Nothing but Ice – Dmitri Bilenkin

“Nothing but Ice” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin

English Publication History: The Uncertainty Principle (Macmillan, 1978)

Original: Russian (Ничего, кроме льда), 1974

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1978

Synopsis: Technicians are sent to a distant star, the destruction of which will enable humankind to establish a portal to even further stars, thereby ushering them into a wondrous new era of exploration, settlement, and progress. Prior to the star’s destruction by the hand of humans, the crew survey the orbiting planets as a measure of routine only to discover a majestic planet of ice carved by nature alone; they’re dumbstruck by its towers of glacial architecture. So strong are the tethers of affection for the planet that the crew begin to reconsider their objective: the star’s death would mean the planet’s demise, as well.

Analysis: Progress seems to he humankind’s default mode; preservation of the past comes a distant second, followed by distorting the same past at a close third. More often than not, this progress is made haphazardly as if by any means necessary: the ubiquitous production and wasteful use of plastic bags, the ever shortening life-cycle of consumer electronics, and thank Sarah Palin for the last one: “Drill, baby, drill!” It seems short-term profit outweigh long-term effect.

Where, if anywhere, would we draw the line of progress? What sacrifices would we be willing to make? I mean, we’ve pretty much already sacrificed our own planet for the sake of hamburgers, mobile phones, plastic bags, and oil, but would we sacrifice significant works of art? Sites of historical pride? Monuments to Mother Nature’s forces? In my humble opinion, if anyone can find a way to make a dollar out of anything, no matter how destructive or offensive it may be, we’ll find some pathetic yet monetarily rich human there to deliver the coup de grâce.

Aboard the technician’s ship sent to destroy the star, there are neither politicians not capitalists; with the closing line, “You know what the decision was” (112), the reader can feel certain that the crew would choose art over progress.

Review: The story offer food for thought not only about our affinity with progress, but also for humankind’s destiny Soviet ideology, one of only a few stories which have a discernible satirical weave throughout. The nine pages pack a lot of thought into a relatively few number of pages.

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Intelligence Test – Dmitri Bilenkin

“Intelligence Test” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin

English Publication History: The Uncertainty Principle (Macmillan, 1978)

Original: Russian (Проверка на разумность), 1972

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1978

Synopsis: With the animals from the alien planet Bissera safely in stow, a crew begins their traverse of space back to Earth. When doors begin to lock themselves and when eyes peer from the darkness, they know something has run amok. After checking the hold, they find some of the animals had escaped, which is impossibility for the animal’s natural abilities and intelligence. As they begin to concoct schemes to trap the same animals, the creatures show amazingly unique abilities suited for each situation. They’re uncertain whether to continue home, destroy the animals, or reason with them.

Analysis: Friedrich Nietzsche first coined the phrase “Was mich nicht umbringt macht mich stärker,” which translates as “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” Though this may have been coined in 1888, it could also have been applied to Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859; what doesn’t kill off a species only makes that same species more adaptable to its environment. Over thousands of years, the Ice Age enabled humanoids to adapt to a greater degree than they ever had before, ushering them into the era of modern humans; in contrast, within 64 years, the dodo was first discovered on the island Mauritius and made extinct, too short of a time to adapt to any changes.

In human years, terrestrial evolution moves forward at its own lethargic rate; however, the only natural evolution we have ever observed has been on Earth: the many branches of our own evolution. Who’s to say that evolution on other planets, in other solar systems, in other galaxies move at a different pace–some perhaps slower, some perhaps faster? Slower may be a bit too slow as it’s taken human, oh, about 3.8 billion years to reach its present stage… but fast? How fast could an extraterrestrial evolution spark intelligence? And under what circumstances could that ignition bring about intelligence? THIS is why we have the wonderful genre of science fiction.

Review: An average story that hinges on a unique idea that engages the reader in terms of scientific curiosity and entertainment, yet the story fails to build any human element to the narrative; the creatures very much take the forefront while the crew, sadly, only experience the event through fear rather than any other deeper emotion or characterization.