“He Who Leaves No Trace” (novelette) by Mikhail Yemtsev & Yeremey Parnov
English Publication History: Russian Science Fiction 1968 (New York University press, 1968), The Ultimate Threshold (Holt, Reinhart and Winston, 1970)
Original: Russian (Не оставляющий следа), 1962
Translated by Mirra Ginsburg, 1963
Synopsis: Nibon and Andrey visit the bucolic planet of Green Pass so that they can pass time with its only resident, the widower and eccentric scientist George Korin. Calmed by the pastoral setting, they are caught unawares by the odd behavior of their colleague Korin: seemingly jumping through windows, running over grass untouched, and disappearing from a locked room. When Korin undergoes parthenogenesis, his ether-like selves engage in sport and combat. Things only become stranger as these blobs begin to coalesce and the violence increases.
Analysis: A common proverb: “Familiarity breeds contempt”—the more you know about something, the more you grow to dislike it. This goes for subjects as well as people. But this is a funny proverb as the wording has a pun of sorts. Familiarity requires a relationship of two parties: a subject and an observer. Conjugally, the two produce a frisson of contempt on part of the observer. If we change familiarity to isolationism, how would we change the transitive verb to reflect the new “relationship”:
- Isolation parthenogenesizes eccentricity?
- Isolation sporogenesizes eccentricity?
- Isolation clonally fragments eccentricity?
You get the idea. People who willingly isolate themselves from all others have the tendency to develop quirks, but let’s be honest and just say they loosen and lose a few screws along the way, thereby rendering them as rickety as a turn-of-the-century circus ride. Isolated, they lose that tacit understanding of what is and what is not acceptable behavior or mannerisms. They become lost in labyrinth of themselves, deduce truth from their own warped logic, and create idiosyncratic rituals—read: they’re nuts.
George Korin, in the story, is an eccentric man living alone on a planet without observation. He has lost the ability to understand where dangers lie. No one tells him that his research is dangerous, no one is there to clean up his mess, and everyone could be put in peril because of his heedless acts of research through isolation. Without supervision from above—from a governing body such as the ethics of science or arm of a government ministry—George plunges headlong into unfamiliar and dangerous territory.
If this can be true for the individual, the same could also be said for governments, especially communist governments: Albania from 1944 to 1990, China from 1949 to the 1970s, North Korea since 1953, and, of course, the Soviet Union. I don’t think “eccentric” exactly encapsulates the result of their isolation: distrust transforms into xenophobia, non-intervention alters into non-alliance, and self-preservation becomes rigamortis.
But this whole “isolation parthenogenesizes eccentricity” can come full circle back to “familiarity breeds contempt”. Once the country is shutoff from other nations—in the USSR’s case, from the Iron Curtain—society becomes a closed system that stagnates and ferments, the building heat and pressure needing release: revolution.
In George’s case, the isolation and familiarity both rear their heads resulting in a cataclysmic battle, kind of like of civil war but actually a war amongst his cloned/ parthenogenesized/sporogenesized selves. Amid George’s unintentional self-induced war, the outsiders—Nibon and Andrey—are able to infiltrate the fragile state of George’s isolation and witness the results of his research and the results of the battle. George, however, is still able to learn from his failure for the benefit of all as he decides to open his borders and share his knowledge.
Review: This story very much unfolds like a juvenile novelette. It’s piece-by-piece full of oddity and whim, none of which actually intrigues a more mature reader. One bizarre event follows another bizarre event and so forth; in the end, some sense is made of the long 45-page mess but it tries too hard with pseudo-scientific jargon. Needless to say, it’s the weakest of the thirteen-story collection, but, adding insult to injury, it’s also the longest story. As it’s slapped like a brick onto the end of collection, its simple addition significantly detracts from its twelve predecessors.