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Kazantsev and Efremov

Information and Questions for Reading

Alexander Kazantsev, "Explosion"

Image of Alexander Kazantsev from Wikipedia page

There's a brief bio of Kazantsev (1906-2002) in Red Star Tales, as of the other authors included in the collection - he's on p. 23 - and a quick outline of the story and Kazantev's career is on p. 14 (first full paragraph). I found a great photo of him in a military jacket with his decorations on it, but it's a stock photo that I would have had to pay $20 to use - but the gesture of wearing one's military medals even at a less formal moment and many years after the end of the war tells you quite a bit about Kazantsev, as of many people in his generation. Yvonne Howell is right to note on p. 23 that the story would have fit well in many ways into American SF of the 1940s. I would suggest that Kazantsev chooses a black, female alien not so much to make her dangerous (though she's clearly powerful and unusual) as to make her really really ALIEN. Putting a black person (associated with the sun and warmth of Africa) in Siberia (where's it's famously cold) is just about the biggest contrast of person and location one could make on Earth, even though the many native peoples of Siberia are not white Europeans.

Of course there have to be elephants involved too! (Not mere mammoths, which are well attested in Siberia and better suited to the climate there.) - The Tunguska explosion has attracted a number of writers of speculative fiction - another more recent example is Vladimir Sorokin's 2002 novel Ice. Offering new solutions to the Tunguska mystery is a sure way to get readers interested.

One notable thing about this story, given its date, is that it doesn't have a very Socialist Realist feeling to it. The character Lyuchetkan seems to represent the modernizing native Siberian peoples and is skeptical of shamans' powers, as a modern Soviet man should be, but although in a way he's right (she's not really a shaman) he also comes off as superficial and ignorant. (Compared to the two ethnic Russian scholars, of course, who are able to imagine the world in a less skeptical way that is open to the unexpected.) The fact that the Evenk people accepted the alien survivor as a shaman, even if they start out by considering her a "damaged" person, suggests that their traditional beliefs have value. 1946 was an unusual moment in the USSR: Stalin was still alive and going strong, but the cultural opening that was allowed during WWII hadn't yet been slammed shut. There's nothing that Socialist Realism wouldn't permit in "Explosion," indeed the ultimate explanation has nothing mystical to it at all, but the whole atmosphere breathes a discursive freedom that is not typical of the period before Stalin's death.

Howell notes that Kazantsev's later career was marked by work that obeyed the dominant literary requirements, and in this way he is like Aleksei Nikolaevich Tolstoi. In fairness to Kazantsev, the guarantee that a member of the Writers' Union could count on making a living by writing came with the demand that what was written would be deemed acceptable by the censorship.


Map of Russian showing the location of the Tunguska explosion


Questions for reading "Explosion":

  1. How does the story's opening set the mood for what follows?
  2. What do you know about Siberia, and Russians who grew up in Siberia?
  3. How believable is the conversation and competition between the two scholars?
  4. How does the idea of leaving an article sealed in an envelope before going on the expedition contribute to the plot?
  5. How does this journalist, our narrator, compare to journalists we have seen recently in our reading?
  6. They have lied to the shaman and possibly hastened her death. Does the story present them as culpable?
  7. How does gender line up in this story?

Image of fallen trees near the Tunguska explosion site



Ivan Efremov, excerpts from Andromeda Nebula

small photograph of Efremov





Ivan Antonovich Efremov ("Yeff-REM-uff", 1907-1972) was a paleontologist by profession who published a few long stories in the 1940s ("Звездные корабли" 'Star Ships,' 1947; "На краю Ойкумены" 'On the Edge of Oicumena,' 1949), but did his best-known fictional work after Stalin's death in 1953. His books include Туманность Андромеды(The Andromeda Nebula, 1956-7), Лезвие бритвы (The Razor's Blade, 1963), and the historical novel Таис Афинская (Thaïs of Athens, 1973; it's interesting that he thus wrote in two of the less Socialist Realist genres of Soviet prose fiction: SF and the historical novel). He won a USSR state prize in 1952, and his collected works in three volumes came out in Moscow in 1975-6.

Efremov's 1956 novel The Andromeda Nebula, of which we unfortunately only have excerpts here, was a watershed in Soviet science fiction (НФ, научная фантастика), opening the way for the great achievements of Russian science fiction during the Cold War. It belongs to the literature of "The Thaw," that period in the late 1950s and early 1960s when some authors moved away from the obligatory clichés of Socialist Realism (leaving writers like Kazantsev behind), and their educated, intelligentsia readers tended to feel optimistic about the Soviet future as well as pleased by the cultural changes they saw around them. The Andromeda Nebula (other possible translations: The Andromeda Galaxy; the complete 1959 English translation that is excerpted without credit in Worlds Apart (from which the scan I've given you on Moodle) has it as Andromeda, A Space-Age Tale) presents a marvelous world of victorious communism, set in such a distant future that it only just barely recalls Cold War ideology as a risky but resolved part of its own distant past. Unlike several of the works we read earlier in the semester (Kuprin's "The Toast" or Zamiatin's We), this novel refers to the present of its actual readers much less specifically; the 20th century is referred to as "The Era of Disunity," pointing to the often destructive nationalism that in the novel has faded, leaving only some characters' interest in their own ethnic and racial heritage and some medical reliance on genetic heritage. The vast distance of the past that is our own present can produce interesting effects, as here where historian Veda Kong leads a party of archeologists exploring a deep cave in which examples of technology were buried, perhaps to protect them for fear that a nuclear disaster would set back human progress:

"...many of the machines standing in the niches, some of them retaining the polish on their glass and meal parts, were motor-cars of the type that pleased our distant ancestors to such an extent and were considered the highest technical achievement of human genius in the Era of Disunity. In that period, for some unknown reason, people built large numbers of vehicles capable of carrying only a few passengers. The construction of the cars reached a high level of elegance, the engines and steering mechanisms were very ingenious, but in all else these vehicles were senseless. Hundreds of thousands of them filled the city streets and country roads carrying people who lived far from the places where they worked and hurried every day to reach their jobs and then get home again. The vehicles were dangerous to drive, killed a tremendous number of people every year and burned up millions and millions of tons of valuable organic substances accumulated in the geological past of the planet and in so doing poisoned the atmosphere with carbon monoxide." (Andromeda, A Space-Age Tale, pp. 344-45)

The gentle humor of "for some unknown reason" lightens the criticism of a scene still familiar to us and (like many other parts of the novel) suggests how distant its world is from our own. Interesting to compare this scene to Cincinnattus's enjoyment of the photographs of cars in the old magazines he reads, as he awaits his execution in a dumbed-down future of technological decline. (I am 99.9% sure that Efremov had not read Invitation to a Beheading.) Other sections suggest a strong continuity with Chernyshevsky's imagined future society and with Bogdanov's socialist Mars: a psychologist we don't meet in our excerpts has this to say to a council meeting to decide whether the earth should send out three interplanetary expeditions at one time despite the tremendous resources they will require:

"The human psyche is so organized that it is incapable of lengthy excitation or frequent repetitions of excitation. This constitutes its defense against the rapid exhaustion of the nervous system. Our distant ancestors almost annihilated mankind by ignoring the fact that frequent rest is physiologically essential to man. We were at first afraid of repeating the mistake and began to take too much care of the psyche because we did not understand that the best way to get rid of impressions and to rest is to be found in work. A change of employment is essential but that is not all - there must be a regular alternation of work and rest. The heavier the work the longer must be the rest and it will be seen that the harder the task performed the greater the pleasure it will bring, the more fully the worker will be absorbed in his task.

  "We may speak of happiness as a constant sequence of work and rest, of difficulties and pleasures. The longevity of man has widened the bounds of his world and he feels the urge to get out into the Cosmos. The struggle for the new - that's where we find real happiness! [...]" (ibid, pp. 311-12)

And she works in the Academy of Sorrow and Joy, so is a specialist in the question. - Efremov's background in paleontology shows up in the archeological scenes of the novel, which let the narrative dwell on the past in a plausible way. Compare the odd fixation in We on the culture and artifacts of the precise era in which, or just after which, Zamiatin wrote the work. Every society works with, imagines, somehow engages with its own past (...or some idea of that past), and Efremov does it by having his characters rediscover bits of our present that they must strain to understand, so far have they moved toward a more reasonable and humane way of life.

Despite the focus on space travel in the novel, technology is balanced by art (with some new forms, such as symphonies accompanied by shows of light of particular wavelengths) and by attention to other elements of human life: Mven Mass, during his stint as Director of the Outer Stations, performs a dangerous experiment that causes several deaths and considerable destruction of valuable structures; after some peripeties he is reintegrated into society (with a hot girlfriend who is a wonderfully gifted dancer) and starts writing a book about emotions. At the novel's end, Darr Vetter and Veda Kong have gotten together and Nisa Kreet and Erg Noor have just taken off on a very long-distance space voyage that may be the start of human colonization of new earthlike planets, but that will take the rest of their lives to complete. - Many fans of Efremov particularly admire his attention to the details of space travel and consistency in applying science: the cosmonauts have limited energy supplies, must protect their bodies from poisonous gasses, extreme cold, and heavy gravity, and space flight simply takes long stretches of time, during which most of a ship's crew rest in a kind of suspended animation. The action of the novel covers about a decade, though the human life span has been extended to the point where the average age is well over 100 years, which changes many things about the ways people live their lives. I recommend the novel to anyone curious!

I would like to thank Natalia, last name unknown, who wrote to critique an earlier version of this page on Efremov, demanding greater accuracy and subtlety in the presentation, and rightly so.

Questions for reading

  1. How do you react to the characters' names? (Especially the suggestive "Erg," born on a space ship and endowed with an energetic character! He's the closest thing the book offers to a Socialist Realist hero.) The names feel unfamiliar to any reader, and you'll no doubt notice that they lack the patronymics so often found in Russian novels - we get just first and last names (versus just first names for the Martians in Red Star). Darr Veter has a Russian background, and later in the novel he explains the meaning of his names: "Dar" (дар) is "gift" and "Veter" (ветер) is "wind." We learn at a later point in the novel that people now choose their own names as part of coming of age, in strong contrast to current practices of getting them at birth.
  2. Re Darr Vetter: I have to wonder, did George Lucas read Andromeda Nebula at a formative age?
  3. What are the associations of the spaceship's name, Tantra?
  4. Re the science and technology: here and elsewhere, powerful computers ("brains") are imagined as being huge, heavy, and fragile, and the time required to compute certain problems now feels unrealistically long.
  5. What is the role of romance in the story? - Both in the sense of high pathos in descriptions (the commander's hands move over the instruments like a pianist's) and in the important role of love interests? (The novel includes three main couples, though there are other sparks of interest as well. This again underlines Efremov's creation of a complete future world, with all the necessary human elements. - To his credit, at the end of the novel he shows the remaining awkwardness between Veda Kong and Erg Noor, who were once a committed couple, even though now they're both in good new relationships. this is not a future Communist utopia of fleeting sexual connections.)
  6. How does the egalitarian depiction of gender roles mesh with the ever-presence of love and attraction in these sections of the novel? (Example: on p. 626, Erg Noor starts explaining things to Nisa Creet that she must already know if she landed this job of interstellar navigator! What is her function here? Any SF author has to convey information to the reader without getting boring or lecturing; does this approach work for you?)
  7. With race, as well: how does Efremov present his talented African, Mven Mass, in this egalitarian future?
  8. Note that the inhabitants of Zirda are "unlike Terrestrial humans but unmistakably people" - following Marxist laws of development (historical materialism). How do you react to the assumption that people everywhere in space are still people?
  9. Minor note: on p. 627, the name of the ship "Parus," which never returned, means "Sail" - and it's also the title of a famous poem by Russian Romantic poet Mikhail Lermontov: "A solitary sail shows white/ In the haze of a blue sea./ What is it seeking in a distant country?/ What has it left behind in the homeland?// The waves play - the wind whistles,/ And the mast bends and creaks.../ Alas, it isn't seeking happiness/ And isn't running from happiness!// Under it the stream of bright blue is lighter,/ Above it the sun's ray is gold.../ But it, rebellious, begs for a storm,/ As though there were peace in storms!" Russians all memorize this verse in elementary school, so no reader would be able to help the unconscious association. Does the poem seem to illuminate anything in what we read of the story? (The ship Tantra later discovers Parus and learns the fate of its crew...)
  10. The interest of the cosmonauts here in finding out what happened, and ideally finding, earlier space exploration voyages is very like that in polar expeditions. (I was just reading about a new mission to find the remains of Roald Amundsen, first man to reach the South Pole, who vanished eighty years ago or so while trying to rescue another explorer from the Arctic.) Have you read any of the polar exploration narratives, perhaps the closest thing "earthly" literature can offer to compare to the trials of travel in space? (Undersea exploration is even more similar but has largely taken place later.)
  11. What is the effect of the characters using nerve stimulants, artificial sleep, etc.? Do their ways of manipulating and controlling their physicality, integrating it into the requirements of their work, sound persuasive to us or silly?
  12. How do the details of this universe come together for you? - the technology, the concerns in space flight, the way time and distance are measured?
  13. I'm sure you already noticed "the mighty tree of communist society now flourishing over the entire planet"...
  14. How does Veda Kong present human history? (Perhaps page 641 reminds you of "Vera Pavlovna's Dream" in Chernyshevsky.)
  15. As always, how are the scientists presented, and what is their relationship to the cosmonauts?

the Andromeda Galaxy


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