Explosion – Alexander Kazantsev

“Explosion” (novelette) by Alexander Kazantsev

English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Взрыв), 1946

Translated by Nora Seligman Favorov, 2015

Synopsis: In April 1945, an editor of a science journal is approached by two men with competing theories for 1908’s Tunguska event, which the editor actually witnessed himself. Fuelled by the theories, the man digs through his trove of historical data and commentary of the event in order to defend his own theory. After August 1945’s events, however, one of the previous two theorists returns and spouts forth an outlandish tale involving a native black-skinned Siberian and a mystical source for the huge explosion. 26 pages

Pre-analysis: According to Kazantsev’s Wikipedia page, he was a pioneer of Soviet UFOlogy whose writings dealt mainly with pseudoscientific theories. The page also says without a citation that “He believed the Tunguska impact was caused by an alien spacecraft that crash-landed on the Earth.” So, prior to reading a Kazantsev story, you need to be prepared for two things: some focus around the Tunguska Event and some other outlandish pet theory that goes hand-in-hand with it.

Analysis: As Kazantsev has indulged himself with a few pet theories of the pseudoscientific realm in the form of a short story, there’s very little to analyze. I think the aura of the story is best captured by the collection’s introduction:

Kazantsev went on [after the story’s publication] to have a long and less-than-admired career as a cultural conservative and Party hard-liner who pushed back against literary innovations and artistic freedom in the 1960s … As a Communist Party stalwart, Kazantsev wrote a macho, fun-to-read, mystery-catastrophe in which the figure of the dangerous alien is easily summed up in two words: “female” and “black.” (14)

Review: This is the third Kazantsev story that I’ve read and it’s the third story of his that involve the Tunguska Event—at this point, it feels like Kazantsev is a one-trick pony. The lamely titled “Explosion” is a variation of the previous theme in “A Visitor from Outer Space” (1951) and “The Martian” (1958) that posit a Martian UFO for the explosion. “Explosion” shrugs off this prior theme in favor for something more mystical and less science fictional. His personal interest in Martian canals, a fabled planet in the asteroid belt, and the Tunguska Event taint his stories to the degree of obsession.

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Rays of Life – Yuri Dolgushin

“Rays of Life” (excerpt) by Yuri Dolgushin

English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Генератор чудес), 1939

Translated by Yvonne Howell, 2015

 

Synopsis: Collaborating, Nikolai and Ridan have a device and a method that’s able to literally kill a body and later revive it free of its previous symptoms of disease or illness. A number of other mammals have undergone the routine, each taking longer to revive as they move up the evolutionary ladder, so the current experiment with Anna is taking considerably longer. Amid the tense atmosphere, they discover a German spy who is bent on sabotaging their experiment, but their angst at success weighs more heavily upon their shoulders.

Pre-analysis: “Rays of Life” comes between Belyaev’s original novelette “Professor Dowell’s Head” (1926) and Curt Siodmak’s novel Donovan’s Brain (1942), both dealing with prolonging the life of a disembodied mind. This vivification of life or the sustenance of the spark of life seems to be a trend during these three decades. Dolgushin isn’t a widely known writer in the sphere of English literature, neither in the literary sense nor in the genre sense. According to my resources, only the above-mentioned novel has been translated into another language—Romanian (1961). So, with Red Star Tales, this excerpt from a novel is the English-language sphere’s first exposure to Dolgushin. He’s also published screenplays, so-called sketches, and articles, but Generator Wonderland (1939) remains his only stand-alone novel.

Analysis: As this novel (the spy element of which involves a Nazi) was written on the eve of Europe’s descent into total war, perhaps the novel is best taken into context with the chaos that ensued from the war: shifting alliances, redrawing of borders, and the millions of deaths. Hitler invaded Poland in the same year as the story was published, the same year, also, when Russia invaded their own “spheres of influence”, according to their non-aggression pact in August, 1939.

“War is hell” is largely attributed to the American Army Civil War general named William Tecumseh Sherman. Hell on earth wasn’t limited to the American civil, but found more fertile and expanse grounds in Europe with World War One (around five million military deaths, one-third of which was Russian). World War Two, however, saw more than eleven million military deaths in addition to more than seven million civilian deaths. Russia knows hell very well, all too well.

But what if the plague (war) could be eliminated by killing the body (government)? Acts of aggression between nations can only be perpetrated by heads of government and their respective bodies of government. Suppress, quash, or eliminate said government, and war with another nation is thereby cut off… in theory, of course—remove an aggressor and there’s no aggression. This is abstract, naturally, as the opposing aggressor would remain steeped in anger and would take occasion of any situation to gain an advantage (like flogging a dead horse, as if it were an enemy).

It’s a romantic vision of life as a simple routine: A becomes infected with B, suppress/deaden A, B passes away as a consequence, revive A to its full natural state. This romanticism works in parallel with the excerpt’s themes; on the cursory level, it’s meant to be the thriller rather than a thinker, a science experiment rather than a social experiment.

Review: Dolgushin has a different take on this disembodied-mind theme yet spices it with romance, spy thrill, and science. As the introduction states: “Dolgushin wanted to fill his novel [505 pages of which] with lightly fictionalized, but genuinely exciting information about new discoveries in the biological and physical sciences” (14). This mere excerpt captures all these themes: revivification, romance, spy thrill, and science… and the chapter excerpt feels as forced as you might expect. Stated again in the introduction, the original full-length novel “does not stand out for its artistic merits” (14).

The Nur-i-Desht Observatory – Ivan Yefremov

“The Nur-i-Desht Observatory” (novelette) by Ivan Yefremov

English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Озеро горных духов), 1944

Translated by Nora Seligman Favorov, 2015

Synopsis: Having staved off death while fighting on the front, Ivan Timofeyevich gets off only wounded and is sent to the isolated and desolate Kazakh steppes to recuperate. A soldier at heart, he’d rather toil away; when he sees a woman named Tanya standing alone at his destination, he gets just this chance. They cross the land to an ancient observatory that’s built of stone and clad in mystery. While their joyfulness is unexplained, they bide their time amid the inscriptions and spectral emissions that lay deep within.

Pre-analysis: Radium was a wondrous discovery in 1898. Its luminal effect was mesmerizing to the human eye, thereby attributing the element with health and vigor. Soon, products began to be promoted with the same element: radium and it radioactive properties in salts, in toothpastes, and even water1. Even today, the restorative properties of low-level radiation is a hypothesis (radiation homeostasis) but remains a borderline pseudoscience along with its kin homeopathy (“like cures like”).

red9-1Eventually, scientists and other who professionally dealt with radiation became aware of its harmful effects yet kept it a secret from the frontline employees (see the watchface painters known as The Radium Girls). Even up through 1934 when Marie Curie died, not many scientists—let alone layman—knew the truly fatal side of the beautiful luminosity of radium and the other radioactive elements. However, the notion of radiation homeostasis stayed alive and touched nearly all borders of the world: America, Japan, and even the Soviet Union (see on left).

Analysis: This story ties together three elements: romance, adventure, and radiation homeostasis. Aside from these and a sense of entertainment, this story offers very little else. The most trying part of the story is the romantic friction between the solider-cum-archeologist (Ivan) and the translator-cum-archeologist (Tanya). The ebullition of well-being isn’t their own company, as they had first thought, but only the radium-rich soil on which the observatory stands. Tanya is disheartened by this as she had thought that their love was real and not the curative effects of radium; Ivan, however, discredits the unnatural forces of the radium as all sorts of spectral emissions are around them all the time, so who is to decide which ones cause which effect?

Here, my heart had come back to life, and it had opened… to you. Who knows? Maybe the scientific advances of the future will offer a deeper understanding of the effect radioactive substances have on us. And who’s to say that we aren’t under the influence of many more radiations—cosmic rays at the very least. Up there … all sorts of energy could be streaming, emanating from the dark depths of space… the particles of distant world. (223)

Like living and working around radium, long-term negative effects on the central nervous system would also result from the same sort of exposure of cosmic rays. If Ivan wishes to exclude all types of radiation, then only love remains; hence, their love is real (ugh, this ended on a mushy note).

Review: The keenest aspect of the story is the adventure one: a real archeologist is digging through the remains of an ancient observatory in search of inscriptions, a hidden vase, the story underneath it all—in both figurative and literal senses. The romance adds extra machismo to the story as the soldier wins over the girl… then there’s the cringe-worthy looting of the observatory that the professor condones. Each bit of the story is irksome—the adventure, the romance, the radiation—but it actually ties together into a semi-decent story.

The Lunar Bomb – Andrei Platonov

“The Lunar Bomb” (novelette) by Andrei Platonov

English Publication History: Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Science Fiction and Fantasy (The Overlook Press, 2006), Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Лунные изыскания), 1926

Translated by Keith Blasing, 2015

Synopsis: An ex-miner with big ideas better suited for the big city, Peter Kreuzkopf heads for the capital with his technical plans for sending a sphere into space. Surprisingly, his plan is passed by the board for approval and initial construction begins. Ignorant of his device’s own power, he electrocutes to death forty workers and soon is found of administrational malfeasance. Found guilty and imprisoned, he tries to take his life but is later restored to his own project that he had lost hope on. Still with a deathwish, he impresses upon the government for him to ride on his own device to the moon.

The Author’s Work: Platonov was once heralded as a significant writer in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, just after the famine and right before the first Five-Year Plan in 1928. Both readers and critics found his work significant, but later drew unfortunate scorn from the State for his criticism of the system. Today, he better known for his novels Chevengur (1926, untranslated) and The Foundation Pit (1930/1987). According in Wikipedia:

In terms of creative works, Platonov depicted one of the first state-controlled dystopias of the 20th century. The novel is often compared to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. However, both English novels were published long before a translation of The Foundation Pit became available. (link)

Analysis: Though this story was written in the same year as he reputedly significant novel Chevengur, I didn’t find much of an anti-establishment or dystopian theme throughout; rather, dedication seems to be of importance here… perhaps with social parallels.

Peter Kreuzkopf is and always has been a common man, a working man. His marriage ended in disaster as she herself was a proletariat. They never managed to see eye to eye or share the same interests. As he is and always has been an engineer at heart, he could never adapt upward to the proletarian lifestyle of which his wife was so fond. Though he tried to dedicate himself to his socially lofty wife, he failed.

In the capital awaiting word of the success of his submission, Peter Kreuzkopf takes a freelance job testing cars. He only needs to take the car out and drive it so many kilometers before bringing it back for them to analyze the data. On his first drive, he swerves to miss an animal only to hit a small boy. Stopping the car and going to the boy’s aid, he sees that the youth was already dead. Solemnly, he buries the boy and promises to dedicate his life to the poor commoner boy. Though he tries to do so, one obstacle gets in the way: himself.

Bent of suicide, his last hope rested with the State to allow him to board his own experiment to fly to and orbit the moon. When even they denied him, he cut his last thread of dependence and fell back on the only person he had left: himself. With the legal system on his side, he takes a step closer to the death that awaits him, a death so righteous for such a man with limited perspective—the death of a hermit rather than a voyager.

Review: If you can think past the contraption that spins/revolves thousands or millions times per minute, maintain its integrity, and allow a human to survive on board before it’s flung—with precision, mind you—into the orbit of the moon… then there’s a mildly compelling tale of a man trying to find a toehold in the jagged façade of his society, where relationship fails him (wife leaves), his dedication fails (seems to forget the boy he killed), even his work fails him (he accidentally kills come workers). As he himself is the obstacle to all of the above, his last goal also finds himself as the obstacle—can he commit suicide? It may not be heroic, but it’s what his fate defines.

Professor Dowell’s Head – Alexander Belyaev

“Professor Dowell’s Head” (novelette) by Valery Bryusov

English Publication History: Professor Dowell’s Head (Macmillan, 1980), Professor Dowell’s Head (Collier Books, 1981), Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Голова профессора Доуэля), 1926

Translated by Muireann Maguire, 2015

Note: The version from 1926 is a novelette while the 1937 version is the novel. The Macmillan and Collier editions are both novels; however, the Russian Life Books version is the novelette, which his reviewed here.

Synopsis: Miss Adams took an unusual job under the supervision of Professor Kern, even with his threats and temper. She soon meets the subject of her time while under employment: the detached yet still living head of Professor Dowell. Disregarding Kern’s threat, Miss Adams secretly opens an innocuous valve, which allows the head to speak and confess. She soon alliances herself with the head prior to beheading two other corpses for a scientific exhibition, where Miss Adams takes the soapbox for a hysterical rant.

The Author’s Work: Belyaev is one of most accomplished SF writers from Russia with eight novels and nine short stories having been translated and published in English. His work began to be published in 1926, so considering that he died in 1942, he was quite productive and, posthumously, has been a shining example of Russian and Soviet SF literature.

Pre-analysis: You may never read such a tragic biography as the one of Belaev. After birth (1884), his father forced him to take a religions path in his life and entered him into a seminary, but, not feeling particulary religious, declared himself an atheist in a seminary. After his success as a lawyer, he became a writer, but during this time (1814) he contracted tuberculosis, which spread to his spine and paralyzed his legs. Not wanting for care for a crippled, his wife him. He convalesceced in Yalta with his mother a nanny, took a few odd jobs in Yalta, but eventually found himself back in Moscow as a law consultant. He had two daughters, one which died in 1930, and lived until 1942, when he died of starvation after he refused to evacuate the town as he was recovering from an operation. The Nazis gave him an Orthodox ceremony or his interment, the exact place of which is not known. His wife and remaining daughter were sent a Nazi camp yet later returned to Russia only to be suspected of collaboration with the Nazis, thus being exiled to Siberia.

Analysis: The most pivotally traumatic point in Belyaev’s life came when his wife left his as he lay diseased, defenseless, and unable to care for himself. He must have hated his body for the state he was in, the hatred of which must have been a double-edged sword whose two edges were honed to lethal lines that attacked his body and mind. Surely, a better life could be had in the future, if not in reality than at least in fiction. Perhaps this is where Belyaev’s motivation came for some of this SF themes: organ and brain transplants, a procedure of which that only became reality in 1954 with the world’s first kidney transplant.

Belyaev’s 1928 novel The Amphibian revolves around the transplantation of gills, while his 1930 novella is about a brain transplantation from a man to an elephant. Prior to these two stories is “Professor Dowell’s Head”, which doesn’t feature a transplantation, as such, but the revival and sustainment of a detached, bodyless head. Perhaps in Belayaev’s grieving for the abandonment of his wife and the dereliction of his body, being a healthy living head would be preferable to having an ill body.

Professor Dowell actually headed (oops, a pun) the research that allowed him to have a detached the living head; his co-researcher—Professor Kern—is exclusively using his ideas to further his career and gain fame from the success. If Dowell doesn’t agree, what’s Dowell going to do—violently blink at Kern? With a good mind, Dowell concedes in doing to literature review for Kern, but he oddly doesn’t become morose with his stationary state. When Kern brings in two more victims for their bodyless experiment, the duo don’t fair as well.

Tom and Miss Watson are the next two heads, but their occupations don’t involve the use of their mind: Tom is a physical laborer while Miss Watson used to occupy her time with another physical use of her body. Now bodyless, the two don’t adjust as well to their state as Dowell. The rigors of occupying one’s mind doesn’t suit all walks of life, so only Dowell is able to withstand the hours of by using his mind. Here, Belyaev may be simplifying and exploring social class in that the intelligentsia is fine being secluded to their whims while the common laborers aren’t suited for a similar life.

Review: Not only is this story compelling from start to finish, but it also has some social overtones as mentioned above. Take these two perspectives in parallel with Belyaev’s personal history and the story suddenly becomes intensely personal. This doesn’t necessarily make the story better, per se, but it does bring it sharply into a contextual focus. Admittedly, the idea sounds corny from the 1920s, but Belyaev masterfully carries the idea through its plausibilities and social perspectives. This is much better that “Hoity-Toity”, which I didn’t care for at all.

Mutiny of the Machines – Valery Bryusov

“Mutiny of the Machines” (unfnished) by Valery Bryusov

English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Мятеж машин), 1915

Translated by Anindita Bannerjee, 2015

Synopsis: From the nineteenth century on, inventions have become so common that any simpleton could conjure one up. On through the thirtieth century, mankind has progressed with ample forms of power including the powerful source of radium, but much if that power is for automation: trade, production, transportation among them, save for accounting. Aside from inventing, people have little activity in their lives, which doctors warn about due to illness stemming from their sedentary lifestyle. Meanwhile, all whim within the city can be theirs.

Pre-analysis: Aside from speculation of the future relationship between man and machine, Bryusov adds only one section of number that refers to the world’s urban population. Consider the United States’ urban population from 1890 (29.2%), 1910 (46.3%), and 2010 (80.7%), which doesn’t account for the so-called megacities, only the urban areas. In 1910, megacities hadn’t even existed—New York was the first in 1950.

In “Mutiny of Machines”, Bryusov predicts that a quarter of earth’s five billion people will live in these same megacities (those with populations of over 10 million). While Bryusov predicted 112 cities, the figure in 2015 (with a global population of about 7 billion) was actually only 35, or about 47% of the world’s population. He may have overshot the mark in regards to the number, but considering that he tried to nail it more than 100 years ago, you can’t say he was far off the mark.

Analysis: With the population’s influx into the megacities, everything is at their convenience, which makes them all the most sloth. Power for the machines is readily available, and so all ways to implement this supply of energy is used, many ways, of course, are useless but not wasteful. As the unseen energy use increased, the population’s physical activity decreased, leading doctors to “issue warnings about muscular atrophy, decreased mobility, or impairments in arm movement” (110). Automation followed the population for dusk to dawn, from eye-rise to eye-shut; their entire world was provided by a press of the button, all carried out by machine.

Review: Unfortunately, the story stops there with the editor’s note, “the text ends here” (110), similar to the other Bryusov unfinished story “Rebellion of the Machines” (1908). If this, in fact, were the true end of the story, it might signify the laziness of the writer in modern times, unable to summon the effort to put pen to paper or to document not the mutiny of the machines, but the meekness of the masses (I love alliteration). Perhaps extended three- or four-fold, the story could have better taken a glimpse into life in the megacities… a bit of dialogue wouldn’t have hurt either rather than the didactic delivery of this story and “Rebellion of the Machines”.

The End of Man? – Olof Johannesson

The End of Man? (novel) by Olof Johannesson (Hannes Alfvén)

English Publication History: The Great Computer: A Vision (Gollancz, 1968), The Tale of the Big Computer (Coward-McCann, 1968), The End of Man? (Award Books, 1969)

Original: Russian (Sagan om den Stora Datamaskinen), 1966

Translated by Naomi Walford, 1968

Introduction: Olof Johannesson was the penname of the Swedish man named Hannes Alfvén, who is still known today for his work in electrical engineering and plasma physics (he even has a phenomenon named after him: the Alfvén wave). His hard science background provides the foundation for this novel (alternate titles: The Great Computer: A Vision and The Tale of the Big Computer), which lacks dialogue in favor of historical conjecturing from a future perspective. Don’t confuse good theorizing about technology with stale delivery, because the author takes occasional witty shots at bureaucrats, the English language, and human society.

Book’s synopsis: “The great disaster…

Panic broke out. The computers had stopped working! There was no heat, no food, no communication. The death toll was long past the million mark.

No one knew what caused the breakdown. Was it human error, or a plot devised by the computers themselves?

Whatever the cause, when it was over most of the human population of the earth had perished. It was the dawn of a new era—when the computers ruled. And since the machines had learned to reproduce themselves without man’s help, there was no need for even a single human being.

So the nightmare battle began—between the few surviving humans and the super-being of their own creation—The Big Computer!”

————

My Own Synopsis: Forever has mankind wanted to lift its burdens from daily life. Long ago, the physical toil of farming was left to horses and buffalo; a little further on and the internal combustion engine did away with the horse. While the horse was entirely unnecessary in modern society, the horse never entirely disappeared. With its physical labor carried out by brute machines, why couldn’t mankind also cast off the burdensome yoke of thought?

In the far future, a historical perspective is written about this very revolution, and in it, computers are seen as the end-all result of this conquest, which actually predates mankind’s existence by billions of years. It seems that evolution, itself, quested to create the most perfect processes of which only computers are capable. What were the dinosaurs and apes but dead ends toward the quest for ultimate computation? So, what of mankind? “His historical importance lies in the fact that he was medium whereby data machines came into being” (36), almost like a footnote.

Even with the advent of the machines, whose main clerical duties were accounting and translation, people was still needed to program and maintain the machines. Later, when machines took over education and medicine, again, people were still needed for the same tasks of programming and maintenance; thus, unemployment was never a factor in mankind’s disdain for the labor saving devices. The sole occupation left to the fleshy and fallible humans was that of governance, but the machines usurped the humans in this field, too and “and soon as the government was got rid of, society began to develop much more quickly” (69).

As mankind’s eternal quest had always been relief for toil of all kinds, it now realized that nearly all burdens had been lifted. They no longer had to choose what to purchase, attend compulsory education, endure waiting lines, or succumb to prolonged illness. So many of society’s burdens were relieved because ever since organized governance, it has always been obvious that mankind had flailed about and generally failed to progress to any great degree:

The fear of catastrophe and annihilation dominated the life of man from the Stone Age until the coming of computers.

 But while people feared extinction they also feared the opposite: that the human race would become too numerous through the population explosion.

 Basically, these two threats arose from the same cause: man’s inability to organize society. We know that the problem exceeded his brain capacity. Man has undoubtedly had many good qualities, but problems of organization have always been beyond him. (74)

With these incremental advances in freedom, computers allowed humans to finally experience what it had always wanted from freedom and democracy: Complete Freedom Democracy. But democracy being what it is, decisions need to be made and even this becomes tiresome, so finally the computers decide what must be decided on and, so they might as well, just make the decision themselves based on superior logic. And where, exactly, did this leave mankind? They had mastered nature, using or enslaving animals, killed off the ones they feared, and crowned themselves the lords of creation. With the computer, they though they had found themselves “faithful servants, to be treated like the various natural phenomena” (122), but, in the end, through its own superiority, the machines had surpassed everything humans could do without them evening being aware that they were driving themselves into the same extinction that that had pressed upon countless animals.

When the crisis arises where computers are disabled, society returns to its barbaric roots and chaos ensues. Slowly, through the ashes of modern society, mankind again rises without a lesson learned and also resurrects the computers had that once failed it entirely. While mankind hadn’t learnt their lessons, computers take a different approach and ensure that they will never fail again, thereby severing the last tenuous cord with mankind. Now, it can program itself, maintain itself, reproduce itself, and govern itself—The End of Man?

Analysis: In 1966, there were roughly 35,000 computers in the world, more than half of them produced by IBM—they were far from ubiquitous, user-friendly, or all-governing. Largely limited to big companies and professional services, computers were beyond the use of the everyday person.

Somehow, amid all this user-unfriendliness, Hannes Alfvén envisioned that computers will become more complex in design but more simple in interface, thereby not only becoming user-friendly but actually part of the user to the point where data is everywhere—the “teletotal”—and the devices are wearable—the “minitotal” (53-54). But with this rise in pervasiveness and ease of use come a double-edged sword: all users can be tracked and persecuted for a time by triangulation of location (59) but also saved from distress because of the same homing feature (62). Actually, people don’t even have to leave their homes any longer; when the computers reign, teleconferences are common, but to the extent that it has become virtual reality (51).

With leisure and resources aplenty, the cities are deserted as people populate the countryside where they get back to nature, or descend into their natural state of bucolic harmony; meanwhile, the computers rise. The cities die and, in the far future, are items of curiosity as to how they came into being (26-35). Why they crowded themselves in such a manner mystifies future historians and why they poisoned themselves in traffic also stumps them; even overtones of deities impregnate the past human’s worship of the city: “It is also known that those who seated in traffic jams invoked certain divine powers popular at the time” (34).

Most impressive in The End of Man? is Alfvén’s very forward thinking.

If people contain the ability to think and reason yet are bags of protoplasm and contain what is vaguely referred to as a soul, why can’t machines that also think and reason yet made of semiconductors host a soul: “[F]or some unknown reason the soul prefers protoplasm to semiconductors” (118).

And what is the end to all this advancement? Does progress have a finish line? As the author of the historical account writes on the concluding page:

We believe—or rather we know—that we are approaching and era of even swifter evolution, an even higher living standard, and an ever greater happiness than ever before.

 We shall all live happily ever after. (128)

This finale is ominous as the “we” is vague. Is the story written by a human speculating on what past humans gone through while jubilating at the great progress of its computer overlords? Or is it a computer detailing the rise of its own kind with the humans being an entertaining addition to its history? I think the “we” refers to the machines as the author—and its kind or possibly embodying the whole as The Big Machine’—approaches the technological singularity, which was first postulated in 1958 by John von Neumann and Stanislaw Ulam. And after the singularity? Will The Big Machine eventually sublime à la Iain M. Banks’s Sublimed cultures that have left the physical world to reside beyond in higher dimensions without the hindrance of our own four dimensions?

Review: Though mostly delivered dryly, the account of the rise of the machines is oddly prophetic (a word I use very sparingly) in that it account for much of our modern society obsession with technology because of its pervasiveness and supposed user-friendliness (I get pissed off any my mobile, laptop, and/or work station every day). Though fifty years old, this novel hasn’t aged very much as it still feels relevant. With some humorous jaunts and jabs taken at politicians, city life, the English language, and society’s collective ignorance, the novel has some brief charms. The End of Man? is a curiosity that should be read by those who have a love of down-to-earth speculation of society’s future relationship with technology.

One Evening in 2217 – Nikolai Fyodorov

“One Evening in 2217” (novelette) by Nikolai Fyodorov

English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Вечер в 2217 году), 1906

Translated by Anindita Bannerjee, 2015

Synopsis: Aglaya isn’t a young girl with her mind set on beginning a family. This has never been her prerogative until repeated remarks urge her to seek a path toward marriage and reproduction. Inexperienced in these matters, she registers to “visit” the famous Karpov for one evening. Immediately struck with shame, the memories haunt her and compels her to visit a friend. There, the two are interrupted by Pavel Vitinsky, who, it turns out, holds many of the same ideas as Aglaya—they see eye to eye in both figurative and literal senses.

Pre-analysis: Initial love, like dawn at the first light, is superficial when the participants are at their dimmest: the spectator sluggish in the morning, the spectacle only breaching the horizon. At first sight, touch, and conversation, the mind and body are saturated with hormones that encourage courtship, much like the dusty heavens spellbind the eye toward its painted skies. Linger the eye upon that same spectacle for a while longer and that same eye will be blinded—set the heart’s expectations upon the same target for ever after that love-at-first-sight and that same heart will be blinded; therein, the sun has no care for the spectator, only the latter is hurt.

Analysis: Aglaya is a loner. She shares her emotions with no one and no one shares her ideas; thus, she is left as an island amongst humanity. Just as the continents drift, so too does Aglaya as she realizes that, as an island, she cannot thrive and develop alone. She bows down to the lowest common denominator, thus lowering herself and her standards, before reaching heights she never before knew possible—those same heights are propelled by the shared ideological interests of a mere boy. From this spring of ideology, Aglaya finally feels a sense of bonding that she had never known. As the trio of conversation becomes a duo of dialogue, she firstly quietly reflects on her choices in life before openly confiding in her escort, from which a Shakespearian comedy ensues.

Review: I prefer not to read any introduction to a story prior to reading the story itself so that it doesn’t contaminate my opinion or perspective of the same story. After reading “One Evening in 2217” and forming a palpable view of it, I finally read the introduction and was pleasantly surprised to see my opinion confirmed: “It is remarkable to find most of the essential themes of Evgeny Zamyatin’s brilliant dystopian novel WE (1924) already present in this under-acknowledged harbinger” (11). Perhaps it’s a tad too keen on highlighting the emotional proneness of proud individuals, but it does foreshadow the coming ideological intolerance of the Stalin years. Not only this, but it also plays on the role of females in early twentieth-century Russian society with a surprising take on sexuality, reproductive rights, and purity (be it body or mind, which is where the twist is turned in this story).

Rebellion of the Machines – Valery Bryusov

“Rebellion of the Machines” (unfinished) by Valery Bryusov

English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Восстание машин), 1908

Translated by Anindita Bannerjee, 2015

Synopsis: In the thirtieth century, everyday life is immersed in electricity, technology, mechanisms, and gadgets. Across the world, all this technological sophistication is run by a generator in each of earth’s eighty-four machine zones. Descending from zone to district to county, the power trickles down to meet demand. The mysterious nature of technology and its constant service to mankind takes a more sinister role—it begins to attack. Accidents soon appear to be murder by machine.

Pre-analysis: The title of the story—which Google translated to “Rise of the Machines”, actually—evokes the image of the Terminator stalking after Sarah Connor. The horror of the first Terminator movies (let’s leave it at that because the sequels were simply bent on action scenes, tropes of time travel, and destruction) lies in the single-minded stalking of the Terminator, the pinpoint obsession of the Terminator to accomplish this one task: kill Sarah Connor. From Sarah’s perspective, she’s just a normal woman, yet, for some reason, she becomes the prey of a futuristic monster. The future is manifested in the monstrosity of the Terminator, and Sarah, as a result, fears what the future holds.

Whereas Terminator personalizes fear in the form of a single-minded machine stalking after a seemingly harmless woman, “Rebellion of the Machines” disassociates the fear to embody the everyday, tactile world: the telephone, elevator, tram, or light switch.

Analysis: Ignorance is bliss, until that same ignorance bites us on our ass, or in the case of “Rebellion of the Machines”, it electrocutes us to death via the earpiece on our phone. Complacency with the modern-day wonders around us is tantamount to the same proverb; we don’t fear them, of course, but at the same time, we don’t understand them. Our reliability on these devices sets us on the precipice of fatally ignorant when they begin to falter, go on the fritz, act up, or when the so-called gremlins wreck the works. We’re left helpless by our ignorance.

Nowadays, this helplessness can be witnessed by our panic when our laptops crash, when our phones don’t reboot from a fall, or even when a fuse (hey, some people are helpless in all situations). Revert your technology back 110 years… I’m sure they dealt with similar problems: your phonograph’s quality deteriorates quickly, your Brownie camera takes poor photos, your radio receiver is too staticky when receiving Morse code, your windshield wipers smear something terrible, your Model T has some funky steering, etc.

Regardless of the era, occupants of the time will experience their own form of helplessness against the “ghost in the machine”, be it digital computer, electric typewriter, pneumatic pump, or even pulley systems, levers, flints, fire, or rocks. Whenever we use technology—see any of the above—our widespread use of the device is far ahead of our widespread understanding of the same device. Imagine how many cavemen damned their deities when literally playing with fire—Ugg damn it!

Review: The story is sort of a precursor to a novel, much like a historical outline prior to writing the actual novel. Given that the time was 1908, this may well in fact have been the very piece that was going to be extended into its entirety, be it a novelette, novella, or even novel. At the end of the story printed in Red Star Tales, the story ends with “”I froze in [Editor’s note: the text ends here]” (85). Though only eight pages long, the entire length of the story is compelling in one way or another. It needs some editorial refinement, for sure, but it comes off well. If the story had ended with “I froze in” without the editorial note, the reader could have assumed that the author had met their fate via an electric typewriter, ballpoint pen, or fountain pen—intriguing, to say the least.

On the Moon – Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

 

“On the Moon” (novelette) by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky

English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (На Луне), 1893

Translated by Sibelan Forrester, 2015

Synopsis: The writer of the account and his unnamed physicist friend awake to find themselves to peculiar conditions that they soon realize to be the low gravity of the moon. Though their trip is unexplainable, they don’t dwell on the reasons for their presence; rather, they take to the originality of their position and explore the feats they can accomplish, the sights they can see, and the extremes they can endure. Curiosity gets the best of the duo as they travel further and further with dwindling supplies and worsening conditions.

Pre-analysis: Most, if not all, men are kids at heart. Given the right opportunity, a man can gleefully snicker to himself, widen his eyes at a whim, and geekishly indulge wherever he pleases. Admittedly, that’d be me with Lego’s, but I’ve seen other men turn to putty with the thought of creating overly complicated and cross-referencing Excel spreadsheets or preparing to watch a new episode of Star Wars. Most, if not all, men are geeks at heart. Kids, geeks… you get the idea. Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s particular niche was the following: the moon was his playground, his mind was the child; fantasy the joyous currents of air between the two.

Analysis: Like most—note: not all—early science fiction, “On the Moon” follows a whimsical plot purely based on imagination without any finesse. The introduction states very clearly that it is “almost devoid fictional grace or plot tension” (11). Although the so-called plot is a far cry from literature, it does describe some phenomena upon the moon, which the introduction also mentions as accurately describing “the physical sensations of weightlessness, low boiling temperatures, disorientating diurnal rhythms, and other things a human being would encounter during a sojourn on the moon” (11). However, it reads a bit more interesting than an employee manual or grade school science textbook.

Review: As mentioned above, there’s very little—if any—literary merit. As one blogger has been quoted in the introduction as saying, it’s “a tine baby step for Russian literature, but a giant leap towards humanity’s era of cosmic exploration” (11). It may hold a place in the heart of Russian science fiction, but its artistic merits make it an irksome read if for anything other than a historical curiosity. Regardless of the poor writing style, Tsiolkovosky remains a pioneer of thought regarding humanity’s relationship with space, be it the moon or in orbit. He was a visionary. To synopsis his achievement in this regard, consider the author’s own epithet:

Man will not always stay on Earth; the pursuit of light and space will lead him to penetrate the bounds of the atmosphere, timidly at first but in the end to conquer the whole of solar space.1