The Surf of Mars – Dmitri Bilenkin

“The Surf of Mars” (short story) by Dmitri

English Publication History: World’s Spring (Macmillan, 1981)

Original: Russian (1966, Марсианский прибой)

Translated by Roger DeGaris, 1981

Synopsis: The first of many landing to come, the initial scout party explores the surface with Vanin in tow–always in tow because though he’s not timid in the face of danger, he isn’t one to put himself there in the first place. His comrades joke of this, every member, including Vanin, laughing at his odd characteristic. Vanin unwillingly becomes “the first” when he stumbles upon sinks into the now famed Martian Surf. Not of aqueous origin, rather, the surf is vibrated sand that acts much like Earth’s lapping waves. Their commander sees the danger, yet Vanin shows off his bravery by continuing to swim and dive in the surf. Much later, when tourists arrives, Vanin is still eager to show off in the surf, which have just as many perils as  the earth equivalent.

Analysis: Brave unto themselves, many wills can weaken or slacken once in a group. Some say “strength in numbers” as if we’re a powerful herd of herbivores, but power also lies in the entity known as “one” (a.k.a, unity, identity, solidarity, etc.). As sharks and tigers hunt alone, so too can the power of the human will become strengthens to its limit only when left alone.

Vanin, however, had a weakened will when in a group and, further, when he looked like a buffoon for falling into the surf on accident. This may have very well broken his courage, from which surged recklessness. The opinion of his comrades manifested itself physically in terms of jocularity, but this had the intangible effect on weakening Vanin, the result of which is his obsession and recklessness with the Surf of Mars.

Review: Largely lacking dialogue, this first-person-anonymous narrative story outlines Vanin’s downfall as factual as possible, therefore making it a rather dry read in addition to a short read: 8 pages. Just as scientists were concerned about sinking in lunar dust, the initial landing on Mars was also worried about sinking in martian dust. It didn’t quite happen like that though. Of minor note, Vanin may have some crossover with Neil Armstrong, whose qualities are reflected in Vanin from this sample interview:

Neil was always passive about things … when I’d suit him up before tests, it was like his mind was way ahead of what we were doing. It was like he was already thinking about what he was going to be doing inside the spacecraft. If he had a problem, he’d let you know. But he was pretty good about just going along with things.

If you sat down and had a beer with him, you’d say he’s a regular guy, without ego, very accomplished, very modest, not impressed with himself or what he did. But he was very serious about his work, a highly-skilled test pilot and very, very calm under pressure.