Intolerant Dreams: The Rise & Rebirth of Soviet Sci-Fi

MOSCOW, November 27 (Alexey Eremenko, RIA Novosti) – Back in 1985, Sting surmised that the Russians loved their children no less than the Americans. But what the song did not mention was that the Soviets also loved to dream just as much as their Western enemies did – and established in the process a robust and unique school of science fiction literature.

The last of the two men credited with ushering in the Golden Age of Soviet sci-fi, Boris Strugatsky, died last week at 79, his ashes set to be scattered over St. Petersburg after cremation.

Strugatsky’s passing sealed the end of a literary era whose denizens overcame the Communist Party’s watchful censorship to produce a slew of literary masterpieces marked with a unique utopian outlook rare in Western literature of the time.

The tradition sustained domestic sci-fi and fantasy in Russia two decades into the post-Soviet epoch, with local authors retaining an unusually large share of the country’s book market.

But instead of Communism-rooted humanitarian optimism, the identity of contemporary Russian “fantastic fiction” is built upon an ultraconservative outlook – and is far less original than it was in its “Golden Age,” some authors and literary critics said.

“It’s an amazing metamorphosis. Russian sci-fi is now conservative, paternalistic and chauvinistic,” literary critic Stanislav Lvovsky told RIA Novosti.

The Noon Universe

The “Golden Age” of Soviet science fiction began with the Thaw – the period after Josef Stalin’s death in 1953 when the policies of political oppression and ideological antagonism with the West were rolled back by his successor, Nikita Khrushchev.

Though an interest in the fantastic was present in prerevolutionary Russian literature, and Soviet sci-fi under Stalin produced a few early classics, it was not until the 1960s that the genre really became a beast of its own, said Lvovsky.

Boris Strugatsky and his elder brother and collaborator Arkady (1925-1991) spearheaded and dominated the movement, building cult status within just a few years of publishing their first novel, The Land of Crimson Clouds (1959).

No reliable sales figures exist from the period, but the duo became a household name, especially with the country’s large and thriving technical intelligentsia. They had countless followers, many of whom entered the literary profession through Boris Strugatsky’s own seminar. Famous director Andrei Tarkovsky based his seminal movie Stalker (1979) on their novel Roadside Picnic (1972), and the duo had an asteroid named in their honor in 1977.

Critics have actually claimed that even 2010’s Avatar, Hollywood’s uber-blockbuster, derived its main concepts from the Strugatskys’ books, though both Boris Strugatsky and the film’s director James Cameron denied it.

Strugatskys’ magnum opus is a loose collection of novels based around the Noon Universe, a future in which Communism has won, and well-meaning Earthlings spread throughout the Universe, helping out less-developed cultures, usually without being asked.

The premise has similarities with both Soviet foreign policy and Star Trek, but the latter is coincidental because the series was unknown in the Soviet Union. However, the duo never denied that were inspired by their peers in the West, where science fiction was experiencing a similar, but separate, golden age.

But the Strugatskys and the host of their followers dubbed their style “social science fiction” to indicate that ruminations on technological progress for them took a backseat to studies of societal evolution.

“It was leftist in the modern sense of the word,” critic Lvovsky said about Soviet science fiction.

Direct societal criticism was hard to get away with because of the still-vigilant censorship, while the hardships of everyday life behind the Iron Curtain fueled interest in a better, utopian world, said writer and poet Yevgeny Lukin, who worked in both science fiction and fantasy.

“Everybody wanted so much to leave the routine of the Cold War for Communism,” said Lukin, a critically acclaimed novelist and a laureate of numerous domestic literary prizes, including Boris Strugatsky’s own ABS-Prize at its inception in 1999.

Still, there was a fine line between dream and dissent. The Strugatskys never qualified as enemies of the regime, but many of their novels were mutilated by censorship, and some could not be published until Perestroika, same as many other Soviet sci-fi oeuvres that crossed the Party line.

This has fostered the slow drift from utopia to dystopia in the Strugatskys’ work, as well as their interest in satire, something shared by many of their colleagues, said Lukin, 62.

The New Dawn

The last novel by the Strugatskys was published in 1988. Boris Strugatsky put out two more novels under an assumed name after his brother died of cancer; both were bleak and dejected reads channeling the mood of an intelligentsia sidelined by the advent of capitalism.

But around Strugatsky, the field that he once helped clear continued to thrive. “Russian ‘fantastic fiction’ retained the edge in popularity over its Western analogues for the last 15 years or so,” said Dmitry Malkin of Eksmo, Russia’s largest publishing house.

No up-to-date nationwide statistics exist, but domestic authors outweigh foreign translations at three to one in Eksmo’s portfolio, said Malkin, who supervises the company’s fantastic fiction department.

This rate may be smaller with other publishers, but the “consumer patriotism” is undeniable and has few precedents in literary markets nationwide, he said.

The prime audience for the genre is made up of men aged 16 to 25, with men in the 35-50 age bracket coming second, Malkin said. Many are drifting away to videogames instead of literature, but the genre retains a faithful core audience, he said.

Merciless Tolerance

But it is not really the same genre, argued literary critic Lvovsky. “Modern Russian science fiction can only be compared in ideological stance to ‘caveman conservatives’ like Pat Buchanan,” he quipped.

A case in point is Merciless Tolerance, a 2012 collection of short stories by the country’s cream of the fantastic fiction crop, who pooled talents to lambast the “decadent” idea of tolerance, much like Russia’s Western-hating political nationalists.

A marked development was also the emergence of bellicose “Slavic fantasy,” a previously non-existent subgenre extolling the virtues of quasi-Russian nations in the times of swords and sorcery. However, Malkin noted that the subgenre has only enjoyed limited popularity in recent years due to the lack of skilled authors.

“The people don’t have Strugatskys’ optimism anymore,” said Svyatoslav Loginov, 61, another critically acclaimed sci-fi and fantasy author. He blamed it on the two post-Soviet decades of turbulence which left the Russian public disenchanted and fearful of the future.

But his younger colleague and bestselling author Oleg Divov – who featured in Merciless Tolerance with the best and the most morally ambiguous story, according to critic Lvovsky – argued otherwise.

A significant proportion of Soviet sci-fi was dross, and this has not changed, the only difference being that trends are now dictated by the market, not the Party, said Divov, 44.

“Only a very narrow group of authors – 10 to 15 people at most – were working like the Strugatskys in the Soviet times, valuing literature over science fiction,” Divov said. “The circle remains just as narrow. Nothing has changed.”


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