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.

Advertisements

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.

A Place in Memory – Dmitri Bilenkin

“A Place in Memory” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin

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

Original: Russian (Место в памяти), 1972

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1978

Synopsis: The Memorial Center exists in order to record the memory and stories of everyone, especially the elderly: “A million destinies, a million unrepeatable acts, thoughts, and feelings, all the personal  things that used to disappear with death were now gathered and preserved, lived forever, and this wealth was priceless” (83). The director of the Center welcomes one such old man who was eager to share his story, only the computer refused to store any of it, which means that his story was deemed 1) fabricated or 2) unoriginal. The director feigns surprise and promises to get to the bottom on the issue, to which the man leaves with imparting, “I was a contemporary of Gagarin’s!” (86).

Analysis: Authentic narratives are often used by journalists to capture an intriguing human interest piece for their readers. I was once the subject of such a narrative: I’m from a small town in Illinois, spent two years in the city for university before studying abroad for five month in Thailand (that was 16 years ago and I’m still there), something in which a staff reporter of the local paper took an interest. He interviewed me and printed the story on pages 1 and 12 of the the paper. At the time, I thought it was interesting, something to which the local may not have been exposed; but in retrospect, it’s actually the kind of fodder you read from everyone who’s visited Thailand.

As individuals, subjectively, the stories are important and unique, but from the objective perspective, the story’s pattern is probably copied hundreds if not thousands of times over.

Review: Most of Bilenkin’s story pack somewhat of a punch at the end; he’s quite good at it, which is highlighted well in the collection, but the punch fails to land in “A Place in Memory”. It may, however, conjure up thoughts of your talkative late-grandfather’s WWII stories and the accumulated hours of monologic tedium, a state which, thus, may make you feel slightly nostalgic.

The Inexorable Finger of Fate – Dmitri Bilenkin

 

“The Inexorable Finger of Fate” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin

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

Original: Russian (Неумолимый перст судьбы), 1974

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1978

Synopsis: On the eve of 25 July, a bank teller received an innocuous radio transmission that identifies itself from the next day. The man shakes off most of his doubt, pins it down to poor radio management, but the next day sees himself steadily building angst. The radio had told of a bank robbery around noon, so he suspiciously eyes all events that lead up to noon in the light of the forthcoming robbery. When his superiors leave the bank, two men suddenly walk through the door. Having known of the encounter, the man is more of a fidgety mess than a panicked teller.

Analysis: Humans aren’t the only animal to feel emotions, but some may be unique to us; for example: regret and foreboding, both of which need a complex concept of time to express. Foreboding is interesting because it’s an emotion that deals with something that hasn’t even happened yet, which is purely based on prediction and/or experience. What the bank teller in “The Inexorable Finger of Fate” experiences is just that: fear for what is to come; however, his information is only partial. If he hadn’t known of the situation, would he have changes his reaction to it? His expectation could alter his reaction, which it does, indeed.

It’s a little like giving a public speech. Most of us–not including myself, as I savor the showmanship–fear giving a speech in front of a large crowd. Suppose two situation: 1) You were told the day before that you’d give a speech. Would you be a nervous wreck just before the speech and while giving it? 2) The speech duty is sprung on you at the moment. Would you play it by ear, nonchalantly?

The bank teller torments himself with the knowledge of the robbery; every minor detail to his day at the bank is added happenstance. Other remark on his nervousness, which he doesn’t acknowledge while steeping in fear.

Review: This is another amusing time paradox story akin to Bilenkin’s own “The Uncertainty Principle“, albeit much briefer and with a shorter jab at the conclusion, which surely aims to entertain rather than trigger deep thought.

Strangers’ Eyes – Dmitri Bilenkin

“Strangers’ Eyes” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin

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

Original: Russian (Чужие глаза), 1971

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1978

Synopsis: A dull star shined; a dull planet gleamed. Captain Zibella and his crew look upon this system with pensive expectation. When all signs point to zero coherent radiation from from planet, the Captain commands the release of powerful locators that detail the planet from afar. They find primitive huts, a sign of intelligence that brings them the joy of discovery; however, once down on the planet and approaching the same huts, the locals seem blind. They may not have eyes but their crown of thorns atop of their heads may be receptors of radiation of some sort, yet they don’t react to the presence of the scouts. When one aboriginal skirts a cliff then falls to its death, it’s obvious they’ve only recently become blind. The scouts’ eyes turn toward the sky to ponder the cataclysm that destroyed these primitive people.

Analysis: As a heavy reader of science fiction, I’ve come across a wide spectrum of forms of intelligent life: beings composed of radiation, those of higher dimensions, compositions that form a hive mind, denizens that microscopically dwell upon a neutron star, puddles of liquid that merely seem to steep, etc. As fact is always stranger than fiction, when humankind meets another intelligence, it will probably defy what will have already written about so-called intelligence.

Pose the question: Will we know intelligence when we see it? Another question: Is there a spectrum of intelligence (like from amoeba, avocado, ant, angelfish, antelope, ape)? One further questions along these lines: Would we recognize a higher intelligence before it wiped us out like an anthill?

The reader of “Strangers’ Eyes” has to ask themself, do these same intelligences “see” in same spectrum as humans? We only see a tony part of the electromagnetic spectrum due to the nature of our species’ birth:

Atmospheric_electromagnetic_opacity.svg.png

When we explore the distant stars on which there are distant planets with relatively distant cousins of intelligence, how will they perceive their world? Will humans be able to approach them safely? Communication with them rationally? Eventually establish a commonality? Where on the spectrum will they lie?

EM_spectrumrevised

Review: Akin to “What Never Was” as it’s predictable, but the impact of the story’s twist isn’t as heartfelt as the former. From the perspective of an intellectual exercise as in the “analysis”, the story takes an interesting level of depth, but from an armchair reader’s perspective, it offers little substance or pleasure aside from its basic world- and species-building.

What Never Was – Dmitri Bilenkin

“What Never Was” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin

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

Original: Russian (То, чего не было), 1971

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1978

Synopsis: Deemed hopeless, Setti Tovious was a suicide case, for whom the Professor was called. The Professor’s remedy: an artificial dream. Setti is then set in a wondrous dream beside the sea with a girl who divulges her love for him; all in all a dream of love, hope, and beauty. Upon awakening, Setti admits his foolishness when the Professor says he’s cured, but what had ailed him before may not be what ails him now, both pains of which need an outlet.

Analysis: I’ve woken from a dream in which I had fallen in love for a girl named Ayuka. I sensed painful longing for something that had never happened, for someone who I had never met. I lived the few days sulking, cradling and cupping that ember of bliss that the winds of time would eventually blow away. Now, I can’t see Ayuka’s face in my mind, nor can I sense the intensity between us, but the fact that a mere dream could have a days’ long effect on me seems remarkable. Dreams, though intangible and fleeting, can have very tangible and lasting effect on a person. The more vivid the experience and emotion, the longer the impression.

Setti Tovious (an anagram: Oust it, Soviet? Sit out Soviet? Soviets, I tout? It’s out, Soviet?) experiences a curated dream meant to rouse him from his depression, to cure of him of suicidal tendencies. It’s not known what drove Setti to suicide. Regardless of what he experienced, giving a disabled man dreams of extraordinary ability may not enliven his spirit, but rather the opposite: what’s possible may not always be within reach.

Review: The story has three parts: two pages of set-up involving who the patient and the Professor, fours pages of the surreal remedy, followed by two pages of effect with the patient and Professor again. It’s short and predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the syrupy dreamscape that’s painted in the middle of the story. If you’ve lived a good life, you can probably recollect a similar nostalgic pang takes place somewhere special with someone special. Bilenkin captures this really well and frames it with a blank yet sympathetic character.

Hidden Camera – Zoran Živković

Hidden Camera (novel) by Zoran Živković

English Publication History: Hidden Camera (Dalkey Archive, 2005; Cadmus Press, 2017)

Original: Serbian (Skrivena kamera), 2003

Translated by Alice Copple-Tošić, 2005

Synopsis: Left to his hobbies, memories, and work, an undertaker lives out a fairly uneventful life, one without dedication to excess in love, addiction, or interest; in his placid life, this undertaker steers a steadfast trajectory toward the nearest shores of his own death, a fact seemingly unbeknownst to himself… until one evening when he discovers en envelope beneath his apartment door. As he watches the fish in his aquarium dance their own tedious rhythm to ultimate death and heats his frozen meal of goulash upon the stove, the tedium of his life breaks with the interest in the envelope. He casts aside his rhythm of everyday habit to attend the screening at the cinema, which he knows nothing about other than its time and place, both add considering that it’s the cinema’s normal closing day.

A ticket attendant takes his invitation and suggests that the movie would never start without him, an incident that seemed overly courteous but the man shrugs it off only to enter the cinema where a single other soul sits in the cinema, next to whom he is sat by the usherette. As he’s left in the tangible darkness of the viewing room, he’s left with only his thoughts that keep returning to the woman next to him, an imagined beautiful face kept hidden by the brim of her hat. As the movie begin, he’s slow to realize two things: the woman in the film to the same woman sitting next to him; the man with the awkward gait is himself. He sits transfixed, perplexed until the meager light of the film vanishes, leaving him alone with his thoughts again. When the lights return, he finds himself alone.

Rather than return home to steep in boredom, the man continues with the sequence of invitations from a succession of envelopes that he thinks are mere traps to appear in hidden camera pranks. He assumes his clumsiness will be captured; he assumes to be made the fool; he assumes to be the butt of jokes for sadistic viewers. Instead, with each followed invitation at eerier and eerier locations, the man finds himself with his assumptions, perspectives, and fleeting thoughts. And again, he finds himself in the company of the same ticket attendant and usherette in a different capacities, albeit in more elegant roles.

The liquidity of his assumptions never condense into a malleable reality; rather, his assumptions evaporate, leaving him with the dregs of stupefaction: his patronage of a secondhand bookshop ends with only a question, his audience outside a cage ends with rapture, his centrifugal revelation ends with defeated pride, his attendance to a dinner and a show ends with revulsion, and his stroll through a cemetery ends in ambition. However much he experiences on his night of bizarre ordeals, he still considers himself to be the amusing spectacle to a sadistic piece of public humor.

Analysis: When using a metaphor, an idea can be deadened upon delivery: “Life is crazy.” When using a simile, the idea can be more indirect, which requires a bit of thinking and, therefore, reflection, if desired: “Life is like a box of chocolates.” When this simile is extended in scope and depth to become a piece of art, so much more reflection is needed, a state which doesn’t fit everyone. Some people like to be entertained, to have everything explained to them with no loose ends so that they don’t have to do any thinking for themselves (IMHO, in regards to movies: Michael Bay-esque); there are others that savor nuances, subtleties, and open-endedness (IMHO, again, in regards to movies: Stanley Kubrik-esque). The former not only draws the lines, paints fills in the pretty colors, but it also points out all the features on the said canvas; the latter, however, merely provides a frame with some generous gradated tint, the picture and color of which must be inferred. Are those analogies enough?

Hidden Camera is anything but blunt, direct, or obvious. The reader must suspend every scene in their mind before sequencing to the next scene, which may offer parallelisms to the previous scene. Once these two scenes are compared, the reader must again suspend them in order to compare them to the proceeding scene, which may–and in this case, will–offer more nuances in which to draw more parallelisms from. By the end of the novel, the reader has all these nuances sliding in parallel configurations like a multi-dimensional pin tumbler lock. Jiggle it as you may at first, the pins won’t align; either perseverance or expertise will coordinate all the pins into place, whereby the allegorical door of splendor can be opened. And no: Even though I’ve given this novel a lot of thought, many pins refuse to fall into the cuts, which, at the same time, frustrates and titillates me.

Even outlining what I’ve drawn from the novel can lead the would-be reader into one of either two traps: 1) following my train of thought or 2) preparing them for the surprises ahead. A few things, however, to consider:

  1. As the narrator is nameless, it can be inferred that he is a reflection of all of us.
  2. The narrator is an undertaker, someone who has experience with death.
  3. “Death is what precedes the beginning of life… During birth you go from death to life. During death… you go in the opposite direction… There are two basic states… Life and death. If you’re not alive then you’re dead. And vice versa. Those who aren’t born are just as dead as those who have died (82)”
  4. Death is darkness.
  5. Life is chaos in motion, much of which needs subjective interpretation.
  6. The “light” of life is full of experience, which triggers learning, which, therein, triggers our capacity to predict.
  7. Expectations, however, can alter the present experience.
  8. Further and in greater contrast, usually divergent expectations can either be revelational or disastrous.
  9. With a stubbornly neutral mindset, however, neither of these states will reach their extreme.
  10. When the overarching “experience” is complete, how will the thorough objective approach to it all snap into subjectiveness?

This ten-step approach to understanding the novel doesn’t even take into account the following:

  1. The recurrence of the three role player: the usherette, the ticket attendant, and the veiled woman.
  2. The transitions between “experiences”.
  3. The spectrum of color during each “experience”.
  4. The possible real-world parallelisms of each “experience,” as the overall novel may be an obtuse reflection of some social issue.

Review: A dozen people from a dozen nationalities could walk away from this novel with a gross of different meanings… that’s how bountiful the inferences are as they cascade from one tier to the next on an ever-progressive push toward the conclusion that, also, pushes the reader’s ability to bridge parallelisms. What can be inferred in wondrous; what could further be inferred is titillating. Some may argue that that which can’t be understood is often highly regarded (IMHO, Gravity’s Rainbow ranks #1 on that shit-list), but Hidden Camera offers just enough morsels to satiate the hungry pilgrim from one oasis to the next, of who may never reach their holy land; regardless, it’s the pilgrimage of faith, not the destination of faith, that matters.

The Ban – Dmitri Bilenkin

“The Ban” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin

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

Original: Russian (Запрет), 1968

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1978

Synopsis: Stigs is a theoretical physicist who has just published an enlightening article in a journal, but the implication of which he is keen to explore further: left-spiraling photons; however, the research fund head scoffs at the idea and it’s been a dead-end of research for years and for many bright minds. Convinced of the accuracy of his speculation, Stigs suggests that he himself get the approval of the well-know physicist named Gordon. As Gordon begins to pen the formula for why left-spiraling photons are impossible, an epiphany occurs, for better or worse.

Analysis: Naturally, as a science fiction aficionado, I’m fan of Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker Guide to the Galaxy novel and series. When the movie was released, it was pretty damn good. It’s chock full of great one-liners, just as the book and series are. One of my favorites is from Marvin, the Paranoid Android: “This will all end in tears. I just know it.” Consider that he’s “fifty thousand times more intelligent” than humans, one could understand his depression. The better one understands the universe like Marvin, the better one can predict its outcome; similarly, the better you a situation, the more likely your prediction of its outcome will be… not that you’re as intelligent or depressed as Marvin, you just grasp the whole of it pretty well.

Stigs, with his wondrous theory, can see the end result: possible time travel. The research fund head, however, sees another result: the lose of years of manpower. Gordon is not only a wondrous mind, but also a wild card; after consulting with Gordon, Stigs will need to choose his path of either possible fame through discovery or defamation through the Sisyphean task of chasing after ghosts: just when you thing you see one, it disappears. The final truth, however, is just a slippery as the awkward start, so Stigs finds out.

Review: Re-reading this a second time, the initial kick that had eluded me came around full swing; the aha moment was experienced. It, too, is a short nine-page story that builds the conviction of Stigs quite well and sets up the twist really well. The conclusion, too, has a nice ring of humanity to it. Thus far, five stories in to the eighteen-story collection, Bilenkin shows himself to be a clever writer of short stories, ones which snag the reader by luring them into the trap that he had laid, the snap of which is ever so simple yet pleasing.

Modernized Hell – Dmitri Bilenkin

“Modernized Hell” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin

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

Original: Russian (Адский модерн), 1971

Translated by Antonina W. Bouis, 1978

Synopsis: For being an “utter bastard”, a lawyer is sent to hell. Before frying for eternity, the lawyer must be contractually obligated to serve in hell, so the devil gives him the weighty tome of legalities that govern hell, which the lawyer peruses much to the the devil. Once completed and signed, hell sends the contract back because of a small legality, which again annoys the devil but amuses the lawyer in his own chicanery.

Analysis: I’m a big fan of bureaucracy on fiction: Franz Kafkas’s The Trial and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, to name few. I’m fascinated by the utter depth of paperwork involved in draconian departments of government, relic reptiles descended from dinosaurs in the age of mammals: ancient, slow-witted, and, most importantly, completely obsolete. Rule books, like the one in “Modernized Hell” offer  glimpse into the depth of bureaucracy such as hell, the IRS, or Thai immigration, the latter of which much like the former two combined. In addition, it’s the dedication of the bureaucratic force to these strict rules that intrigue me. I guess I’m not one to strongly believe in something so intangible as “company policy” or “chapter 6, section 4, subsection 4, paragraph 12, line 4,” except when I use The Gregg Reference Manual, but that’s a professional pride.

Review: As is said, the devil is in the details. Who’s more devilish than a lawyer? So, this story is very fitting in terms of the common expression. It’s only four pages long but completes what it sets out to accomplish: beating the devil at his own game. The Soviet system must have been hellishly bureaucratic. Dmitri subtly pokes fun at the system in a few lines, which injects added mirth to an already humorous story. To cap it all off, there’s nothing better than reiterating policy to those who create policy. As one of my boss’s boss’s boss once said in a group email to me, “Don’t dictate policy to us” – at least I cared enough to read, understand, and abide by the policy, asshole.

The Man Who Was Present – Dmitri Bilenkin

“The Man Who Was Present” (short story) by Dmitri Bilenkin

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

Original: Russian (Человек, который присутствовал), 1971

Translated by Antonia W. Bouis, 1978

Synopsis: A bonhomous group of writer friends get together to hammer out stories, some for the better, other for the worse–sometimes they click, sometimes the hammer fails to strike the pin. Tonight, their ideas are falling to gain any traction, that is until a man, whom no one invited, is brought into the house after arriving at the door. No one questions his presence, but suddenly their unique story begins to take shape and, after it’s well honed, shows itself to be a great piece of work… but it also seems that man already left. Everyone is perplexed, but one of the writers comes across the man in public, who says he has a unique gift: he can seek out unique thought and offer his synergistic capacity. He himself doesn’t have an identifiable gift, but it’s presence that seems to kindle imagination.

Analysis: If you’ve ever been in an authentic brainstorm session (an Osborne-esque application of the original idea [1938]), the input can be invigorating and the result, too, can be surprising; however, most people don’t understand what brainstorming is: the “facilitator” shoots down ideas, judges the merits of input, encourages certain lines of predetermined thought, etc. These so-called brainstorms are mere ego sessions for those same so-called facilitators; thus, I usually hate brainstorming. But if only (a classic Asimov story classification) there were someone who could perfectly and truly facilitate these brainstorming sessions in order to direct it to the most unique solution without the ego of the so-called facilitator. Ideas are fluid and deserve an environment that is conducive to its flow like a river delta: bifurcating in a smooth terrain with a time-limited conclusion.

Review: There’s very little to the story other than an “if only” idea with a moderately humanistic finale to give the story a bit of punch where it otherwise would have fell on the reader like a skyborne feather: light, whimsical, and borderline intangible.