“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.