Soviet SF stories
A Selection of Stories by Soviet Science Fiction WritersInformation and questions about Vladlen Bakhnov | Sever Gansovsky | Ilya Varshavsky
Vladlen Yefimovich Bakhnov (1924 in Kharkov/Kharkiv, now Ukraine - 1994) led a double or even multiple life as a creative artist: he wrote screenplays (often humorous) and also SF. Occasionally the two would overlap, as in his screenplay for the movie Ivan Vasilievich Changes Profession (the English-subtitled release is called Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future). The Ivan Vasilievich in question is better known to us as Ivan the Terrible; he leaps into an apartment in contemporary (well, almost: 1970s, height of Stagnation) Moscow when a sweet but slightly mad scientist invents a time machine. Even better, the screenplay was based on a play by our friend Mikhail Bulgakov. Well worth watching! (Bakhnov was also involved with the truly marvelous 1971 Soviet screen version of Il'f and Petrov's famous novel The Twelve Chairs - funnier than Mel Brooks's 1970 version.)
Vladimir Il'ich Lenin died in 1924, and Bakhnov's first name was a tribute: Vlad(imir) Len(in). (The feminine tribute name is "Ninel'," "Lenin" backwards.) Just one note on the translation: the main character is named "Эйби Си" in the Russian original, which is phonetically "AB C," not the first three letters of the Russian alphabet, АБВ, "Ah beh veh."
Questions for reading "Fifth on the Left":
- What facts here suggest a lifestyle different from ours?
- The ruling planet here is Oza, and the system they're running is obviously colonialist and capitalist. What's the effect of this setting?
- Can you read this against the surface, as a criticism of sdomething other than capitalism and colonialism? (As Aesopian language, perhaps used to camouflage criticism of Soviet factory managers who doctor the production figures so they seem to have overfulfilled the Plan?)
- But why limit our imperial comparisons to the Soviets and the Western imperialists? How does this compare to Kafka?
- On yet another hand, isn't bureaucracy (and its books of regulations - see p. 146) always fun to mock?
- The pictures AB C looks at during these meetings sound like the standard version of Marxist history (which, I add after class discussion, is fairly like the standard 19th century view of history until you get to the obligatory socialist and then the state-withered-away capitalist part). What scenes should come next, if he's looking at the scene of a slave-holding society that sounds so much like ancient Greece?
- An interesting paper topic: reflections of ancient Greece in SF, starting with Dostoevsky's "Dream of a Ridiculous Man."
- How does the society we glimpse on Oza compare to various utopias and dystopias?
- On p. 151: what's the effect of the little wink where the author comments that AB C has "the makings of a decent sf writer"? Besides praising his gifts for fiction, what does it suggest about what science fiction writers accomplish with their stories?
- How do you like the ending? - Much less violent than the layers of Soviet history the story obliquely recalls.
Sever Feliksovich Gansovsky (1918-1990; stress on Gansóvsky) was from the generation born right around the Revolution (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was born the same year); his first name means "North" in Russian, but I imagine is really "Severus." He was born in Kiev/ Kyïv, now Ukraine, and published his first science fiction work in 1960. He was extremely prolific, especially in the 1960s (inspiring influence of the Thaw?). He won an Aèlita Prize in 1989, at the age of 71. "Vincent Van Gogh" ("Винсент Ван Гог") was published in 1970 in the popular science journal Химия и жизнь (Chemistry and Life).
Questions for Reading:
- The "future" parts of the story are set in 1995. What's the effeect of reading that now, nearly twenty years later?
- Ancient Russian wisdom: p. 54, "Both the past and future exist simultaneously, and meanwhile every moment varies."
- How does the meddling with the past we see in the story compare wtih other cautionary tales of time travel?
- What motivations are there for time travel, besides the narrator's initial greed?
- What do we learn about the past, from our gradually evolving narrator?
- How smoothly is the information about Van Gogh integrated into the story? Are we more willing to read it because the artist is famous, hence we figure he's worth learning about? (How improving or educative are we willing to allow our pleasure reading to be?)
- Though the narrator corrects his actions by "cutting the loop," why might Van Gogh seem to know what is going on? (p. 98) Artists more sensitive than ordinary human beings?
- How plausible are the depictions of the past, and of Van Gogh himself?
- Note the narrator's comment on p. 111: "Wines, unfortunately, are not what they used to be." At least something hasn't gotten way better in the future.
- Is the moral transformation of our narrator believable? In what terms does it show itself?
- And what are the Moral Lessons?
lya Iosifovich Varshavsky (1908-1974) was born in Kiev/ Kyïv, then the Russian Empire and now Ukraine. After finishing school he worked as a naval mechanic. In 1929 he published one story ("Around the World Without a Ticket," co-authored with two others), and then published nothing else until the 1960s. The story is that he saw his son, an engineer and cyberneticist, reading a science fiction book and irritatedly asked how he could waste his time on such nonsense. His son said he should try to write some himself rather than complaining, and the rest is history. His emphasis on plot has been compared to O. Henry's. "No Alarming Symptoms" ("Тревожных симптомов нет") was written in 1964.
Questions for reading:
- This story, like 'Fifth on the Left," seems to me ripe for reading in the Soviet context. How much do you know about Stalinism, the Terror, and the ways official Soviet history damped or even obscured both historical events and the biographies of victims of the Terror?
- How would you describe the story's balance of funny and terrifying elements?
- What nationalities are the names of the characters? What does that suggest about this society?
- Why might a Soviet writer have decided to locate the action of this story in the West?
- What does the work Krebs and Leroi do remind you of?
- What does this story suggest about the role of unpleasant experiences, and memories thereof, in shaping a personality?
- What happened to Clarence's son Henry? Who was he, and what can you deduce from that occupation?
- Does the competitive, high-testosterone environment of Clarence's math activities ring true?
- How does this story compare with Nesvadba's depiction of that cocky young Bauer in "Inventor of His Own Undoing"?
In general, it's always worth looking for ways to read the story in the context of its own time and from other possible vantage points. The Thaw (1956-64 or so) and the following period of Stagnation (1965-1985, more or less) saw much more ideologically interesting literature than the Stalinst period, during which a poem criticizing Stalin or even a funny prose sketch making fun of Soviet bureaucrats could get a person killed and leave his or her whole family in lasting danger, if not worse. Soviet writers became experts at "Aesopian language," which could be read for a variety of hidden, ideologically subversive messages, and during the Cold War many Western readers were delighted to find these anti-Soviet threads. On the other hand, the authors were far from being uncritically pro-Western. These stories were translated within a Cold War dialogue that was part contest (the SF component of the Space Race!), part an altruistic attempt to make human connections that might improve international relations and even make nuclear war less likely, but now we can begin to read them for their full complexity - to the extent that they contain ideological messages rather than just fun.