“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: 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.