Aleksei N. Tolstoy (1883-1945), Aèlita
Aleksei N. Tolstoy | Aèlita, the movie

Aleksei Nikolaevich[NOTE] Tolstoy (1883-1945) was a very successful author in both pre-Revolutionary Russia and the Soviet Union: he started out as a poet in the Symbolist vein but. He was indeed a member of the extended noble family of Lev Tolstoy, but he renounced his title after the Revolution and was known for a while as "the Red Count." His novel Aèlita: Queen of Mars was written in Berlin in 1922, during a phase when A.N.T. was changing his political opinions and deciding to return to Russia rather than remain in emigration as he had originally planned. (Remember, Zamyatin emigrated too - but quite a bit later, and it required special permission for him to get out.) The Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. Neil Cornwell. comments that the novel is "unevenly written and somewhat didactic in tone." (A.N.T. wrote another, The Garin Death Ray (according to the 1955 translation) or The Death Box (the 1936 translation) (Гиперболойд инженера Гарина, literally 'The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin,' 1925-6), which is considered more successful and also has obvious science fiction relevance.) A. N. Tolstoy was largely self-educated (he spent much of his childhood in a provincial backwater, reading like crazy in the family library), though he graduated from high school in 1901 and moved to St. Petersburg, where he enrolled in the Department of Mechanics. He bragged to friends that his technical background meant that his predictions about space travel and other future technologies could be trusted. He is not one of the major figures of Russian literature, so just as well that we're reading an excerpt - though, unfortunately, not the part where Aèlita co-opts and then double-crosses the Martian Revolution. Good thing there's a movie. (She actually isn't a double-crosser in the novel - it's complicated.)

1920s poster for the movie Aèlita

For a summary of the plot (though it's the movie's plot, not the novel's), see Andrew J. Horton's excellent article on the movie from Central Europre Review, Vol 2, No 1 (10 January 2000) at http://www.ce-review.org/00/1/kinoeye1_horton.html.

Questions for reading:

  1. Note as you begin that Mstislav Sergeevich Los (his last name means "moose" or "caribou") had a wife back on earth who has died, so this casts an understandable pall over his mood when he's first on his way to Mars.
  2. Note the strong class differences between the two Russians, Los (the "leftover" and educated bourgeois intellectual) and Gusev (the proletarian colonel and Civil War vet who tells them himself that his name comes from "goose").
  3. How does their spaceship compare to others you have seen? How do you like the mouse atmosphere test, p. 556?
  4. Other things to note: the Martian landscape and flora; the signs of climate change; the relics of past wars (not just the ruins, but the way the Martian in the airship tosses the singing book Los found overboard in disgust).
  5. How about Tolstoy's science? (p. 559 etc.)
  6. What does the language sound like to you? (I was thinking Aztec, with its "tl" clusters - a red American/red planet association?) "Aèlita" is a made-up name; we see its supposed etymology on p. 582, but it also evokes the root "aero" (suitable for space flight!) and even an aerolite (though I didn't check to see when that word came into usage). (My kid used to watch something on the Cartoon Network with a character named Aèlita - has any of you seen it? Maybe not as heavy a cultural reference as Rossum Laboratories.)
  7. How could the Earth be a gloomy RED star? (p. 565)
  8. How cool is it that "the highest governmental organ among the Martian nations" is the Supreme Council of Engineers? Another technocracy.
  9. Science check: would the stars actually look unfamiliar and unsettling to an Earthling if seen from Mars? (And he worked so hard on the part about the time implications of speed-of-light travel!)

Catchy screen shot from the movie Aèlita

I'll show you just a little bit of Aèlita the movie, so here's just a bit of information to prepare you. Yakov Protazanov (1881-1945) was one of the first major Russian film directors: he directed a large number of feature films before the Revolution, the best-known perhaps his adaptation of Lev Tolstoy's story "Father Sergius." After living in Europe for a few years he returned to the new Soviet Union and in 1924 made the film Aèlita, Queen of Mars. It was the first Soviet block-buster (the film industry had suffered during the Revolution and Civil War, when newspapers were the primary instruments of propaganda), the first Soviet movie to attract attention in Western Europe, and quite possibly the first full-length film involving space travel. Certainly the first Soviet science fiction movie. You can see all kinds of traces of the silent-film pre-Revolutionary melodrama style, especially in the parts of the story set on earth - but also the fabulous Constructivist Martian sets designed by Aleksandra Ekster and Isaak Rabinovich, and the striking costumes (also designed by Ekster). We should all be so lucky in our film versions. On the other hand, the plot of the original is changed significantly in the movie version (making it almost all turn out - you guessed it! - to be just a dream).

Aèlita was later criticized in that scary official Soviet way, and though Protazanov continued to make movies he was displaced in world opinion by Sergei Eisenstein, a younger and more politically acceptable director. For more information on Protazanov's oeuvre, see the Internet Movie Database.

NOTE: You need to use his patronymic because there is another Aleksei Tolstoy - Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy (1817-1875) - a poet and playwright who was actually the first well-known literary Tolstoy. They were all somewhat related. Russians who did not appreciate A. N. Tolstoy used to comment that he was "Neither Lev, nor Konstantinovich." He is also the grandfather of the late-Soviet and post-Soviet writer Tatyana Tolstaya, whose post-apocalyptic novel THE SLYNX (КЫСЬ) we might have read this semester.