Professor Bern’s Awakening – Vladimir Savchenko

“Professor Bern’s Awakening” (short story) by Vladimir Savchenko

English Publication History: A Visitor From Outer Space (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)

Original: Russian (Пробуждение профессора Берна), 1956

Translated by Violet L. Dutt, 1961

Synopsis: The world is bent on suicide by more powerful and efficient ways, so Professor Bern has a plan to opt out of this eventual downfall: lower his body temperature in the absence of moisture and lay supine for one-hundred-eighty centuries below forty-five feet of desert floor. With only his assistant knowing his secret, the professor settles in for the long sleep in the void of the Gobi desert. He awakens stiffly, looks at the time, and bores to the surface; there, he sees a tree, a bird, and a humanoid with a club running at him.

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #70:

Peoples of the world! Decisively speak out against the production of the neutron bomb! The design and production of new types of weapons of mass destruction must be halted!

Analysis: Regardless on which side of the Iron Curtain you looked, each was amassing earth-shattering weapons: multi-warhead-tipped ICBMs with hydrogen bombs and neutron bombs. The so-called “arms race” was nothing more than a pissing match with quantity of bombs, tonnage of bombs, and more novel ways to kill in mass.

In 1956, when this story was originally written, the US production of weapons was in full swing (2,422 in 1955) while the USSR production line was still infantile (200 in 1955). But, certainly, on the horizon for both nations, a news arms race had already begun, wafting fears of mutually assured destruction… a destruction of life, culture, and nations not only on both sides of the Iron Curtain, but all over the world. Insanity.

As a professor, Bern is a learned man who can see the course of history before his eyes by reviewing the facts and inserting the variables. Scared by the escalations in political rhetoric and production of arms, Bern makes the educated decision to opt out of this decade, this century, this millennium altogether, and this eon all together. Even though the third world war will be fought with atomics and the earth devastated, Professor Bern believes that the earth can replenish its vitality over time… or 18,000 years to be exact.

Professor Berns finds a kernel of truth in the following quote, a paraphrase of which opens the story: “I know not with what weapons World War III will be fought, but World War IV will be fought with sticks and stones”. But Bern is just a man at his core, someone who is just as scared of life as everyone else and searches for something to cling to; some men cling to the bottle, others to religion or hate (or both), but Bern clings to the wise words of a fellow learned man.

Review: There are two parts of this story that are carefully constructed yet both require the reader to withhold believability: the delivery and the punchline. Bern thinks—knows through experiments—that he can hold a body in low-temperature limbo for at least six months so, naturally, this process can be protracted 36,000-fold. When he awakes with only grogginess, the reader must maintain the first line of credibility—that of the delivery. The last full page is an added level of incredulousness, yet it’s also kind of cool. When taken in terms of propaganda for the State, the ending has a few subtle reminders that the Party will survive.

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Infra Draconis – Georgy Gurevich

“Infra Draconis” (novelette) by Georgy Gurevich

English Publication History: A Visitor From Outer Space (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)

Original: Russian (Инфра Дракона), 1958

Translated by Violet L. Dutt, 1961

Synopsis: With ideas in his head and stars in his eyes, Rady Blokhin yearns to meet the famed space navigator Grandpa Charushin, who’s been the first man to Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, etc. Rady’s radical idea: There may be black-bodied stars—called infras—that are so small that they don’t radiate light yet they have enough warmth to heat its surface internally. Charushin takes to the idea and soon one is found seven light-days away, a thirteen year flight. They both join the six-man mission and discover not only one, but two infras.

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #11:

Long live the indissoluble union of the working class, kolkhoz peasantry, and national intelligentsia! Strengthen the social-political and ideological unity of Soviet society!

Analysis: Charushin isn’t only the universally admired hero of the state, but he’s only a caring and concerned individual. His triumphs in space have never detracted him from the core of his existence—before being a hero, he was simply a man, and forever a simple man he will be. Now, however, he is a man of the people, so he must help those who lack his influence and power.

His down-to-earth approach wins admirers in the scientific community as well as among the people at large. Charushin even entertains the scientific whims of an eager, young man named Rady. The young man’s convictions, though continually against the opinions of the other professionals, wins the mind and heart of Charushin. When Rady’s nearly preposterous theory is proven correct, Charushin takes yet another leap for being such a well-admired hero of the state: he enlists for the mission.

Charushin’s dedication towards serving his people and his nation doesn’t cease even when he’s seven light-days from his mother country. When an unexpected discovery throws the mission into a tailspin, Charushin naturally, as the hero of the state, takes it upon himself to rectify the problem. The solution is an immensely personal one, yet he doesn’t think of himself—he only thinks about the success for his crew, his people, and his country.

Though Charushin is never mentioned of having received any distinction from the Soviet Union, his unprecedented statue as a hero must certainly qualify him for the nation’s highest distinction: Hero of the Soviet Union. Up until its disuse in December 1991, the award was given to 12,775 Heroes, many of them egotistical politicians and war veterans from WWII, but all Soviet cosmonauts also received the award. Naturally, as the highest distinction from the state, all recipients of the award should be held in the highest regard in terms of respect and morals. Charushin fits this profile by being selfless in the face of danger and by giving his life—in more than one regard—to the advancement of the state.

Review: Modern-day hero worship is a watered down affair where praise is given to those who do very little for such respect—actors, singers, soldiers, etc. For the most banal of reasons, many loft these so-called heroes with endless praise for, usually, one simple, unifaceted fact: they sing a hit song, they are admired; they star in comic book movies, they are admired; they enlist, they are admired. I’ve seen them all fall from shame, unworthy of the initial title of “hero” which was so carelessly lofted upon them. The word “hero” greatly loses its meaning when it’s vaunted toward every person who raises a finger.

Charushin, however, is worthy of the term… probably much more so than the other 12,775 so-called Heroes of the Soviet Union. His professional and humanistic acts are worthy of praise; he leads a productive life that benefits everyone; and he isn’t above sacrifice or ego. I doubt Charushin would fall from shame by his shameless acts of drug indulgence, misogyny, or highhandedness.

Compound this worthy worship of the hero with an interested scientific angle and the story is propelled by its own steam. It’s intriguing, respectable, and worthy of my own praise for being the best story in the collection.

The Martian – Alexander Kazantsev

“The Martian” (short story) by Alexander Kazantsev

English Publication History: A Visitor From Outer Space (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)

Original: Russian (Марсианин), 1958

Translated by Violet L. Dutt, 1961

Synopsis: Entertained by the detailed account of the Tunguska event, the same crew of the Georgy Sedov are eager to hear another story, be it far-fetched or not. A pilot recounts his tale of meeting a peculiar man—long-limbed, large-eyed, short, and bald—in his office coming to speak with him about his willingness to become a member of a manned Mars expedition. Most Soviet applicants take pride in their personal sacrifice to science and the State, but the odd little man says he just wants to return home.

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #31:

Young men and women! Persistently educate yourselves in communist convictions! Learn to live, work, and struggle as Leninists, as communists!

Analysis: This is somewhat of a continuation of Kazantsev’s previous story—“A Visitor from Outer Space”—where Martians crash land on Mars having originated from a Socialist civilization and seeking resources. The beginning of the story features the same gullible-slash-eager crew for storytelling; this time, however, the story is told through a pilot and his encounter with an unusual man.

In essence, the Martian who comes to visit Earth and the Soviet Union—albeit a departure from its original mission as the Martian did crash land—is eager to return to his people. His eagerness stems from his one major finding: What had taken thousands of generations of lineage and struggle for the Martians to develop their form of communism, the Soviets have reached the same advanced level in only one-hundred years. Inspired by the feat and spirit of the Soviet people, the Martian wishes to return to Mars in order to spread his enthusiasm of brotherhood.

Progress is commonly seen in terms of technology—the creation and use of it. To proponents of communism, progress is seen in the light of a political ideology championing equality—the creation and practice of it. Most Soviets were proud of both aspects: the creation of communism and the practice of communism. They considered it to be the end-game in all societies where all must be shared for social progress. The Martians reach that same point after hundreds of thousands of years, making it their own end-game of an equal society. The sheer triumph of the Soviet people to push forward with this mindset inspires the Martian.

Review: This story is, by far, the most gung-ho about communism—its creation and practice. To view it in a more favorable light of advanced progress, Kazantsev compares the USSR’s development of communism in decades with the Martians’ development of the same in millennia. It’s very heavily built upon a Soviet-centric view of their pride, minus the flag-waving, anthem-singing, and America-bashing. If there were piece of Soviet science fiction that trumps the propaganda of this story, it’d surprise me.

A Visitor from Outer Space – Alexander Kazantsev

“A Visitor from Outer Space” (short story) by Alexander Kazantsev

English Publication History: A Visitor From Outer Space (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)

Original: Russian (Гость из космоса), 1951

Translated by Violet L. Dutt, 1961

Synopsis: The ship Georgy Sedov stops in the arctic to pick up three unusual passengers who are on an expedition. The crew are curious to learn that the nature of the expedition is an astronomical one, yet it doesn’t concern the stars; rather, they are there to verify life of Mars. Yevgeny Alexeich Krymov, the lead astronomer, then outlines his theory of life on Mars with its causeways of life and how it relates to the Tunguska event of 1908 and his involvement in its scientific study. His series of facts entice and persuade the crew.

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #50:

Fraternal greeting to the peoples of the socialist nations! Let develop and strengthen the peaceful system of socialism–the deciding force of the anti-imperialist struggle, the bulwark of peace, democracy, and social progress!

Analysis: Conjecture upon conjecture, the so-called astronomer posits life on Mars with the bare minimum of fact compounded with the unshakable mindset of a zealot; as a result, the tainted inferences begin to stack into a scaffolding of the brittle twigs.

The impoverished Martian landscape naturally produces a socialist people who fly to Earth in order to seek its bounty of resources, yet understands the native people’s own needs for the same resources. Here, the presumed invaders are only benevolent victims of their natural environment wanting to understand and take what they need—no more, no surplus, no capital. In reality, Russia once unofficially founded a colony in Africa. Within a month, that colony was disbanded… and is it any wonder that it happens to be in the ever so displaced location of Djibouti, Somalia? Because we all know how well colonization affected its native peoples as there are so many shining examples of benevolence among them.

Also their sloppy landing—the result being the Tunguska explosion of 1908—comes only one decade before the October Revolution of 1917… which may or may not be a coincidence.

Review: As the analysis implies, the story really isn’t one that emits the character and culture of the Russian people; rather, it’s a cheaply woven fictional narrative infused with the author’s own exaggerated speculation on Mars and the Tunguska event.  That said, at least it’s an entertaining string of speculation; it’s not enough to convince the reader to subscribe to Kazantsev’s/ Krymov’s ideas, but it’s enough to beguile the ship’s crew. There are, however, still people who want to believe in the fantastic, minute possibilities on the steep sides of Occum’s Razor: naturally, an exploding UFO caused the Tunguska event—a conspiracy theory that’s been alive for 65 years.

Spontaneous Reflex – Arkandy & Boris Strugatsky

“Spontaneous Reflex” (novelette) by Arkandy & Boris Strugatsky

English Publication History: A Visitor From Outer Space (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)

Original: Russian (Спонтанный рефлекс), 1958

Translated by Violet L. Dutt, 1961

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

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #60:

Fraternal greeting to the courageous fighters for people’s freedom, democracy and socialism who are suffering in prisons and fascist walls! Communists and workers of all nations! More actively involve yourselves in the struggle to halt terror and repression! Freedom for the prisoners of imperialism and reaction!

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.

Hoity-Toity – Alexander Beliaev

“Hoity-Toity” (novella) by Alexander Beliaev

English Publication History: A Visitor From Outer Space (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)

Original: Russian (Хойти-Тойти), 1930

Translated by Violet L. Dutt, 1961

Synopsis: In Berlin, the circus’s main attraction is an elephant with the ability to count, read, and message. When it refuses to do manual labor, its handler strikes it leg, sending it off in a fit to the countryside. Named Hoity-Toity, it eats, bathes, and tramples where it likes until the police begin to shoot. Soon, a telegram informs the circus that a scientist is coming to handle the situation as he created it in the first place. Then the story unfolds of a brain transplant, an adventure through Africa, and fear of the white man.

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #39: “Engineers and technical workers! Rationalizers and inventors! Actively struggle to hasten scientific-technical progress!”

Analysis: While the main protagonist of “Hoity-Toity” is indeed the elephant with a man’s mind, Hoity-Toity is actually the result of brilliant Soviet scientific rationalization by the mind of Professor Wagner in Moscow. Wagner’s inventions baffle his own assistants—including the transparent, hollow, man-sized rubber ball—but his most amazing achievement to-date is the keeping and growing of a live brain—that of a man named Ring, who was young German scientist who died in Abyssinia. Wagner’s unparalleled rationalization skills allow him to benefit the young German by transferring his brain to that of an elephant, which is the only animal large enough to house his artificially grown brain.

Regardless of the unprecedented feat in modern science, Ring is ungrateful as he casually spends his life in a circus making money for its ringleader; and regardless of his size, Ring is irresponsible in his range of possibilities as she shuns manual labor for which he is clearly built. Once on his stubborn rampage, Ring is only calmed down by the assurance that he will meet Wagner, who may be the only person who truly understands his existence as an elephant. Hoity-Toity/Ring agrees to come back to the circus after a two-week vacation in the Alps, with the professor and his assistant along. Here, the professor is not only a great logic-minded scientist, but he is also a compassionate soft-hearted human.

Review: In his introduction to the collection, Isaac Asimov outlines three stages of American science fiction:

Stage One (1926-1938): adventure dominant

Stage Two (1938-1950): technology dominant

Stage Three (1950-?): sociology dominant

Being a Soviet science fiction story, you’d immediately assume that the premise for the story to have either an obvious sociological banner for communism or a clever underlying message… so, stage three. While the story starts out with hints of allegory about the responsibility of all Soviet labors—big and small, high and low—the story quickly turns into one of adventure and science, thereon losing all of its social currents in the beginning. This is a weak start to an otherwise hearty collection.