Invasion – Roman Podolny

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“Invasion” (short story) by Roman Podolny

English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970)

Original: Russian (Нашествие), 1966

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1970

Synopsis: As boy eyes girl and girl eyes boy, they lean in for a kiss… only to be separated and interrupted by the intruding presence of a time-traveler from the past, again. The inventor of the time machine from 1974 yearns to introduce himself and explain his presence, only the entire time period knows of him and the six million others who have already appeared prior. In a measure to pass on the responsibility, the government sends the same six million further ahead in time so that the future generations can send them back when technology prevails… only no one has yet come back from the future.

 Analysis: Theory and vision are fine things that spark the imagination. When these are applied to theoretical situation, the resulting brain games or thought experiments offer the participants a thoughtful experience. On the other hand, if theory and vision are applied to real situations, actions are then taken, plans are initiated, and real, tangible results can be seen. Collective human knowledge is a grand thing and can accomplish many feats when properly driven; however, there are some problems that modern-day science and theory just can’t quite accomplish.

Manned missions to Mars were purely fiction decades ago, but nowadays we have the knowledge to actually follow through with the vision, albeit we need the cash first. Global warming has been a gorilla in the room for some time, but we still don’t have the capacity to tackle the problem, so what do we do? Pass it on to the next generation. Population growth, too, has been a niggling situation that refuses to go away, so what do we do? Shrug and pass it on to the next generation.

Population transfer was common in the Soviet Union before 1950, not due to population growth, however. These forced resettlements often affected several anti-Soviet categories of peoples for a total of about six million… the same population size as the story. Stalin had millions of ethnic peoples marching around the country on relocation, resulting in hundreds of thousands of deaths. In 1943-1944, 1.9 million people were deported to Siberia. As millions were sent away from the urban centers of western USSR, the problem may have been scattered throughout the land, but it still remained in the land. After WWII, many of these people were repatriated, or sent back to the west to rejoin the more civilized part of the Union. Even then, resentment must have stewed in the hearts and minds of the once resettled. Placing them back in the west only, again, shifted the problem from one place to another.

Eventually, whatever stop-gap measures are taken to relieve the pressure, the effect will continue and the result will return with consequences.

Review: As with most short, short stories, this one relies on a quick setting up of absurdity followed by a quick punch at the end; in this story, both are effective. But the story also involves a bit of a mind-twisting with the time-travelers—it takes a little bit of time to get in the right frame of mind. So, the reader must engage with the story, think about the story to make it work. Most short, short stories are too simple (I can think of many from Asimov and Conklin’s 50 Short Science Fiction Stories), but this one is a nice piece of short work.

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The Ultimate Threshold – German Maksimov

“The Ultimate Threshold” (short story) by German Maksimov

English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970), World’s Spring (Macmillan, 1981)

Original: Russian (Последний порог), 1965

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1970

Synopsis: “I am Velt-Nipr-ma Gullit, Master Mechanic, Honorary Ling of Sym-Kri” (125), he tells the confessor Machine at the House of Death, which he famously built so that all could have the choice of life; however, the society’s members of the forty-two castes warped the gift of life into an opportunity of death as strife for class became the focus of the lower castes. Now that Gullit knows his gift of good is actually an evil, he enters to take his own life after confessing to his own creation with intentions held.

Analysis: If you could give a caveman a wrench, he’d probably beat his neighbor; give him fire, he’ll probably burn down the forest; give him a sheep, he’ll probably fornicate with it… to err is human, it’s just in our genes. It’s pretty much written very clearly on our warning labels when we’re born: “Danger: Human”. Give humans the greatest gift—anything, name anything—and they’ll simply pervert it; case in point: the internet. What a great opportunity for everyone to learn and communicate… what a shame it’s become: cat pictures, spam, intentional misinformation, smut, banner advertising, trolls, etc.

The House of Death was meant to encourage people to reflect on their lives, to analyze their past choices while on the threshold of suicide; it was meant to cure the people of their woes and strength the fabric of society. Little did the creator—Gullit—realize that the resolve of common people is desperately low. The masses in the lower castes were simply driven numb by their perpetual struggle to achieve, were driven mad by what they could never become. Gullit’s intentions were honest, but he didn’t have all the facts. Because his lofty title and position, he was socially distant from the reality of his society. His one grand act of kindness utterly backfired.

“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” – even Karl Marx uses this aphorism in his Communist Manifesto. Look at Communism in the Soviet Union, in general: paved with good intentions and all, but it descended into a war of propaganda, hate, nuclear arms, skullduggery, and isolationism. Many government programs that have failed—in America, in the USSR, or here in Thailand—did so because of that vital link between—what I’ll inelegantly refer to as—policy makers and policy doers. The policy makers, like Gullit, are often out of touch with their highly esteemed position and the teetering weight of their ego; most often, they just don’t forget about the people, they just don’t care.

Gullit, however, did care and that’s what makes the story so tragic.

Review: Though the trope is tried and true—that of the creator confronting his creation so that he may undermine and destroy it—this story is a successful recycling of it with its social relevance and gloomy perspective. It’s fairly linear, a straight shot from start to finish, but I see strands of commentary slinging out upon every page. Some of the relevance in subtle or subjective as with most stories, but the story shines in its delivery of the explicit message, which isn’t conveyed via rambling monologue or lengthy paragraph.

The Useless Planet – Olga Larionova

“The Uselss Planet” (novelette) by Olga Larionova

English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970), The Tower of Birds (Raduga, 1989)

Original: Russian (Планета, которая ничего не может дать), 1967

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1967

Synopsis: The Twenty-seventh is one of a few Logitania who have come to a downtrodden planet as Collectors in order to judge the native’s usefulness in their orderly universe. The Twenty-seventh has taken the shape of a girl with a composite face, yet, though true to form in every way and manner, the town’s people still eye her. The Commander is frustrated with her and wants away from the senseless planet with its wasteful dalliances in art and emotion. The Twenty-seventh, however, sees value in the simplicity, even in her own complexity.

Analysis: Twenty-seven, in itself, is an innocuous number for an item in a list. When taken in the contexts of Russian and so-called Western numerological context, however, the number comes to light; in both generally defined cultures, “7” is lucky while “13” is unlucky—both being prime numbers, also. Now, multiply 13 by 2 and multiply 7 by 4; the results are respectively 28 and 26—the first of which is the inheritor of unlucky 13 while the latter is the successor of the lucky 7.

In this rather cursory numerological analysis of the number “27”, we can see that it’s neither lucky nor unlucky, neither gifted nor damned, neither auspicious nor ominous; rather, it’s held in a tight limbo between the two. So too is the so-called Twenty-seventh as she hangs in limbo. She finds herself caught between several constricting and impenetrable layers:

  1. Between the Logitania and the humans: Born of her alien race, she tacitly knows the culture of her own people yet takes the form of a human in order to do her research, a form and culture of which she is unfamiliar with and, after initial immersion, fails to find her place.
  2. Between her mission and her superior: Her form was created as a composite of all local females so that she’d look like a local, yet the locals don’t treat her as one  their own by sight; thus, because of her failure to integrate, her superior—the Commander—wants to take her off the project.
  3. Between duty and desire: While the Commander chides her on her poor performance and later isolates her as punishment, she witnesses the beauty of the human world with all its mystery, art, and grittiness; thus, she is conflicted by how to react to her punishment: with a sense of professional duty or a sense of personal purpose.

Review: There is so much internal and external conflict around the Twenty-seventh that the story seems to bubble and froth around her. Take into account a host of other conflicted, scarred, and troubled characters, the fifteen-page story quickly becomes one ripe with temper and emotion even though the alien culture is a logical one. As the story near the conclusion, the tension builds like a coiled length of cloth. The ultimate conclusion, however, supplies a nice release. Taking in consideration that it’s only fifteen pages, the story is a remarkable adventure in conflict and brevity.

The Horn of Plenty – Vladimir Grigoriev

“The Horn of Plenty” (short story) by Vladimir Grigoriev

English Publication History: Galaxy Magazine (December 1969), The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970), Fantasy: Shapes of Thinks Unknown (Scott Foresman and Company, 1974)

Original: Russian (Рог изобилия), 1964

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1969

Synopsis: Stepan Onufrievich Ogurtsov was a simple handyman with electronics and an amateur inventor before being inspired by the rusted sign at a scrap dealer. He turns the rusted horn of dereliction into a beneficial horn of giving—when he inputs refuse, the horn of plenty, in return, gives random tidings of prosperity: left-footed shoes, a bicycle, woolen socks, etc. As a feature, it can also reverse its function. At a public exhibition, the notorious naysayer Parovozovs gets sucked into the horn, along with its creator.

 Analysis: This story reminds me of the proverb, “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, which has a Russian equivalent that means, “Don’t look at the teeth of a horse you’ve been given”. Both descend from the 400 A.D. Latin version that means, “Never inspect the teeth of a given horse.” Regardless of which language you use as the proverb, the meaning is the same: don’t be ungrateful for a gift.

From this story, the spin on this proverb is that the gift is the man’s own creation; he was inspired to build it, actually built it, and attempted to patent it, yet he doesn’t exactly understand how it works. Regardless of his ignorance, he pushes through with his own rudimentary testing followed by a public showing. His pride rests in what his machine is capable of doing: it can turn rubbish or scarp into useful items; however, it can also turn the same useful items back into scrap—thus, it can renormalize material.

Perhaps the same pride blinds him as he doesn’t realize the senselessness of his enigmatic machine; by “senseless”, this is in the perspective of a communist, or anti-capitalist. When the machine produces, it seems to have no control over what it produces, so there is no demand for any of the items nor is it any part of the State’s central planning—i.e. The Plan. If there is no demand (by “consumers” or the planners) or use for the item, it is, by definition, useless; in turn, the machine itself is useless.

Further, in his pride and eagerness, he also doesn’t realize the limits of his machine. Certainly, it can produce samovars and bicycles and boots at random, but it can also reconstitute the original rubbish from the finished product—all but rubbish by definition. Only items what the machine had created were thrown back in, but no new items—items that hadn’t been created by the machine—had been reversed through.

These tangible items definitely have a source from natural resources, but what is the source of an intangible object, or an abstract idea: i.e. government, pessimism, or logic. Can these, too, be broken down into constituent parts and thrown back out again?

Review: This is a quirky story very much like something from Sheckley, van Vogt, Harrison, Simak, or Leiber. It’ll put a smile on your face as you question just where the author is leading the story, the reader—this is the first iota of imagination you must use. The second iota: The machine’s physical properties and inner workings are vague enough to compel you imagine. Lastly, the third iota, is in the conclusion: The conclusion is also vague, one tangent of thought of which included in the analysis. It’s a tight, clever story without any adornments.

When Questions are Asked – Anatoly Dnieprov

“When Questions are Asked” (short story) by Anatoly Dnieprov

English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970), When Questions are Asked (Raguda, 1989)

Original: Russian (Когда задают вопросы…), 1963

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1963

Synopsis: At Moscow State University, a group of alumni gather every year to discuss all things related to science. In this auspicious year, however, science only comes second to the philosophy of science and how no one captures the creativity of scientific experimentation like Faraday. When discussing trains of thought, they recall their odd classmate of old—Alyoshka Monin—and his observation of powder on the surface tension of sink water. After some wine, two of them visit Monin to witness another odd experiment: the source of memory.

Analysis: Stupidity is a common trait of the young—and of everyone in general, but let’s keep it simple. So, yes, stupidity runs rampant amongst the youth, but so does adventure and curiosity. To the wizened and sometimes wise, stupidity often equates to reckless adventure and curiosity. Little do they remember that they, too, were once young and took risks in life and for science. Where did they lose this passion for life, the same spark that caused them to be curious also urged them into the unknown realms of science. When did their innocence die and complacency blossom in place?

Monin was a foolish boy, always errant with his inquires in science, always a subject of mirth among his classmates. That was true until a phenomenon in the bathroom involving powders, suds, and a sink drew them all together to investigate the properties of the physical science. Most—actually, all—aside from Monin eventually found a rut with their scientific inquires; Monin, however, continued his whimsical research wherever his interests took him.

The alumni at the university may gather their noble minds to discuss greater matters together, but their sense of intrigue had long left them. Monin is a man who, even after all these years of complacency, stirs their interest. The old men see themselves as complacent and need to reaffirm their whim in visiting their capricious old friend. Fortified with a bit of wine, they venture to Monin steeled against whatever odd investigations he may be partaking in. The wine, however, doesn’t prepare them for that they find—should they take the old ding-bat seriously or brush him off like they used to?

Drunk with wine and disbelief, the well-rutted minds of the old men shrug away the coincidence their mutual friend levied upon them. Complacent with their own scientific inquiries, the fatal blow of close-mindedness comes when they can’t even face the truth of a curious mind’s experiment. Truly, stupidity comes full circle for them.

Review: It’s neither too serious nor too comic, but teeters upon the fulcrum awkwardly. The story feels like it’s missing an essential element—in presentation and in the plot. I mentioned that the analogy came full circle, but the story doesn’t come around at all: Monin, even in his advanced age, still pursues odd tangents of science at his odd job while the most distinguished alumni sit and talk. Monin’s background and experience isn’t explored, leaving only the analogy standing on its own: discover and live, or stagnate and die.

Formula of Immortality – Anatoly Dnieprov

“Formula of Immortality” (novelette) by Anatoly Dnieprov

English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970), New Soviet Science Fiction (Macmillan, 1979), New Soviet Science Fiction (Collier, 1980)

Original: Russian (Формула бессмертия), 1962

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1963

Synopsis: Albert is a second-generation geneticist whose father has done much pioneering work in the field yet, nowadays, is incapacitated by age. After a brief trip, Albert returns home to find a cherubic sixteen-year-old girl who his father than adopted as her parents had died, yet she was told they were away in Australia. The subterfuge deepens when Albert befriends the girl who speaks of a mad doctor named Horsk. As he investigates the mystery, he suddenly becomes personally and physically involved.

Analysis: The written word is a record, usually a retelling of experience, a track of numbers, or the whim of creativity. Some records track change, formulize routine, or even predict the future—a calendar is such a piece. Calendars give the illusion that we have some sort understanding to the workings of our minute universe, that we are masters of greater time even though we poorly manage our own time. Calendars are so accurate that we’re able to make them for decades, centuries, and millennia in advance.

This control of time gives us a measure of control in our lives—we’ll never wake up on a Tuesday with an announcement that it’s been changed to Thursday due to unforeseen circumstances. Granted it’s not super accurate: one day is actually four minutes shorter than twenty-four hours; however, the modern calendar is semi-accurate only now. About 620 million years ago, one day equaled 21.9 hours; in 4.5 billion years, the Earth would hypothetically have a month-long day.

Anyway, the calendar is written and written it stays: tomorrow is Wednesday, next month is May, and next year is 2017—nothing will change that… call it fate. Could the same be said of DNA? It’s also a record of sorts: who your parents are, what characteristics you’re likely to have, and what diseases you’ll be prone to. Would you want your DNA to be read like a calendar, albeit with less certainty?

  • That mole on your arm is 45% likely to metastasize by the time you’re 25
  • I hope you like kids cuz you have 90% chance of birthing twins
  • There’s no way you’ll ever see 80 with heart valves like that, buddy
  • Use it before you lose it cuz you’ll be impotent by the time you’re 40

What if the reading of your DNA could tell you the time in which you’ll die, sort of like a ticking time bomb? Would your life be any more valuable? Would you be worked to death while you’re still able-bodied? Would people with similar “expiration dates” be grouped in castes, made to labor and produce while still viable?

Review: The story lends some nice brain candy—something to linger over and savor like a never-ending gobstopper. The story itself, however, isn’t particularly as savory as the thought behind it. The thirty-two-page lead to the conclusion is full of hints like directional arrows and assumptions like bull’s-eyes. Within the story, there is very little left to the imagination; outside the story, however, there are a few things to consider.

Erem – Gleb Anfilov

“Erem” (short story) by Gleb Anfilov

English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970), The Year’s Best Science Fiction No. 4 (Sphere, 1971), Best SF: 1970 (Putnam, 1971)

Original: Russian (ЭРЭМ), 1962

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1963

Synopsis: When molten silicon begins to leak then spew from a fault in the wall of the crystallizer, an engineer and a cybernetics expert agree that the best recourse is to dispatch Erem, the intelligent emergency robot. Having been schooled in handling emergencies, an experience of which it fondly remembers, Erem understands the dangers yet has time to reflect about his existence amid the rising temperatures. Though the heat is dastardly as it wishes respite, Erem remains diligent while the engineer only asks for results

Analysis: Erem was built to serve. Rather than being a common servitor robot, Erem’s nature naturally put it in peril with every job. Emergencies were its specialty, so emergencies it what it did. When it served, it saved the factory and thus saved human lives. But in its specialized service, it ultimately found death through sacrifice.

Its fiery death of sacrifice can be seen in two regards: (1) death through duty or (2) death through caste.

  1. In the case of duty, as Erem was part of the team, part of the factory, its duty was bound to that collective: what’s good for the group is good for the individual; therefore, its individual death is a benefit to the collective factory. It was just one machine, after all.
  2. In the case of caste, Erem was born and bred for one purpose: to tackle emergencies that are too dangerous for human intervention. Here, Erem is more disposable than a human so it’s given a lower job, thus a lower caste. In his over-specialized caste, he meets death when death was a certainty in its life. The engineer and expert have no feeling toward the lowly caste and have no second thoughts to sacrifice it for the factory.

Regardless, Erem was proud of its sacrifice for the factory while its superiors felt inconvenienced by the disposed machine. Though the machine could think and feel, they simply sacrificed the lowly caste machine for the greater good, for human good.

Review: Given the short length of the story—only six pages—it does a pretty fair job of generating some sympathy for the little robot. If its length were doubled, I think the author could have better captured the scenario a little better. The rushed feel encapsulates the emergency and the human panic in contrast to the calm and collected thoughts of Erem, which is actually in the face of danger. Overall, it’s a compact little story with a couple layers of analogy.

Icarus and Daedalus – Genrikh Altov

“Icarus and Daedalus” (short story) by Genrikh Altov

English Publication History: The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970), SF: Inventing the Future (Bellhaven House, 1972), The Ultimate Threshold (Penguin Books, 1978), Ballad of the Stars (Macmillan, 1982)

Original: Russian (Икар и Дедал), 1958

Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1968

Synopsis: Two men journeyed to the sun in such a heroic feat that only legend is attributed to an ancient Greek lore: that of Icarus and Daedalus. Icarus—his actual name lost to time—was a brash young pilot between Earth and the distant Stellar World where he made many important discoveries of large portions. Daedalus, meanwhile, had only been on Earth yet had also made innovative breakthroughs of minor portions. Together, they believe that can enter the heart of the sun, where both small and large reign.

Analysis: Truth capitalized, the Plan capitalized, and Nature capitalized: These are the hallowed utterances of the State (capitalized), the keywords that lead the progress and pride of the Russian people during its communist era. As they are capitalized as proper nouns, each refers to a singular, undiminishable yet intangible object.

Regardless of the importance and capitalizations, they are but names, only transitory letters affixed to an object. Call it “this” or call it “that”, its name doesn’t change what it is unless time and image are attributed to the name change. Byzantium was a very different place from Constantinople or Istanbul, as Diana Spencer was from Princess Diana, as was the New World from the United States of America… same place and same person, yet a completely different idea of the same.

The same goes for Icarus and Daedalus, whose real names are lost to time but only their feat remains. Their real names don’t matter as the name would only be a prideful attachment to who they were, who their families were, and what they stood for. With the dissolution of their actual names, the monikers Icarus and Daedalus are thereby only attributed to the singular Feat… so which is more important? The Feat or the Men?

The two heroes each embody a different explorative effort: Icarus explores the macro-scale of outer space (planets of solar systems) while Daedalus explores the micro-scale of inner space (mathematics and physics). Separately, they each believe that studying the sun’s inner core is technically possible, but only when together is it actually possible. Yet, in the mission, when Icarus wants to push forward, Daedalus urges him to go back. Though opposing in many ways, together they can achieve an incredible feat.

Review: If critical analysis of the story isn’t your forte (I prefer to read for pleasure, but these translations woo my pseudo-intellectual side), suspension of belief is one hurdle to enjoying this story. In order for the ship to explore the sun’s core, the only material that will allow it to do so is plates of neutrite—the stuff from which white dwarves are made. The density and gravity of the neutrite allows them to stand the pressure within the sun, but it doesn’t affect them, yet they are warned away from the Earth due to their mass. This seems illogical to me. In addition, the last hoorah of success at the conclusion is a bit too camp for my tastes, an ending that’s reminiscent of SF Golden Age whim and juvenility.