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.

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