idea: i.e. government, pessimism, or logic. Can these, too, be broken down into constituent parts and thrown back out again?
Review: This is a quirky story very much like something from Sheckley, van Vogt, Harrison, Simak, or Leiber. It’ll put a smile on your face as you question just where the author is leading the story, the reader—this is the first iota of imagination you must use. The second iota: The machine’s physical properties and inner workings are vague enough to compel you imagine. Lastly, the third iota, is in the conclusion: The conclusion is also vague, one tangent of thought of which included in the analysis. It’s a tight, clever story without any adornments.
“The Useless Planet” – Olga Larionova (novelette, 1967/1967) – 5/5
Synopsis: The Twenty-seventh is one of a few Logitania who have come to a downtrodden planet as Collectors in order to judge the native’s usefulness in their orderly universe. The Twenty-seventh has taken the shape of a girl with a composite face, yet, though true to form in every way and manner, the town’s people still eye her. The Commander is frustrated with her and wants away from the senseless planet with its wasteful dalliances in art and emotion. The Twenty-seventh, however, sees value in the simplicity, even in her own complexity. 42 pages
Analysis: Twenty-seven, in itself, is an innocuous number for an item in a list. When taken in the contexts of Russian and so-called Western numerological context, however, the number comes to light; in both generally defined cultures, “7” is lucky while “13” is unlucky—both being prime numbers, also. Now, multiply 13 by 2 and multiply 7 by 4; the results are respectively 28 and 26—the first of which is the inheritor of unlucky 13 while the latter is the successor of the lucky 7.
In this rather cursory numerological analysis of the number “27”, we can see that it’s neither lucky nor unlucky, neither gifted nor damned, neither auspicious nor ominous; rather, it’s held in a tight limbo between the two. So too is the so-called Twenty-seventh as she hangs in limbo. She finds herself caught between several constricting and impenetrable layers:
- Between the Logitania and the humans: Born of her alien race, she tacitly knows the culture of her own people yet takes the form of a human in order to do her research, a form and culture of which she is unfamiliar with and, after initial immersion, fails to find her place.
- Between her mission and her superior: Her form was created as a composite of all local females so that she’d look like a local, yet the locals don’t treat her as one their own by sight; thus, because of her failure to integrate, her superior—the Commander—wants to take her off the project.
- Between duty and desire: While the Commander chides her on her poor performance and later isolates her as punishment, she witnesses the beauty of the human world with all its mystery, art, and grittiness; thus, she is conflicted by how to react to her punishment: with a sense of professional duty or a sense of personal purpose.
Review: There is so much internal and external conflict around the Twenty-seventh that the story seems to bubble and froth around her. Take into account a host of other conflicted, scarred, and troubled characters, the fifteen-page story quickly becomes one ripe with temper and emotion even though the alien culture is a logical one. As the story near the conclusion, the tension builds like a coiled length of cloth. The ultimate conclusion, however, supplies a nice release. Taking in consideration that it’s only fifteen pages, the story is a remarkable adventure in conflict and brevity.
“The Ultimate Threshold” – German Maksimov (shortstory, 1965/1970) – 4.5/5
Synopsis: “I am Velt-Nipr-ma Gullit, Master Mechanic, Honorary Ling of Sym-Kri” (125), he tells the confessor Machine at the House of Death, which he famously built so that all could have the choice of life; however, the society’s members of the forty-two castes warped the gift of life into an opportunity of death as strife for class became the focus of the lower castes. Now that Gullit knows his gift of good is actually an evil, he enters to take his own life after confessing to his own creation with intentions held. 15 pages
Analysis: If you could give a caveman a wrench, he’d probably beat his neighbor; give him fire, he’ll probably burn down the forest; give him a sheep, he’ll probably fornicate with it… to err is human, it’s just in our genes. It’s pretty much written very clearly on our warning labels when we’re born: “Danger: Human”. Give humans the greatest gift—anything, name anything—and they’ll simply pervert it; case in point: the internet. What a great opportunity for everyone to learn and communicate… what a shame it’s become: cat pictures, spam, intentional misinformation, smut, banner advertising, trolls, etc.
The House of Death was meant to encourage people to reflect on their lives, to analyze their past choices while on the threshold of suicide; it was meant to cure the people of their woes and strength the fabric of society. Little did the creator—Gullit—realize that the resolve of common people is desperately low. The masses in the lower castes were simply driven numb by their perpetual struggle to achieve, were driven mad by what they could never become. Gullit’s intentions were honest, but he didn’t have all the facts. Because his lofty title and position, he was socially distant from the reality of his society. His one grand act of kindness utterly backfired.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – even Karl Marx uses this aphorism in his Communist Manifesto. Look at Communism in the Soviet Union, in general: paved with good intentions and all, but it descended into a war of propaganda, hate, nuclear arms, skullduggery, and isolationism. Many government programs that have failed—in America, in the USSR, or here in Thailand—did so because of that vital link between—what I’ll inelegantly refer to as—policy makers and policy doers. The policy makers, like Gullit, are often out of touch with their highly esteemed position and the teetering weight of their ego; most often, they just don’t forget about the people, they just don’t care.
Gullit, however, did care and that’s what makes the story so tragic.
Review: Though the trope is tried and true—that of the creator confronting his creation so that he may undermine and destroy it—this story is a successful recycling of it with its social relevance and gloomy perspective. It’s fairly linear, a straight shot from start to finish, but I see strands of commentary slinging out upon every page. Some of the relevance in subtle or subjective as with most stories, but the story shines in its delivery of the explicit message, which isn’t conveyed via rambling monologue or lengthy paragraph.
“Invasion” – Roman Podolny (shortstory, 1966/1966) – 4/5
Synopsis: As boy eyes girl and girl eyes boy, they lean in for a kiss… only to be separated and interrupted by the intruding presence of a time-traveler from the past, again. The inventor of the time machine from 1974 yearns to introduce himself and explain his presence, only the entire time period knows of him and the six million others who have already appeared prior. In a measure to pass on the responsibility, the government sends the same six million further ahead in time so that the future generations can send them back when technology prevails… only no one has yet come back from the future. 4 pages
Analysis: Theory and vision are fine things that spark the imagination. When these are applied to theoretical situation, the resulting brain games or thought experiments offer the participants a thoughtful experience. On the other hand, if theory and vision are applied to real situations, actions are then taken, plans are initiated, and real, tangible results can be seen. Collective human knowledge is a grand thing and can accomplish many feats when properly driven; however, there are some problems that modern-day science and theory just can’t quite accomplish.
Manned missions to Mars were purely fiction decades ago, but nowadays we have the knowledge to actually follow through with the vision, albeit we need the cash first. Global warming has been a gorilla in the room for some time, but we still don’t have the capacity to tackle the problem, so what do we do? Pass it on to the next generation. Population growth, too, has been a niggling situation that refuses to go away, so what do we do? Shrug and pass it on to the next generation.
Population transfer was common in the Soviet Union before 1950, not due to population growth, however. These forced resettlements often affected several anti-Soviet categories of peoples for a total of about six million… the same population size as the story. Stalin had millions of ethnic peoples marching around the country on relocation, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. In 1943-1944, 1.9 million people were deported to Siberia. As millions were sent away from the urban centers of western USSR, the problem may have been scattered throughout the land, but it still remained in the land. After WWII, many of these people were repatriated, or sent back to the west to rejoin the more civilized part of the Union. Even then, resentment must have stewed in the hearts and minds of the once resettled. Placing them back in the west only, again, shifted the problem from one place to another.
Eventually, whatever stop-gap measures are taken to relieve the pressure, the effect will continue and the result will return with consequences.
Review: As with most short, short stories, this one relies on a quick setting up of absurdity followed by a quick punch at the end; in this story, both are effective. But the story also involves a bit of a mind-twisting with the time-travelers—it takes a little bit of time to get in the right frame of mind. So, the reader must engage with the story, think about the story to make it work. Most short, short stories are too simple (I can think of many from Asimov and Conklin’s 50 Short Science Fiction Stories), but this one is a nice piece of short work.
“When You Return” – Igor Rosokhovatsky (novelette, 1966/1967) – 3.5/5
Synopsis: Out of the blue, little Vita is helped by the avuncular figure of a man—Valery Pavlovich. The man says he’s on vacation and would like to take the girl to Prague. Visiting her mother, Valery declines food while Ksana eyes the man with familiarity—has she seen him in a painting with her husband prior to being widowed? It soon becomes clear that Valery is actually a synhom (synthehomo) who can fly with its own jets and read other’s minds. His history, however, is not so superhuman—he only wants the most human of things. 22 pages
Analysis: In a capitalist society, as opposed to a communist one, subjective and intangible gulfs separate us all, be it gender, age, class, or occupation. We don’t dig them chasms by ourselves, rather, our society deems these classifications—among others—important, so we situate ourselves where we are and see other as who they are not: us. It’s this mindset that acts on a variety of levels itself: passively (I am me and you are you and that’s OK) and actively (I am me who is better than you and that’s a fact). Regardless, the gulf exists; sometimes it’s a calm channel of acceptance and other times it’s the turbulent ocean of racism, sexism, etc.
Let’s say that the modern era of communism actually achieved equality for all genders, ages, classes, and occupation—they are created equally and live as equals. What would be the next step of possible discrimination? The answer: perhaps those who are actually created unequally, such as Valery Pavlovich.
Aside from the young girl’s perspective through her innocent eyes, Pavlovich’s welcoming into Vita’s home is tepid at best. Her mother remains steeled against whatever the man-cum-machine has to say. Behind his back, Vita’s grandmother is even harsher against his nature, thereby supplying the read with three generations of perspective: the young and open innocent child, the steeled and experienced mother, and the wizened yet discriminate grandmother.
Their discrimination rests only in the fact that he is not equal to themselves: he can fly and he can read minds. Regardless of his given talents, however superior, the mother and godmother initially refuse to accept the walking and talking person as just that—as person. Only when the truth is revealed does one of them take an about-face becoming so readily to accept what she had once shunned.
Review: At first, this story is a little creepy: A young girl takes an older man’s kindness in hand then takes him to her family’s home. He tells her that he wishes to fly her to Europe so that they could visit a toy factory together, Compound this with the fact that the man—nay, a synthetic human—can fly on his own means, and this story has a dull, creepy feeling to it. When it becomes certain that the man’s feelings for the girl are actually more paternal than predatory, the story takes on an emotional aura that carries on through the end. There are a few heart-strings to tug, for sure, but it’s a nice story.
“‘One Less’” - Igor Rosokhovatsky (shortstory, 1966/1966) – 4/5
Synopsis: One nameless man careens through the city in his truck with disregard for safety as he’s more focused on his cigarette. Another man—named Victor Nikolayevich—is lost in thought as he dodders on the sidewalks of the same city mulling the mystery of the brain’s “group K”, which allows humans to display untapped powers of strength and self-healing by will alone; with his thoughts cascading, he abruptly finds the answer, just abruptly as his collision with the first man. A third man—a nameless witness—views the aftermath and plods away. 5 pages
Analysis: Strangers are other people. They are formless shapes devoid of personality, character, and mannerisms. We have the tendency to depersonalize them as if they were shaped from a common mold, like one of the six million rivets that make up the Sydney Harbour Bridge—lose one and the structure still stands. The loss of that one rivet, however, creates further stress for the rest of the rivets, which could have a chain effect if more were removed.
Apply this back to the rivets of society we call strangers. Generally, all rivets have the same features: a head, a body, and a tail. Not all rivets, however, have the same dimensions—some are big, some are small. But when glancing at a rivet for the first time, perspective can diminish a rivet’s dimensions yet still keep its proportions; a small rivet could look just that, but a big, load-bearing rivet could look the same—if you shrug at the importance of the latter and you happen to lose or remove it… you had better be prepared for the consequences be they near or far.
In the story, the driver and the witness are of those people who see all rivets as one-in-six-million—a numerical inconsequence. Little did either of them realize, the one rivet that they would both cross paths with—Victor—could have relived them from what ailed them. Unbeknownst to them, the most central rivet just collapsed before their eyes and they didn’t even bat an eyelash. How could they have, though? Victor was just another one of the six million, an inconsequence, a numerical insignificance… there is very little significance in the number of one among the millions.
Review: Another tight, little story that ends as abruptly as it had begun. The five pages of the story coarsely weave in the first two threads: the driver of the truck and the scientist, who are destined to meet, as the reader can clearly predict. But toward the end, the third man—the witness—twists the perspective of the story ever so little, yet the torque is just enough to offset the predictability. The resulting effect completes the vision the author had intended and leaves the reader with a sense of guilt, almost.
“‘We Played Under Your Window’” - Vladimir Shcherbakov (shortstory, 1966/1966) – 3/5
Synopsis: Prior to Sergey’s twenty-year-long trip out of the solar system to investigate stellar fields, his wife left with their son. The only thing he really wanted upon his return was to see his son, but time has been unkind to the hero and he knows not of their whereabouts. Now, having returned, Sergey goes back to his neighborhood with fond memories of the children, whom he used to spoil, much to the annoyance of his neighbors. Two things surprise him: one old neighborhood child meets him at him home, and a cosmodrome representative informs him that they have no record of his landing. 14 pages
Analysis: Sergey had just realized his life-long destiny of touring a star; this is regardless of the fact that his wife had left him with their son. Upon completion of his mission and his subsequent return to earth, Sergey is filled with pride yet only borders on the enlightenment of self-actualization (as per Maslow’s hierarchy of needs). With his wife and only child missing, he only needs the bolster of respect to support him in his own self-actualization; meanwhile, he can stand proud of achievements.
Much like in the workplace where respect can be garnered from three directions—below: subordinates; on-level: peers; and above: superiors—Sergey finds himself in an awkward position upon his return to earth. He holds fond his memories of having treated the neighborhood’s children well and, in return, they reflect their attention to him as he returns, albeit older; thus, he has won respect from the younger generation (akin to subordinates). As for his peers, he’s widely known to be the foremost explorer of the State as his accomplishments are unsurpassed; thus, his admiration and/or respect from peers is so high that it’s at a tacit level. From his superiors, however, respect is, upon his return, withheld due to his incredulous story.
Even after returned from a solo mission to and from the stars, his superiors don’t even grant him the respect he deserves; that small division between respect-giving and respect-withheld is the gossamer-thin fact that his return was never documented. He left, did his duty, and returned as an aged man, yet his superiors refuse to believe, against all other indicators, that he completed his State-given mission. The children, on the other hand, openly receive the once warm man even though they, too, have no tangible evidence of his mission: to treat his subordinates (read: the younger generation) with respect.
Thus, Sergey will be held in limbo between the levels of Esteem and Self-actualization merely because of tangible proof, a facet of modern so-called logic that is intangible according to the minds of the very people who consider the “proof” as valid.
High-level organizational chivalry is dead; long live the warm pleasures of proof.
Review: The analysis of the story is much more involved than the actual delivery of the story, a warning label of which I should fix upon most of my short story analyses. In essence, Sergey remembers his return to the village but not the actual landing, an event that mystifies him and the scientists in the field. The actual cause of the discretion is predictable. Thereafter, another predictable element comes into play that further dilutes the story.
“Preliminary Research” - Ilya Varshavsky (shortstory, 1965/1970) – 4/5
Synopsis: Enticed by a lucrative job offer, Dr. Rong leaves his biochemistry research position. For something entirely vague, he’ll earn three times his normal salary simply by thinking creatively by whatever means possible. His supervisor—Mr. Latianic—says he’s allowed to imbibe in alcohol or drugs such as heroin—like his female colleague Noda Storn—as long as he offers up creative scientific ideas. Prosperous ides begin to form in his head and the computer accepts each absurd one, but for what nefarious reason would this kind of program exist? 18 pages
Analysis: Function, beauty, and originality rarely converge. Take a sphere: it’s quite beautiful yet hardly original, nor is it exactly a useful form—like a panda. Next, take the first bicycle: it’s ugly and not terribly useful, but you have to admit it was original—like a platypus. Lastly, take a rubber band: it’s super useful but there are many like it in exactly the same shape—like an ant.
The field of science is where the three do tend to converge, however; to name a few: buckminsterfullerene, supernovae, and the human eye. Regardless of the rare trifecta of design, the field of science also leans towards functionality rather than design; therefore, a scientist’s logic is held in much higher regard than their aesthetic balance or overall originality. If either of the latter follow suit, it’d merely be a consequential bonus.
Q: Take the logic out of scientists and what would you have left?
A: Idling minds bent on finding order where none is to be found.
As Dr. Rong idles without his demanding work, his mind begins to stray with such thoughts as, “[P]erhaps all this abracadabra [of cabalistic symbols in White and black Magic] was only a coded expression of certain logical concepts” (191), a thought of which the computer quickly gobbled up. Another from his heroin-addicted colleague: “[I]f blood contained chlorophyll in addition to hemoglobin, then, given a transparent skin, metabolism within the organism could take place in a closed cycle” (195), another idea of which the computer consumed greedily.
Who could possibly want to harvest such modes of thought? What wicked motivation could they be following? The answer is closer to your nose than it may seem.
Review: What begins as a mystery and a bit of a thriller turns, abruptly, at the end into a much more whimsical story, an ending of which would better match a 4- or 5-page short, short story rather than the 18-page length here. It cleverly takes you along page for page, leaving morsels of hints for you to follow, teasing and enticing you, only to have it remove its glove and slap you in the face, thus provoking a profound “aha!” It’s clever and fun with a unique ending that’ll get the best of you, leaving a smile on your face while nodding your head in satisfaction. Akin to R.A. Lafferty; not very Soviet at all!
“He Who Leaves No Trace” - Mikhail Yemtsev & Yeremey Parnov (novelette, 1962/1963) - 2/5
Synopsis: Nibon and Andrey visit the bucolic planet of Green Pass so that they can pass time with its only resident, the widower and eccentric scientist George Korin. Calmed by the pastoral setting, they are caught unawares by the odd behavior of their colleague Korin: seemingly jumping through windows, running over grass untouched, and disappearing from a locked room. When Korin undergoes parthenogenesis, his ether-like selves engage in sport and combat. Things only become stranger as these blobs begin to coalesce and the violence increases. 45 pages
Analysis: A common proverb: “Familiarity breeds contempt”—the more you know about something, the more you grow to dislike it. This goes for subjects as well as people. But this is a funny proverb as the wording has a pun of sorts. Familiarity requires a relationship of two parties: a subject and an observer. Conjugally, the two produce a frisson of contempt on part of the observer. If we change familiarity to isolationism, how would we change the transitive verb to reflect the new “relationship”:
· Isolation parthenogenesizes eccentricity?
· Isolation sporogenesizes eccentricity?
· Isolation clonally fragments eccentricity?
You get the idea. People who willingly isolate themselves from all others have the tendency to develop quirks, but let’s be honest and just say they loosen and lose a few screws along the way, thereby rendering them as rickety as a turn-of-the-century circus ride. Isolated, they lose that tacit understanding of what is and what is not acceptable behavior or mannerisms. They become lost in labyrinth of themselves, deduce truth from their own warped logic, and create idiosyncratic rituals—read: they’re nuts.
George Korin, in the story, is an eccentric man living alone on a planet without observation. He has lost the ability to understand where dangers lie. No one tells him that his research is dangerous, no one is there to clean up his mess, and everyone could be put in peril because of his heedless acts of research through isolation. Without supervision from above—from a governing body such as the ethics of science or arm of a government ministry—George plunges headlong into unfamiliar and dangerous territory.
If this can be true for the individual, the same could also be said for governments, especially communist governments:
from 1944 to 1990, China
from 1949 to the 1970s, North Korea
since 1953, and, of course, the Soviet Union.
I don’t think “eccentric” exactly encapsulates the result of their isolation:
distrust transforms into xenophobia, non-intervention alters into non-alliance,
and self-preservation becomes rigamortis.
But this whole “isolation parthenogenesizes eccentricity” can come full circle back to “familiarity breeds contempt”. Once the country is shutoff from other nations—in the
case, from the Iron Curtain—society becomes a closed system that stagnates and
ferments, the building heat and pressure needing release: revolution. USSR
In George’s case, the isolation and familiarity both rear their heads resulting in a cataclysmic battle, kind of like of civil war but actually a war amongst his cloned/ parthenogenesized/sporogenesized selves. Amid George’s unintentional self-induced war, the outsiders—Nibon and Andrey—are able to infiltrate the fragile state of George’s isolation and witness the results of his research and the results of the battle. George, however, is still able to learn from his failure for the benefit of all as he decides to open his borders and share his knowledge.
Review: This story very much unfolds like a juvenile novelette. It’s piece-by-piece full of oddity and whim, none of which actually intrigues a more mature reader. One bizarre event follows another bizarre event and so forth; in the end, some sense is made of the long 45-page mess but it tries too hard with pseudo-scientific jargon. Needless to say, it’s the weakest of the thirteen-story collection, but, adding insult to injury, it’s also the longest story. As it’s slapped like a brick onto the end of collection, its simple addition significantly detracts from its twelve predecessors.