The Stuff that Nightmares Are Made of – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“The Stuff that Nightmares Are Made of” (novelette) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2011, Alma)

Original: Japanese (悪夢の真相), 1967

Translated by David Karashima, 2011

Synopsis: Masako doesn’t understand her fear of Prajna masks and heights. While the latter dear is commonplace, the former is one that baffles her. When she sees her younger brother’s fears rooted in threats by their parents, Masako begins to understand that all fears have an unconscious and irrational root. Facing her fears, she and her boy friend Bunichi climb up high, yet she realizes that without spindles, she’s not afraid; however, the presence spindles, especially tall ones, ceases her up. In order to better understand the connection between the spindles and the mask, the two return to Masako’s hometown, where coincidence strikes and revelation springs.

Analysis: As straight forward as the synopsis points out, the entire story revolves around the teen-aged duo discovering Masako’s seemingly irrational fears. As Masako realizes through two of her brother’s fears, all fears are rooted in experience somehow; the most difficult part of this rooting out is digging down into words and histories to find the point where something tragic happened. They also begin to understand that when these fears are faced, they can overcome them. There’s very little revelation in the story as it’s easy for the reader to predict that her two fears have a similar root; in addition, I feel that the story was very superficial, without any deeper layers of allegory.

Review: Again, as mentioned in the analysis, the story is very straightforward. It’s linear and open to the reader, who’s also able to put two (fear of the mask) and two (fear of banisters) together to understand that they somehow equate to a fear-inducing sum. This conclusion–a revelation of sorts for Masako but a mere point of understanding for the reader–passes with very little interest in the reader as there was very little in which to immerse oneself. Like “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”, this story feels very much like YA-lit without much appeal to an adult audience.

Zarathustra on Mars: A Story for All and None – Yasutaka Tsutsui

“Zarathustra on Mars: A Story for All and None” (short story) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese (火星のツァラトゥストラ), 1973

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017

Synopsis: On Mars, a professor discovers a fragment of a text in 21st century Earthspeak. It’s informal style seems watered down from Nietzche’s original novel Thus Spake Zarathustra, but the professor didn’t know that, didn’t much care, and also thought that if he translated it to Marsspeak, it would sell superbly well. The result is a colloquial dialogue reminiscent of 20th century surfer lexicon with sixth-grade-level vocabulary and sentence structure. Immediately, the translation becomes an instant hit with the professor maintaining that Zarathustra actually exists back on Earth, so far as to concoct stories about him and his appearance. When one passenger with similar name arrives on Mars, everyone, including the professor, treat him as the real thing. Soon, he’s on all the talk-shows, movies, series, music, etc. His popularity could know no end. Ever the philosopher, the so-called Zarathustra tells his modern-day flock, “If some guy smacks you, you gotta smack the guy back. That’s the only way, I’m tellin’ ya. ‘Cos, y’see, it’s more humaner to get your own back than not do nothin’ at all” (57).

Analysis: According to Wikipedia, Nietzche’s novel Thus Spake Zarathustra has been translated into English about eight times. With each new translation, the translator offers their opinion about Nietzche’s intentions and style along with the faults of previous translations. Certainly, nuance is something that will be lost from one language to another, so an artistic license must be brandished to bridge the gap. The common idiomatic phrase “lost in translation” can easily be wielded here; not every single idea, nuance, or conception is make it from one language to another, be it from German to English or, as in “Zarathustra on Mars”, from German to a possible second language to 21st century Earthspeak to, in the end, 22nd century Marsspeak.

Some things that are lost in translation are unintentional, or intentional to the point that it’s impossible to convey whatever it may be with the language at hand. Anyway, other things that are lost in translation can be intentional, like a sort of dumbing down. Here, “lost in translation” doesn’t have to mean from one language to another, but it can also imply a means conveyance from the original, such as a summary, CliffNotes, or a populist portrayal.

The translation that the professor on Mars had done went through a number linguistic meat grinders: through at least three languages, each of which  also seemed to have dumbed down the content, resulting in a translated edition that borders on sacrilege:

Hi, guys!

Name’s Zarathustra, that’s Zara-too-stra, but you can call be Zaz.

I’m gonna tell you a cool story now.

When I was thirty, I felt the place where I was living. I worked for a soft drink outfit, but they gave me the book. So I went into the mountains and started living there. I did as i pleased and wandered about for a bit. Ten years, actually.

What’s that? I must’ve got bored? No way. But after ten years, I did have a bit of change of heart. One morning, I woke up early, which was unusual for me, and went outside. Just then, the sun was coming up over the horizon, and I was like, Wow! You know? See, on Planet Earth the sun rises in the east and looks all red. Not like it does on Mars, or somewhere. (49-50)

Obviously, the future Yasutaka envisions–both on Mars and Earth–isn’t a very intellectual one. From 18th century philosophical German to 22nd century regressed Marsspeak, it sounds like much of civilization has declined; though ships still travel between planets, the level of intelligence seems to have regressed to the point of idiocy. This decline may be a facet of Yasutaka’s opinion about the modern world (“modern” in 1973 but what must also be true for 2017).

Are history’s poignant creations of music, art, and literature falling on the deaf, blind, and dumb of the modern era? At what point can something important from the past be made relevant and understood by the present? Does it actually require dumbing down in order to capture the essence of the message, but is the “essence” the same as the “wholeness”? No, because as stated before, nuances are lost… Michelangelo’s statue David is just a rock with the nuances of contour (ok, it’s not exactly “nuances”, but you get the drift).

Back to Mars, when this watered down version of philosophy is made public, it becomes hugely popular without anyone really knowing where it came from or what it’s about. Regardless, like sheep to the shepherd or cattle to the stockyard, the regressed minds of Mars plunge heedlessly head-first into the popularity of Zarathustra, a book without a message for minds without thought.

Review: I’ve never read Nietzche’s novel Thus Spake Zarathustra, so many of the parallelisms from that book are lost on me if not expressed in the Wikipedia entry. For what it is, the story is as zany as the rest of the collection. It takes on a bizarre tact with stylish whims, resulting in a fun read but also one what reflects on society (especially here in Thailand with its obsessive and regressive idolatry of superstars and pretty faces). Have you seen the movie Idiocracy (2006)? Yea, it’s like that a bit but on Mars. So, here with “Zarathustra”, we find Yasutaka in his most light-hearted state with the delivery but the content of which steeped with his own intellectualism – fun yet smart.

Bullseye! – Yasutaka Tsutsui


“Bullseye!” (novlette) by Yasutaka Tsutsui

English Publication History: Bullseye! (2017, Kurodahan)

Original: Japanese, 2015

Translated by Andrew Driver, 2017


Synopsis: “Eccentric” isn’t a word that Shoichi Azumi would use to describe himself. Even in his wizened state, he claims that all of his actions are logical, such as stealing a wad of cash from his family, stealing a gun for a police officer, and knocking a professor unconscious. Objectively, however, he doesn’t seem to recognize his family nor does he even remember where he’s going, but two things is certain: He knows what he’s doing and he’s not afraid to get his way.

Pre-analysis: Prior to my paternal grandparents’ passing, they lived their lives in juxtaposition: while my grandfather was always in good health, his mind had started to fade long ago; in contrast, my grandmother always had a sharp mind, yet her body was weakening year my year. Regardless of this, the family always thought that he’d pass first. In retrospect, both descents into failure—one of the mind, the other of the body—were equally difficult to watch over the years. In the end, the hazards of radiation therapy took my grandmother, the passing of whom my grandfather could never remember and always came as a shock when retold the news. His memory may had faded, but his emotions were still in tact.

Analysis: With the zest that life gives the youth and through the productive days of adulthood, there come both a cost and a gift to the life of experience and expenditure:the cost of memory and the gift of intuition. While the former floods the mind day by day, the tenuous waters never hold behind the mental dam; rather, they seep through its cracks, dribbling away numbers, faces, names, and entire episodes of the former life. In contrast, however, intuition is a gift is like the moisture in the air—directly intangible yet ever-present.

When Shoichi Azumi experiences his world in his purely subjective fashion—such as the clock talking to him or the money beckoning to be stolen—he follows his intuition: if the clock tells me to break the mug, I’ll break the mug; the the money beckons to be stolen, I will steal it. Again, from the objective point to view, his actions are without cause, a seemingly geriatric mental invalid who is bent on destruction. Some would say he’s hostile, crazy, dangerous, offensive, or deranged, but in the old man’s mind, he’s just connecting the dots as they come, which is sort of a Buddhist philosophy of living in the moment. Shoichi Azumi sees and reacts, following only intuition since the cost of memory has taken its toll as the gift of intuition keep on giving.

Review: The elderly are occasionally doted upon for being forgetful or eccentric. Some stories have keenly reflected these idiosyncrasies, including John Updike’s The Poorhouse Fair (1958), Iain Banks’s The Quarry (2013), and The 100-year-old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared (2013). It’s not often that these idiosyncrasies have a notable effect on a greater population other than family or residents, but “Bullseye!” expands the effect of Shoichi Azumi’s lengthy foray into intuition onto the city. Objectively guilty yet subjectively innocent, the charades that follow and the conclusion leave an open-ended answer to the results of this toleration of the idiosyncratic elderly.

My Dad’s an Antibiotic – Sergei Lukyanenko

“My Dad’s an Antibiotic” (novelette) by Sergei Lukyanenko

English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Мой папа — антибиотик), 1992

Translated by Liv Bliss, 2015

Synopsis: Alik is proud of his father, who is with the Assault Force Corps responsible for special mission to quash revolt among planetary colonies. His dad is an impressive figure of Herculean strength, but he’s thoughtful too in bringing his son a gift after every mission—usually war loot. When his father gives Alik a bracelet from the same planet as his best friend, he digs a little deeper into the bracelet’s veiled origins, only to later learn that the, on that same planet, boys his own age are recruited to fight in the resistance.

Pre-analysis: Trophies from hard-fought wars have been a source of pride from countless wars across countless lands wherein countless people died. These trophies were the aim of the conquest and/or conflict, so the winning of the trophies is doubtlessly a sign of victory—the conclusion to the war. Spoils of war, on the other hard, are sort of like tokens of combat, items had by chance. But the trophies and tokens shouldn’t be held to the same standard—the trophy came through power, the tokens came by chance, so fate dealt the gifts of the spoils of war… and haven’t we always been told to not look a gift horse in the mouth?

The intangible trophy from the victory on the distant planet is the suppression of dissent, the end to a rebellion—the soldiers probably feel very little pride over this trophy, so they resort to spoils of war as tokens of their victory. Pride in these tokens/spoils is vacant as these items are kept merely for interest like a memento from an event, a keepsake from a ceremony, or a souvenir from a holiday. These same items are kept on shelves, stored in boxes, or given to family or friends.

Alik’s father paws off one such spoil of war to his son without much thought about what the bracelet meant to its now-deceased owner. It was given to Alik in a sort of low-key manner without much forethought as to the significance of the gift—neither of them looked the gift horse in the mouth, until the boy’s curiosity gets the best of him.

Analysis: Considering the story is from 1992, the year after the USSR’s change to modern Russia, the story is ripe with reference to this transition. There’s certainly the intangible trophy of the people—democracy—but what are the tangible spoils of war had by chance? “Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers…” (Trainspotting, 1996) – ah, the plentitude of capitalism!

The older generation (akin of Alik’s father) may not give second thoughts to these tangible spoils because having is much better than having-not—perish the queues for bread, the rations of gasoline, and permits for travel. The shift from inefficient communism to at-hand capitalism must have been warmly welcomed and embraced! The more modern generation—what with their Pepsi, Walkmans, and Levis—should have been more skeptical of these wondrous gifts from the West. Who were they to shrug off the yoke from decades of tradition and hard work? They must have learned their lesson from the proverb “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, unlike the wise young Alik from the story. The youth don’t see the danger in what they have; meanwhile, Alik quickly learned what the bracelet represented, thereby saving his life.

Review: This story, much more so than any of the others, has a certain Western feel to it, akin to Joe Haldeman. The analysis have may dug a little too deep into the story for want of a juicy morsel, but on my initial read of the story, it really felt straight forward, unlike many of the other stories in the collection. Perhaps it’s a sign of the times or simply the author’s style, but the collection ended on a fairly weak note with this inclusion.

Mixed Up – Vladimir Savchenko

“Mixed Up” (novelette) by Vladimir Savchenko

English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Перепутанный), 1980

Translated by Kevin Reese, 2015

Synopsis: When an alien race beamed their personalities across space to Earth, mankind learned the secret of interstellar travel; not everyone, however, was able to sustain the transfer, as evidence by the death of several so-called psychonauts. When M. A. Kolotilin returns from his beamed journey, his eyes sense sound while his ears register color. Initially perplexed by this mental cross-wiring, he soon begins to accept and adapt to the uniqueness of his state even while his wife leaves him and his fellow scientists urge treatment and experimentation.

Pre-analysis: Let’s shun the cliché “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” in favor of David Hume’s “Beauty in things exists merely in the mind which contemplates them”. I think this appropriately shifts the subject from the person beyond the senses: the mind and that which registers the senses. If you were to change the mind, you’d change the perception of beauty, but not the memory of that beauty—for better or for worse.

Analysis: Kolotilin knew of beauty in the form of sight and sound prior to his psychonaut jaunt—the stars, the forest, the symphony, and his wife. When returning to Earth into his own body, these two senses swapped in indescribable ways. As his mind had only known a world where eyes and ears registered their respective sense, Kolotilin was left bewildered and left reliant on his reliable sense of touch and space.

For want of remembering beauty, he plays music and sees his wife, but both of these instances fail to imprint a new sense of beauty in his mind. His isolation in the laboratory doesn’t inspire this same fledgling sense, so he prescribes himself a walk outside where beauty reigns in his memory and to his new senses, the latter trumping the former. When the scientists urge him to experiment in transliterating his senses so that he can experience the so-called real world again, he adamantly refuses to cooperate so that he can perfectly adjust to his new found sense of beauty… but he also achieves a greater sense of life:

And that which is petty, stupid, empty and low is people and in the world will remain for me incomprehensible noise and visual trash. And good riddance. I hear that which is seen and see that which is heard, but I perceive not sounds nor light, but that which lies beyond them. So am I poorer or richer for it? (385)

If we use our subjective sense of beauty as an analogy, could the same be same for a philosophy, an ideology, a system of governance? I’m no Soviet historian, nor am I savvy with political science, alas:

The Soviet Union in 1980 was seeing a growth on the global scale thanks in part to its military strength, indeed it also was experience an economic growth, from $1 trillion in the 70s to $2 trillion in the 80s. Leonid Brezhnev, the General Secretary, had been holding the reins of the party and the State for sixteen years. Aside from cold deathly stares of the Americans across the intangible yet noticeable Iron Curtain, things were looking good for the Soviets.

Democracy isn’t for everyone. It’s one form of beauty in the form of governance, but what works for one people in one country doesn’t necessary apply across the board to all peoples and all countries. The American ideological crusade to push democracy around the world is an attempt to replace one subjective beauty with another. Take Thailand, for example: Elected government after elected government have only brought the country to the brink of civil war; since the coup two years ago, however, social stability is finally savored, a fact supported by the recent referendum approved by voters to allow the military junta to elect its own government for the next five years.

To speak for the Soviets, perhaps the hard-line communists truly believed in their form of society and government. Democratic rhetoric (Kolotilin’s scientists) can’t ideologically understand non-democratic systems (Kolotilin’s happiness). The former may see things as they are—beautiful, natural, and perfect—while the latter may also see exactly the same things—just as beautiful, just as natural, just as perfect—yet though completely different senses. Who’s right; who’s wrong? Like my mum says, “As long as you’re happy…”

Review: It’s a bit hard to envision what Kolotilin experiences. The framing of this unique experience on Kolotilin’s part is due to the equally unique method of traveling among the stars. How this method was discovered and who used this method were a two additional unique aspects of the story—so, to sum it up, the story is pretty unique. Regardless, it’s hard to wrap your head around and rather lengthier than need be.

The Exam – Sergei Drugal

“The Exam” (novelette) by Sergei Drugal

English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Экзамен), 1979

Translated by Yvonne Howell, 2015

Synopsis: Within the Institute for the Restoration of Nature, Nuri walks amid the tame musings, comments on, and holds conversations with its various gene-adapted animals. The numerous mammalian and human denizens of the Institute offer their advice and urge Nuri to consider a freestyle parable, but he considers it beyond his ability. Possibly inspired by his experience with speaking to anthropomorphized animals, Nuri is finally able to spin on a parable while under observation—but to whom and to what end?

Pre-analysis: As a small spoiler to the story, the aim of the inquisition through parable is to become a teacher. This raised both of my eyebrows as I have some experience in research into Soviet educational philosophy when I studied my M.Ed. a few years ago. The class had been through s good chuck of the educational philosophy book when I overheard two students talk about “Who’s your favorite educational philosopher?” My first utterance to self: “Total nerds”. My second utterance to them: “Mine’s Anton Makarenko”, to which they replied: “Are you serious?” Then I was like, “Oh, I’m sure you’re all in love with John Dewey, right?”, to which they agreed.

Long story short, thank you Wiki: Makarenko saw integration as one of the key aspects of education: “the activities of various educational institutions — i.e., the school, the family, clubs, public organizations, production collectives and the community existing at the place of residence — should be integrated”… think of Hillary Clinton’s It Take a Village to Raise a Child (1996) but seventy years earlier.

Analysis: The exam in the story is an example of “authentic assessment”. To summarize, thank you again Wiki, an authentic assessment is:

[T]he measurement of “intellectual accomplishments that are worthwhile, significant, and meaningful,” as contrasted to multiple choice standardized tests. Authentic assessment can be devised by the teacher, or in collaboration with the student by engaging student voice.

Beautifully worded. Nuri is the student in this regard while the random denizens are his teachers who are trying to encourage him to create a parable by framing the situation. They give him multiple chances to engage his voice, his narrative, but he only offers his first parable at the end of the story when he has to define his “moral profile” to a bunch of toddlers. As ridiculous as the situation may be, it’s about as authentic as a test can be for a teacher… minus the lofty language of non-toddlers: “What kind of moral profile does a bachelor have? We’d rather see if he can tell us a good story” (349).

And so, Nuri’s formal education ends with the application of his knowledge to a situation he may actually face when he becomes a teacher; thus, he allowed to go into the world and into the workplace to begin his informal education… the ins and outs of everyday authentic assessments.

Review: The story was a bit spastic in its delivery as it tended to bounce between new characters—both human and animal—urging Nuri to tell a parable. It was frustratingly disconnected but it really snapped into focus for me at the end… perhaps only because of my knowledge of Makarenko and authentic assessments. The re-read of this story proved to be more satisfactory. Tantalizingly, this story is the tip of an iceberg that belongs to Drugal’s collected works of called The Institute of Nature Restoration (19??/1980), which, sadly, was only available in Ukrainian and Russian. It seems that its publication origins are forever lost. So, you may have to be happy with the tip rather than the whole berg.

Explosion – Alexander Kazantsev

“Explosion” (novelette) by Alexander Kazantsev

English Publication History: Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Взрыв), 1946

Translated by Nora Seligman Favorov, 2015

Synopsis: In April 1945, an editor of a science journal is approached by two men with competing theories for 1908’s Tunguska event, which the editor actually witnessed himself. Fuelled by the theories, the man digs through his trove of historical data and commentary of the event in order to defend his own theory. After August 1945’s events, however, one of the previous two theorists returns and spouts forth an outlandish tale involving a native black-skinned Siberian and a mystical source for the huge explosion. 26 pages

Pre-analysis: According to Kazantsev’s Wikipedia page, he was a pioneer of Soviet UFOlogy whose writings dealt mainly with pseudoscientific theories. The page also says without a citation that “He believed the Tunguska impact was caused by an alien spacecraft that crash-landed on the Earth.” So, prior to reading a Kazantsev story, you need to be prepared for two things: some focus around the Tunguska Event and some other outlandish pet theory that goes hand-in-hand with it.

Analysis: As Kazantsev has indulged himself with a few pet theories of the pseudoscientific realm in the form of a short story, there’s very little to analyze. I think the aura of the story is best captured by the collection’s introduction:

Kazantsev went on [after the story’s publication] to have a long and less-than-admired career as a cultural conservative and Party hard-liner who pushed back against literary innovations and artistic freedom in the 1960s … As a Communist Party stalwart, Kazantsev wrote a macho, fun-to-read, mystery-catastrophe in which the figure of the dangerous alien is easily summed up in two words: “female” and “black.” (14)

Review: This is the third Kazantsev story that I’ve read and it’s the third story of his that involve the Tunguska Event—at this point, it feels like Kazantsev is a one-trick pony. The lamely titled “Explosion” is a variation of the previous theme in “A Visitor from Outer Space” (1951) and “The Martian” (1958) that posit a Martian UFO for the explosion. “Explosion” shrugs off this prior theme in favor for something more mystical and less science fictional. His personal interest in Martian canals, a fabled planet in the asteroid belt, and the Tunguska Event taint his stories to the degree of obsession.

The Nur-i-Desht Observatory – Ivan Yefremov

“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”).

red9-1Eventually, 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.

The Lunar Bomb – Andrei Platonov

“The Lunar Bomb” (novelette) by Andrei Platonov

English Publication History: Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Science Fiction and Fantasy (The Overlook Press, 2006), Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Лунные изыскания), 1926

Translated by Keith Blasing, 2015

Synopsis: An ex-miner with big ideas better suited for the big city, Peter Kreuzkopf heads for the capital with his technical plans for sending a sphere into space. Surprisingly, his plan is passed by the board for approval and initial construction begins. Ignorant of his device’s own power, he electrocutes to death forty workers and soon is found of administrational malfeasance. Found guilty and imprisoned, he tries to take his life but is later restored to his own project that he had lost hope on. Still with a deathwish, he impresses upon the government for him to ride on his own device to the moon.

The Author’s Work: Platonov was once heralded as a significant writer in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, just after the famine and right before the first Five-Year Plan in 1928. Both readers and critics found his work significant, but later drew unfortunate scorn from the State for his criticism of the system. Today, he better known for his novels Chevengur (1926, untranslated) and The Foundation Pit (1930/1987). According in Wikipedia:

In terms of creative works, Platonov depicted one of the first state-controlled dystopias of the 20th century. The novel is often compared to George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. However, both English novels were published long before a translation of The Foundation Pit became available. (link)

Analysis: Though this story was written in the same year as he reputedly significant novel Chevengur, I didn’t find much of an anti-establishment or dystopian theme throughout; rather, dedication seems to be of importance here… perhaps with social parallels.

Peter Kreuzkopf is and always has been a common man, a working man. His marriage ended in disaster as she herself was a proletariat. They never managed to see eye to eye or share the same interests. As he is and always has been an engineer at heart, he could never adapt upward to the proletarian lifestyle of which his wife was so fond. Though he tried to dedicate himself to his socially lofty wife, he failed.

In the capital awaiting word of the success of his submission, Peter Kreuzkopf takes a freelance job testing cars. He only needs to take the car out and drive it so many kilometers before bringing it back for them to analyze the data. On his first drive, he swerves to miss an animal only to hit a small boy. Stopping the car and going to the boy’s aid, he sees that the youth was already dead. Solemnly, he buries the boy and promises to dedicate his life to the poor commoner boy. Though he tries to do so, one obstacle gets in the way: himself.

Bent of suicide, his last hope rested with the State to allow him to board his own experiment to fly to and orbit the moon. When even they denied him, he cut his last thread of dependence and fell back on the only person he had left: himself. With the legal system on his side, he takes a step closer to the death that awaits him, a death so righteous for such a man with limited perspective—the death of a hermit rather than a voyager.

Review: If you can think past the contraption that spins/revolves thousands or millions times per minute, maintain its integrity, and allow a human to survive on board before it’s flung—with precision, mind you—into the orbit of the moon… then there’s a mildly compelling tale of a man trying to find a toehold in the jagged façade of his society, where relationship fails him (wife leaves), his dedication fails (seems to forget the boy he killed), even his work fails him (he accidentally kills come workers). As he himself is the obstacle to all of the above, his last goal also finds himself as the obstacle—can he commit suicide? It may not be heroic, but it’s what his fate defines.

Professor Dowell’s Head – Alexander Belyaev

“Professor Dowell’s Head” (novelette) by Valery Bryusov

English Publication History: Professor Dowell’s Head (Macmillan, 1980), Professor Dowell’s Head (Collier Books, 1981), Red Star Tales (Russian Life Books, 2015)

Original: Russian (Голова профессора Доуэля), 1926

Translated by Muireann Maguire, 2015

Note: The version from 1926 is a novelette while the 1937 version is the novel. The Macmillan and Collier editions are both novels; however, the Russian Life Books version is the novelette, which his reviewed here.

Synopsis: Miss Adams took an unusual job under the supervision of Professor Kern, even with his threats and temper. She soon meets the subject of her time while under employment: the detached yet still living head of Professor Dowell. Disregarding Kern’s threat, Miss Adams secretly opens an innocuous valve, which allows the head to speak and confess. She soon alliances herself with the head prior to beheading two other corpses for a scientific exhibition, where Miss Adams takes the soapbox for a hysterical rant.

The Author’s Work: Belyaev is one of most accomplished SF writers from Russia with eight novels and nine short stories having been translated and published in English. His work began to be published in 1926, so considering that he died in 1942, he was quite productive and, posthumously, has been a shining example of Russian and Soviet SF literature.

Pre-analysis: You may never read such a tragic biography as the one of Belaev. After birth (1884), his father forced him to take a religions path in his life and entered him into a seminary, but, not feeling particulary religious, declared himself an atheist in a seminary. After his success as a lawyer, he became a writer, but during this time (1814) he contracted tuberculosis, which spread to his spine and paralyzed his legs. Not wanting for care for a crippled, his wife him. He convalesceced in Yalta with his mother a nanny, took a few odd jobs in Yalta, but eventually found himself back in Moscow as a law consultant. He had two daughters, one which died in 1930, and lived until 1942, when he died of starvation after he refused to evacuate the town as he was recovering from an operation. The Nazis gave him an Orthodox ceremony or his interment, the exact place of which is not known. His wife and remaining daughter were sent a Nazi camp yet later returned to Russia only to be suspected of collaboration with the Nazis, thus being exiled to Siberia.

Analysis: The most pivotally traumatic point in Belyaev’s life came when his wife left his as he lay diseased, defenseless, and unable to care for himself. He must have hated his body for the state he was in, the hatred of which must have been a double-edged sword whose two edges were honed to lethal lines that attacked his body and mind. Surely, a better life could be had in the future, if not in reality than at least in fiction. Perhaps this is where Belyaev’s motivation came for some of this SF themes: organ and brain transplants, a procedure of which that only became reality in 1954 with the world’s first kidney transplant.

Belyaev’s 1928 novel The Amphibian revolves around the transplantation of gills, while his 1930 novella is about a brain transplantation from a man to an elephant. Prior to these two stories is “Professor Dowell’s Head”, which doesn’t feature a transplantation, as such, but the revival and sustainment of a detached, bodyless head. Perhaps in Belayaev’s grieving for the abandonment of his wife and the dereliction of his body, being a healthy living head would be preferable to having an ill body.

Professor Dowell actually headed (oops, a pun) the research that allowed him to have a detached the living head; his co-researcher—Professor Kern—is exclusively using his ideas to further his career and gain fame from the success. If Dowell doesn’t agree, what’s Dowell going to do—violently blink at Kern? With a good mind, Dowell concedes in doing to literature review for Kern, but he oddly doesn’t become morose with his stationary state. When Kern brings in two more victims for their bodyless experiment, the duo don’t fair as well.

Tom and Miss Watson are the next two heads, but their occupations don’t involve the use of their mind: Tom is a physical laborer while Miss Watson used to occupy her time with another physical use of her body. Now bodyless, the two don’t adjust as well to their state as Dowell. The rigors of occupying one’s mind doesn’t suit all walks of life, so only Dowell is able to withstand the hours of by using his mind. Here, Belyaev may be simplifying and exploring social class in that the intelligentsia is fine being secluded to their whims while the common laborers aren’t suited for a similar life.

Review: Not only is this story compelling from start to finish, but it also has some social overtones as mentioned above. Take these two perspectives in parallel with Belyaev’s personal history and the story suddenly becomes intensely personal. This doesn’t necessarily make the story better, per se, but it does bring it sharply into a contextual focus. Admittedly, the idea sounds corny from the 1920s, but Belyaev masterfully carries the idea through its plausibilities and social perspectives. This is much better that “Hoity-Toity”, which I didn’t care for at all.