Six Matches – Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

“Six Matches” (short story) by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

English Publication History: The Heart of the Serpent (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), More Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)

Original: Russian (Шесть спичек), 1959

Translated by R. Prokofieva, 1961

Synopsis: With the arrival of a neutron beam generator, the chief of the physics laboratory of the Central Brain Institute—Andrei Komlin—eagerly begins his experiments behind closed doors. After a few months, only Komlin’s assistant knows of the various experiments as he has participated in and been subject to a few of them; meanwhile, the Director is left clueless. A series of accidents and bizarre incidences raise eyebrows, but only when Komlin is left catatonic does investigation begin on his brain experiments and sacrifice.

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: Progress—and eventual defeat of Nature—is conducted by the means of Scientific Method: question > research > hypothesis > experiment >  analyze > report. This is the rational way to investigate the pattern and mysteries of Nature and should not be given detour. Rationalizers—as mentioned in the propaganda quote above—should be active in their pursuit of progress, but not reckless. In “Six Matches”, the scientists involved in the neutron beam experiments are reckless as they treat the tried-and-true Scientific Method dismissively: “They are trying to take a short cut to the Truth, to victory over Nature. But too often they pay with their lives” (181).

Both Capitalists and Communists respect the Scientific Method; however, both somehow romanticize those rogues who take the occasional shortcut in favor of making that big breakthrough; for example: Jonas Salk with the polio vaccine and Sir Humphrey Davy with nitrous oxide. When these self-inflicted tests are a success, the scientists are heralded as brave souls in fight against ignorance, yet when these tests fail, the scientists are mocked as ignorant. Ingenuity—not sacrifice—is the fuel that drives progress.

[T]his was a wonderful age … Wonderful people too, these Communists of the fourth generation. Like their predecessors, they forged boldly ahead with little thought of themselves, from year to year advancing more and more daringly into the unknown. It required tremendous efforts to channel this vast ocean of enthusiasm so as to use it with maximum effect. Mankind’s victory over Nature must be won through the medium of ingenious machines and devices and precision instruments, not by sacrificing lives of its finest representatives. And not only because those who live today can accomplish far more than those who died yesterday, but also because Man is the most precious thing on Earth. (182)

When the efforts of the self-sacrificing scientist begin to encroach upon the taboo fields of pseudoscience, they further lose credibility as a so-called scientist, one who holds sacred the Scientific Method; therein, they should no longer be labeled as such, rather perhaps as pseudo-scientists, the ultimate downfall for any respected scientist.

 

The story penetrates the tacit ethos of scientists everywhere and the responsibility of even the Communists to abide by the Scientific Method. While heroism and sacrifice in war is much lauded, commended, and awarded, the same heroism and sacrifice is greatly frowned upon.

Review: This story follows the mad scientist rut quite predictably with additional aspects of the paranormal. How neutron beams affect the brain to produce telekinesis isn’t explained even remotely, it’s just left as is. The curious effect of the experiments is that the telekinesis is unidirectional—push—but resists any other movement—lift. The title “Six Matches” comes from Komlin’s experiment of trying to lift the said objects with his mind. Aside from showing the rationalization of Communist scientists, the government mocking the sacrifice of the mad scientist, and the bizarre effects of the same mad scientist’s experiments, there’s very little here to capture the reader.

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The Trial of Tantalus – Victor Saparin

“The Trial of Tantalus” (novelette) by Victor Saparin

English Publication History: The Heart of the Serpent (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), More Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)

Original: Russian (Sud nad Tantalusom), 1959

Translated by R. Prokofieva, 1961

Synopsis: Regardless of the plagues and deaths they once caused, the future of humanity has preserved all known bacteria and viruses for safe-keeping, study, and one-day use if need be. All origins of such pestilent organisms can be accounted for except for the recent spread of Tantalus on Jamaican sugar cane plantations. As Barch investigates, he’s called to another sickness of unknown origin: sick elephants in Africa. Once thoroughly examined without a clue of cause, he’s called yet again to the Pacific to witness robustly growing bamboo.

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #33:

Citizens of the Soviet Union! Make careful use of our nation’s natural resources! Struggle for their preservation and growth!

Analysis[1][2][3]: Socialism isn’t about only benefiting your own clique, race, or society; rather, it’s about spreading the good to all in need. Because it’d be unlikely for any superpower to feel needy in any regard, this benevolence tends to trickle down to those nations that don’t have the basic infrastructure to even begin to address their problems. With rose-tinted glass cast aside, this type of aid is always—always—attached with strings as the aid is tainted by militarism, ideologies, or another counterproductive addition from the Soviet embassy staff; thence, a direct link to Moscow.

Though Soviet aid was tainted from the above governmental ills, the Soviets themselves didn’t lavish in spreading aid everywhere on the globe as they still considered the financial benefits of such aid. In hindsight peering into the 1960s, if you consider the main countries they did assist, you’d be leery to stand in line for the free lunch the Soviets provided: Cuba, Ethiopia, and Indonesia, etc. It seems like the Soviets’ pet project was Ethiopia and Somalia, where they provided much more than military and ideological aid, but scholarships, printing presses, and technical training; however, as the two nations stood in tension amid their hostilities, the Soviets continued dripping their fingers in both pies while the American wanted to spend their aid in the same countries… thereby making the Horn of Africa a war of ideologies. The wonderful of such lavish aid can be seen today as both Ethiopia and Somalia flourish in development. Thanks, US and USSR.

In “The Trial of Tantalus”, the communists can be seen as benefactors in two ways: (1) by helping each nation with their specific problem and (2) by preserving the past in the form of having a museum dedicated to past plagues.

The altruistic government of the future USSR sends manpower and intellectual aid to Jamaica (parallelism to Cuba?) in order to tackle sugarcane plague, then the same aid whizzes off to Africa (parallelism to Ethiopia?) to witness sick elephants, only then to be whisked off to the Pacific (parallelism to Indonesia?) to investigate the unusual bamboo. In the light shone by the story, each instance is graced by the concerning presence of the communists and there’s no behind-the-scenes exposure of the politics and militarism of each package of aid. Nowadays, Russia is quite thrifty with their aid, giving only 0.03% of their GNI when compared with Latvia’s 0.08%, Turkey’s 0.42%, or Norway’s 1.07%.

As a defendant and researcher of all things small and big—including the wee-sized viruses and bacteria—Russia continues this trend today. Only the US and Russia have quantities of smallpox in their government laboratories. Though the topic of whether to destroy these samples has continues for thirty years, both governments maintain that they must keep the sample in case the virus ever rears its head again in nature.

Review: The story sets itself up for a complex twist between Barch as the investigator of the three instances around the globe and Barch as the shipwrecked passenger on the way to the third investigation. As he considers his plight while stuck on a rocky islet in the middle of Pacific, he recounts the story of the coincidences between the recent outbreaks and the finding of a new virus in the Amazonian mud. Obvious to the reader, the linkage is clear: the new virus caused the recent outbreaks, so there is no twist. The final paragraph offers a topical sigh as the story wraps up answering the question “If Earth is now safe from all infection, where will Barch go?” Nothing enlightening here.

Stone from the Stars – Valentina Zhuravleva

“Stone from the Stars” (short story) by Valentina Zhuravleva

English Publication History: The Heart of the Serpent (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), More Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962), The Edge of the Chair (Harper & Row, 1967)

Original: Russian (Звездный камень), 1960

Translated by R. Prokofieva, 1961

Synopsis: When a meteorite crashes into the highlands of Pamir, the discoveries inside excite all areas of science, even the biochemist. As he’s called to view the meteor, he is informed of the true excitement that surrounds the object: encased within in a cylinder and within that there is a being who knocks on its walls in reply. When it emerges, the brain-shape of the alien baffles many but was predicted by one man present. The excitement only heightens when the begin to unravel the secrets as the brain sits dying.

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #27:

Workers of industry! Struggle for the further development and strengthening of the industrial power of our Motherland! Widen the road of new techniques and progressive technologies!

Analysis: Only guesses could be made—be they complex hypotheses of a learned man or the rambling writings of a hack—as to what the future would hold. Today’s progress toward the ever-approaching future is measured by the vague word “success”, which is sometimes technological or sociological… and usually both when it concerns Cold War communism.

Clearly, the thing that fell from the sky held a technological trove of science that could benefit the State is all matters of ways. From the exotic metallic shell that encased the brain, to the biological skin that enshrouded the brain, to the mass itself that is the brain, all elements of the unexpected discovery could lead to progress as measured in technological terms.

As perfect as it was, it sat there decaying and dying while unknowingly divulging its secrets. The humans who surrounded the tantalizing mass could only study to learn more because, as they convened to agree, they could do nothing as it simply continued to die. Perhaps it deserved its death as complex as it was—a precariously advanced state where the simplest thing could trigger its simple end; so specialized and so envisioned yet all-too unnatural and all-too fallible. Regardless, this seed of knowledge will one day allow humans to visit the stars in order to return to “come back to Earth bearing the unfading torch of Knowledge” (165).

The parallel here is between communism—the true type of society and governance by the people, for the people in all matters of equality—and capitalism—a mongrel, steady-state of decay from its origins of slavery. In regards to those who study economy and laude the benefits of capitalism, “we scientists who work in narrow fields show little imagination in predicting the future. We are far too engrossed in what we’re doing in the present to foresee the shape of thing to come”; in contrast, “the Future is often more clearly envisioned by non-specialists” (161).

And so, as the beyond-comprehension complexity of capitalism and its economics succumb to its’ death throes, the vigilant scientists of the communist State take note and learn from the anguish, knowledge with which they plan to use to endeavor for the impossible dream—knowledge with a capital K: Knowledge.

Review: This story is quote heavy-handed on the science of the brain and its encasement. Only is two short sections does the author purport anything related to communism and/or capitalism. Excerpts of the two short passages are quoted above. If you’re giving this story a once-over, it could easily come off as simply another technology-dominate story; but reading between the bulk of the speculative science, a small glimmer emerges, yet it doesn’t save the story. OK, the brain is capitalism dying and the scientists are vigilant scientists, but the parallels cease there when extra science is added to the mix: exotic alloys, radiations shields, and bio-automatons.

 

Siema – Anatoly Dnieprov

“Siema” (novelette) by Anatoly Dnieprov

English Publication History: The Heart of the Serpent (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), More Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)

Original: Russian (Суэма), 1958

Translated by R. Prokofieva, 1961

Synopsis: A man interrupts the slumber of another train passenger, who sits down and seems to have a lot on his mind. When the disrupted passenger inquires about his worries, the man recalls a lengthy tale in which he actually created a machine that could learn, read, speak, and think like a human—almost. Through a series of logical deductions, the machine began to outpace its creator who then began to have trouble deducing the machine’s logic. When the passenger offers their thoughts, the insight into human nature draws an immediate parallel.

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #39:

Pioneers and school children! Fervently love the Soviet Motherland, persistently acquire knowledge and labor skills! Prepare yourselves to become active fighters for the task of Lenin, for Communism!

Analysis: Drive by the analogy that the nervous systems is just a series of electrical pulses—a code of ones and zeroes—a semi-deranged scientist delves into the intricacies of his project: create a robot that thinks like a human. The result is a machine (Siema: self-improving electronic machine) that can write its own program; the stationary construct can calculate numbers, use human language, and learn from experience—it was write its own programs. After it had learned to read, it began to voraciously consume literature and learn from the material. When engaged in conversation with its creator, the machine—a her incidentally—began to argue.

With similar mental processes, the two were alike: man and machine; however, the man considered Siema to be of lesser class as it was made of metal, as it was created from the creator, thereby being made to serve its creator. The crux of the man’s argument: “A machine cannot add anything to the knowledge man has given it. It can only use that knowledge” (107).

After it begins to read and think, it soon begins to feel, sense, explore, and study in situ. When the man awakes to his creation studying him, he becomes unnerved by the reversal of observation. It makes the remark that direct experience is necessary for its progress, that study of the human brain can excel its more perfect state. Of course, the man is threatened by the knife-wielding mechanism… but it’s a state of mind that the man pushed upon the machine, so he’s about to become a victim of his own success.

Though the theme is tiresome—a man-made machine goes berserk on its creators—this story has a surprising parallelism that made it past the censors. Arkandy and Boris Strugatsky’s “Spontaneous Reflex” (1958/1961 [Soviet Science Fiction]) dealt with a similar issue, but its revolt was more naïve, more curious than the borderline vindictiveness of “Siema”.

Aside from various other revolutions, revolts, rebellions, and uprising, consider the number of peasant revolts in Russia in the last 500 years:

  • the Bolotnikov Rebellion (1606-1607)
  • the Spepan Razin Rebellion (1667-1671)
  • the Bulavin Rebellion (1707-1708)
  • the Koliyivshchyna (1768-1769)
  • Pugachev’s Rebellion (1773-1775)
  • the Kosciuszko Uprising (1794)
  • the Mahtra War (1858)
  • Urkun (1916)
  • the Arsk Uprising (1918)
  • the Tambov Uprising (1920-1921)

With a long history of grassroots revolt, the government of the Soviet Union of 1922 must have always been weary of uprising. Institutional toleration for dissent was at a nil level as they demanded those in revolt to die by gas poisoning. Needless to say, the government thereafter continued this hardline of attack on opposition, which in the government eyes was simply a continuation of organizational philosophy imparted by the peasants who started the communism ball rolling.

As a fully functional communist government (the created) by the peasants (the creators), surely there was friction of similar ilk to this story: “How is it that the machine [the State] turned against its creator [the peasants]?” (117). Were these same words in the man’s mind when he saw the revolt of his robot? Well after the fact and dwelling upon the whole incidence, the man reflects: “Nervous activity in man is regulated by two contradictory processes—excitation and inhibition. People who have no inhibition often commit crimes. This is precisely what happened to my Siema!” (117-118).

Review: While the parallelism is interesting in terms of Soviet history, the telling of the story is less than amusing or enlightening. Nearly the entire story is told in reported speech of t the ramblings of a mad scientist: “he said that he had said, ‘blah blah blah’”. The result is littered with uninteresting tenses in a narrative format and splattered with quotations marks for pages on end. The rambling is reminiscent of Alexander Kazantsev’s “A Visitor from Outer Space” (1951/1961 [Soviet Science Fiction]) where the author pours forth his theories in the guise of speculative fiction. It’s not at all readable, but it does spur the mind into fits of parallelisms.

The Heart of the Serpent – Ivan Yefremov

“The Heart of the Serpent” (novella) by Ivan Yefremov

English Publication History: The Heart of the Serpent (Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1961), More Soviet Science Fiction (Collier Books, 1962)

Original: Russian (Сердце змеи), 1959

Translated by R. Prokofieva, 1961

Synopsis: With the evils of primitive capitalism far behind in time, the logical society of the future begins to fulfill its destiny in the stars. The pioneer in multi-parsec travel to the stars is the Tellur and its dedicated crew who have left earth behind in space. With the time dilation, they understand that they will return 700 years in earth’s future, but the quest for knowledge compels them. On their scientific foray, they come across an alien ship in transit. Visually they’re similar, yet biologically they’re different; regardless, beauty has form.

Propaganda: Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union for the 60th Anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, propaganda slogan #51:

Long live the unity and close ties of the peoples of the nations of the socialist community! Let strengthen the indissoluble fighting union of the Communist parties of the socialist nations on the basis of the tested principles of Marxism- Leninism and proletarian internationalism!

Analysis: In a classless society, where everyone knows earth as their own backyard, the only new direction is outward into the ceaseless void of space. In that same society where everyone is a brother, joint labor has grown beyond the sustenance of cavemen; rather, joint labor is a higher goal, the common goal: “the need to unite first countries then the whole planet” (50). Once the earth had been united in communist brotherhood, they looked outward. With this step toward the stars, mankind strives to “harness the forces of Nature on a cosmic scale only after reaching the highest stage of a communist society … and the same applies to any other human [alien] races” (57).

Essentially, the world and society that has been portrayed in “The Heart of the Serpent” is a utopia whose only limitation is the speed of its science—the more they know, the more they conquer Nature. The heart of the Russians—now a global, unified people—returns to pioneering; where once Siberia and Africa were untamed lands ripe for dissemination and development, now the stars hold the same allure. Now far in the future, communism is no longer the aim of the scientific diaspora; more nobly, a more thorough and complete understanding of their island universe is their aim.

Being part of a rational society, the crew rationalizes that any aliens who are advanced enough to reach the stars must, too, be of communist blood because of joint labor and brotherhood. Once those same aliens are met—in a highly unlikely situation where they fly past each other on opposing courses and must veer in order to avoid collision—communism isn’t the topic of choice. This understanding sits tacit between the two races, who are brothers in their own way as the silence confirmation of their mutual societies—those who have traveled to the stars must have traveled the noble path of communism. The more mundane specifics of their origin and metabolism are the pet topics, all done without the medium of language… but what’s language between brothers?

Review: I chided the previous collection—Soviet Science Fiction (1961)—for being too subtle in the way of propaganda, which was noteworthy enough for Asimov to mention in the introduction. I believe that most people who would pick up SF from the Soviets, they would eagerly expect a pick of in-your-face propaganda… and “The Heart of the Serpent” would sate that appetite.

In addition to passages that expound the virtues of brotherhood, there are also damning lines, paragraphs, and pages dedicated to bashing capitalism and the west, which is usually produced with a flare of pro-communism: “Had not the first socialist state appeared in Russia and started a chain of epoch-making changes in the world, fascism would have taken the upper hand and plunged the world into nuclear war” (56). Those are myopic and hypocritical words as the Russians were as much of a loose cannon as America with their nuclear arms. Further, the story goes through the decline of capitalism (40-41), capitalism as a lower stage of development and its wastefulness (83-84), and again its wastefulness and evils as a slave-state (54-55).

As a science fiction story, it really achieves no purpose. Largely, it’s a platform to promote communism and to bash capitalism… oh, and there are aliens toward the end, who are naturally rational beings also fond of communism. The conjecturing is far-fetched (a recurring symptom of all the stories) and the coincidences are absurd. I like the story for its unabashed style of soap-box politics, but aside from that there is very little meat to the bones of the story.