Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, August 17, 2012

FORGOTTEN BOOK: SOVIET SCIENCE FICTION

Soviet Science Fiction, edited anonymously and translated by Violet L. Dutt (1962)

My choice this week has an interesting background.  It was originally published in 1961 as A Visitor From Outer Space by Foreign Languages Publishing House; the book's spine (according to ISFDB) said only "Science Fiction Stories by Soviet Writers."  It was then published under the Soviet Science Fiction title by Collier Books (has any paperback publisher had worse cover design?) proclaiming a new introduction by Isaac Asimov, leading some biographers and libraries to state that Asimov was the editor.  The Collier editions (there were four of them from 1962 to 1971) eliminated the authors' biography and -- in a fit of mercy -- the footnotes to the story A Visitor From Outer Space; the footnotes were actually longer than the story and supported an odd theory about the 1908 Siberian Tungus meteor [?] strike.  There may have been other excisions from the book that I am not aware of.  The cover of the 1962 Collier edition I read has the tag lline "Striking Tales of Outer Space" on the front cover and "Life in outer space, Russian style" on the back cover.  Hmm.  Only one of the six stories in the anthology is an outer space story however

The six stories in this anthology were among the first Soviet science fiction stories to appear in the West.  For the most part they could have been written by writers from any country; there doesn't seem to be any heavy-handed Soviet inprint on any of them-- there's a universality about them.  Sadly, they are also creaky and clunky.  They could have been used as filler material in science fiction magazines of the Twenties and early thirtiies.

The book opens with the novella Hoity-Toity (1930) by Alexander Beliaev (The book gives the author's name as A. Belayev).  The title character is an amazingly intelligent circus elephant who insists he is a man.  Through a long and twisty narration we learn that the elephant has had a man's brain transplanted in its skull.  The man had been an assistant of Russian professor Wagner who, for some reason, kept his brain in a jar fed with nutrients that enabled the brain to grow in size.  When Ring (the assistant/brain in a jar) expressed a desire to once again have a body, only an elephant's skull was large enough to contain him.  From an interesting introduction, the story rapidly devolves into an African tale. 

Beliaev (1884-1942) wrote at least eight stories about Professor Wagner from 1926 to 1936 which were collected in a Russian volume in 1988.  At least three of Beliaev's novels and three other short stories (including a Professor Wagner story) have appeared in English.

Spontaneous Reflex (1958) by brothers Arkady (1925-1991) and Boris (b. 1933) Strugatsky is a story about a robot gone rogue.  Think Asimov without the Three Laws and a bit confusing.  Unlike the robot, the story goes nowhere.  The brothers are arguably the best-known and most popular Soviet-era science fiction writers with over twenty-five books published, the most famous being Roadside Picnic.  The vast majority of theeir work has been published in English.

A Visitor from Outer Space (1951) and The Martian (1958) both by Alexander Kazantsev (1906-2002).  Both take place on the Georgy Sedov, a Russian ship exploring the polar region and both are (for lack of a better description) club  tales, stories told to other crew members.  The first posits that the Tungus explosion in Siberia was caused by the destruction of a spaceship flying above the site.  The second has an oddly-shaped person waiting since 1908 to get back to his home planet Mars, hoping to use Earth technology to save his people.  Neither story made much sense to me.  Kazantsev was an UFOlogist who was evidently very popular in Russia.  Only one of his science fiction novels and one collection of non-genre stories about the arctic have been published in English.

Infra Draconis (1958) by Georgy Gurevich (1917-1998) is the only outer space story in the batch and it's a fairly interesting one.  At a time when the average life span is well over a hundred years old, a retired space hero and five explorers embark on a thirteen year flight to find theoretic "dark stars," planets just beyond the solar system that are heated from within rather from the sun.  The first they find is an icebound planet not suitable for human habitation.  There is another "dark star" a year's journey away from that and they head for that, only to find out that the planet is covered entirely with water.  The captain decides that he will take a bathysphere into the planet's depths while the remaining crew will take  the long voyage back to Earth to report on their findings.  The captain's descent into the ocean world is reminiscent of Arthur C. Clarke's story A Meeting with Medusa.  Gurevich was a bulding engineer; as far as I can tell, this is his only work to appear in English.

Finally, we have Professor Bern's Awakening (1956) by Vladimir Savchenko.  The title character is convinced mankind is doomed, so he puts himself into a cryogenic state for thirteen thousand years to prove himself right.  At this point the reader has to say, "Huh?"  Bern awakens in the future and is soon killed by a beast.  Dying, he's convinced he was right about mankind's fate.  But -- ha, ha! -- it turns out he was in some future nature preserve.  This one could have been a third-rate Twilight Zone episode.  Vladimir Savchenko (not to be confused with the later Ukraininan football player) was a Ukrainian writer and electronics engineer whose only novel in English was also published by Collier Books.

Soviet Science Fiction was not the best showcase for Russian SF writers but it did presage a slow trickle of similar, but better, anthologies.  I don't know if it truly reflected Russian science fiction of the time, but it probably reflected what the Soviets thought would appeal to an English-speaking audience.  At this in this book Americans are not portrayed as evil (as they would be in some Soviet SF novels) and mankind is often portrayed as striving for peace and progress.  Recommended only for the curious, the completists, and those who like their stories clunky.

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