“Soda-Sun” (novella) by Mikhail Ancharov
English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)
Original: Russian (Сода-Солнце), 1961
Translated by Yvonne Howell, 2015
Synopsis: The man nicknamed Soda-Sun has an odd and patchy background, especially when considering that he has no previous degree or experience to warrant his position as a research assistant. He ought to be science-minded, but his theories rattle the nerves of all around him, thereby referring to him as a clown: the devil is real and takes the shape of a man even today. When the same science group uncovers an unexpected giant mammal, Soda-Sun is there again with another crazy theory, a well-dated skull, and a frank letter of explanation.
Pre-analysis: Promotions are hazardous, like lion-taming or base-jumping. The opportunity for success exists and if you put in the honest effort, your chance for success climbs along with your awareness of the situation—i.e. put in the extra hours at the office, log your work, exhibit your accomplishment, take on extra responsibilities… and your work will be rewarded with a promotion. This, however, isn’t the hazard; rather, it’s the people who don’t bide by the “honest effort” credo for a level playing field: the suck-ups, the ass-kissers, the bribe-payers, the false-flatterers, the yes-sir-right-away-sir-what-a-nice-tie-you-have-on-today-sir kind of people, the… you get the drift. Oh, the numerous examples from my own life…
Under normal circumstances, there are only two kinds of victims when the latter kind of person wins: (1) the honest johns and janes and (2) quality company management. Yet, when this sort of ass-kissery (Is that a word? If not, it’s mine.) occurs at academic and governmental spheres, the number of victims becomes exponential. When those same I-kiss-ass-so-much-I-never-see-the-light-of-day scum are also deceptively clever people, everyone is the victim. You know the kind of tools I’m talking about…
Analysis: Soda-Sun was a clever man or resources during the war; some may have called him a courier, others a smuggler. Regardless of his official title, he provided goods to those who asked. Yet after the war, his specific talents and connections were no longer needed, so Soda-Sun used his well-honed cleverness on an unsuspecting realm: academia.
Considering his position in academia, he holds a dangerous idea that the devil is real, which is certainly a position that could never be analyzed quantitatively. Still, his superiors keep him on staff where the damage only grows because of his stalwart stance and immature interference. When one urbane discovery becomes a absurd exhibition of impossibility, surely Soda-Sun is behind the extravagant prank, yet when academia probes deeper into a part-prank/part-discovery, they are witness to one of two realities: (1) either a very extravagant prank or (2) the discovery of an impossibility.
Even when Soda-Sun is ousted from his position, the repercussions of his harm remain as the mystery of his supposed prank unfolds. His series of juvenile notes of explanation prolong the suffering of the serious academics, the hunt of which leads them into deeper and darker terrain. It’s this “deeper and darker terrain” that could possibly be an analogy for pseudosciences, or areas of knowledge that academia refuse to probe because of the taint of skepticism from the greater scientific community.
Review: This isn’t an easy story to read. I’m not sure if it’s because of the story-telling or my state of mind; regardless, I had a hard time following the ins and outs of the unraveling prank and/or mystery. The introduction of the collection mentions that this story is about “creative genius”, humanity’s “untapped capacity” of genius, and the source of his genius (18). Certainly, that’s buried in the story somewhere along with my idea of what the story is about. It’s the longest story in the collection but also one of the most convoluted—again, maybe my mind was broken on those days that I read the story.