“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”).
Eventually, 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.