Solaris

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Reading Soviet Sci-Fi at the End of the World

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The best encapsulation of my emotional relationship to technology during the pandemic comes from a Russian novel published in 1991. Victor Pelevin’s Omon Ra opens with the titular Omon recalling his youth, when he was obsessed with space. On playgrounds, young Omon plays pilot. On his aunt’s TV set, he pauses on any channel broadcasting an airborne object. When visiting the Industry Achievements Expo, Omon gazes upon an artistic rendering of an astronaut whose “arms were stretched out confidently towards the stars, and his legs were so obviously not in need of any support that I realized once and for ever that only weightlessness could give man genuine freedom.”
Because the point of view at this juncture is that of a boundlessly enthusiastic boy, and because Pelevin can write his absolute ass off, the sentence does not end at freedom. It takes off,

which, incidentally, is why all my life I’ve only been bored by all those Western radio voices and those books by various Solzhenitsyns. In my heart, of course, I loathed a state whose silent menace obliged every group of people who came together, even if only for a few seconds, to imitate zealously the vilest and bawdiest among them; but since I realized that peace and freedom were unattainable on earth, my spirit aspired aloft, and everything that my chosen path required ceased to conflict with my conscience, because my conscience was calling me out into space and was not much interested in what was happening on earth.

Well hello. That last big sentence full of big ideas arrives on page six in Omon Ra. It speaks of freedom and hearts and spirit, each little clause punctuated by its own invisible kiddy exclamation point, because what is an exclamation point if not a rocket ship? The ones I’m imagining after “aloft” and “conscience” seek to transport Omon and the reader up and away from the “boring” West and also the “vile” Soviet state.
And yet this soaring scene is not one that anticipated my pandemic-induced techno-frustration. That came later, when Omon and his friend, Mityok, attend a summer camp called Rocket. A glum Mityok shows Omon “a little plasticine figure with its head wrapped in foil.” The figurine is an astronaut; Mityok acquired it by disassembling one of the model rocket ships in the mess hall. Mityok explains, “in a thoughtful and depressed sort of voice,” how the toy astronaut had been stuck to its chair. The entire machine had been built around him. “There was no door,” Mityok explains. “There was a hatch drawn on the outside, but in the same place on the inside—just some dials and the wall.”
To Mityok and Omon, this astronaut is not an inanimate toy. The figurine is a stand-in for their heroic dreams and imagined futures, and they are irate at discovering, for the first time, that the Soviet Space Program they’ll soon enroll in is not especially interested in fostering technological environments in which humans can actually live and dream (and depart at will). The toy astronaut has not been granted soaring conscience, total freedom, and mapless exploration way out beyond the political monotonies of Earth. The astronaut has been entombed, and at this juncture I set down Omon Ra with a shudder, checked the time on my iPhone, and scrambled to log my son into his pre-K Teams classroom. While I booted up my own Zoom classroom, I took a look around my house, thinking: the pandemic has entombed me in devices, and I’m not seeing many exits.
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I did, at some point, have a half-baked reason for embarking on a Soviet sci-fi reading spree. It went something like: Covid-19 seems destined to finally snuff out the overlong afterglow of so-called American excellence, and so there might be unpredictably relevant and resonant moments hiding in the literature of the final years of the USSR. It now seems clear that what I needed was a brief detour from the Bored Addict tone I found in much of contemporary American fiction, an approach to technology that often read less like an inventive artistic gesture than a servile bow to realism.
For much of the pandemic, I was bored. I was addicted to technology. It’s hard to explain then exactly what I wanted from art, but the simplest way I can say it is: I didn’t want to read about people who were in similar spots to me, and I didn’t want to overdo it by reading about people who were in far worse spots than me, but I did very much want to think critically about what I was going through, and I also wanted to refract this experience via art that was foreign yet immediately recognizable.
This, then, maybe explains how I wound up in Soviet sci-fi, which is a term I am not qualified to employ any single word of. I began my reading journey without a strong grasp of Soviet history; I am ending it still quite capable of failing any quiz offered me. Despite having recently published a novel, Test Drive, that occasionally gets labeled as science fiction, I have never been exceptionally versed in the terminological debates around the genre. I am a citizen of the sentence first and foremost, and so when I read Pelevin uncorking a massive, soaring line from within Omon’s young consciousness, I did not think: “does this qualify as Soviet if it’s about the Soviet space program but it’s published in 1991?” I read that rocket of an early line and thought: I am on the readerly correct path; I will soon learn things from the geographically distant past about my own claustrophobic present.
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I did learn things. The more I read, the more it started to make sense that Soviet writers would be so preternaturally gifted at envisioning future realities, given the political challenges they faced if they attempted to write bracingly about the present. In the introduction to The Ultimate Threshold: A Collection of the Finest in Soviet Science Fiction, translator Mirra Ginsburg outlines how much of the work in the collection was written under the “vigilant eye of those who hold that art and literature must serve,” those who demand that Soviet art display “the wretched destinies of the non-Communist world.” The best of the genre, Ginsburg argues, “ignores the pressures and continues to create free and valid works of the imagination.” This sentiment is echoed by Ursula Le Guin, in her introduction to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic: “Soviet writers had been using science fiction for years to write with at least relative freedom from Party ideology about politics, society, and the future of mankind.”
These heroic depictions of Soviet sci-fi writers can make it seem as though the best work in the genre is that which confronts and bursts through every oppositional force, yet I confess that the more directly confrontational narratives didn’t especially resonate with me. In rereading much of Solaris author Stanislaw Lem’s work, I came to agree with a sentiment that Jonathan Lethem expressed in a recent London Review of Books feature about the Polish titan of sci-fi: “His targets in Memoirs [Found in a Bathtub]—organized Christianity, self-referential academic scholarship, the state security apparatus—are fish in a barrel, which, rather than shooting, he hammers to death.” I, too, didn’t want to read critiques that hammered away at institutions and ideologies; I already had Twitter. It would be corny but accurate to say that I was instead seeking a feeling of hope via fiction. I wanted to find some person or place, either in the historical past or imagined future, that offered a road map for how to escape my own little rocket ship, where Zoom-versions of classes and readings and other human events once core to my identity and existence played on an endless loop.
What I found was not a roadmap for escaping my circumstances but a strategy for how to operate within them. I discovered this approach in the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic, a book I fell so hard for that I have said aloud, more than once, and only half in jest, that it is the greatest literary work in any language or any genre, ever. The gist: a “highly advanced alien civilization” visits Earth, but no human sees them arrive or depart. Their “Visit,” as it comes to be known, leaves behind strange, dangerous aftereffects in six neighborhood-like “zones” around Earth (for instance: step in the residual hell slime, and your leg bones might melt). The Strugatsky brothers chart the predictable human responses to the Visit: scientists seek to study the almost supernatural effects on the human objects in these zones, government types attempt to weaponize them, mobsters gin up a decent life by trafficking items to and fro. So-called “stalkers,” the Indiana Joneses of the zones, facilitate much of this activity via their artifact retrieval.
The interpretations of Roadside Picnic have occupied a similarly diverse, predictable range. Some theorists believe it is clearly the work of Soviet dissidents. Others say it’s obviously a pro-Soviet critique of capitalism, given how the zones cram the world with dangerous everyday items that people waste their lives obsessing over. These competing interpretations exist because Roadside Picnic doesn’t “hammer,” to use Lethem’s verb. The story itself offers multiple reasons for the genesis of the Visit. The novel takes its name from one such theory, offered up by the story’s Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Dr. Valentine Pillman. Dr. Pillman is credited with aptly theorizing the location of the zones (“Imagine taking a large globe, giving it a good spin, then firing a few rounds at it”), but the theory is all “how”; the “why” has remained a mystery. When asked in a cozy booth at a “good old fashioned pub” what he really thinks of the Visit, 13 years removed, Dr. Pillman sets his coffee aside. He lights a cigarette. “Imagine,” Dr. Pilman says,

a car pulls off the road into the meadow and unloads young men, bottles, picnic baskets, girls, transistor radio, cameras.… A fire is lit, tents are pitched, music is played. And in the morning, they leave. The animals, the birds, and insects that were watching the whole night in horror crawl out of their shelters. And what do they see? An oil spill, a gasoline puddle, old spark plugs and oil filters strewn about…Scattered rags, burnt-out bulbs, someone has dropped a monkey wrench. The wheels have tracked mud from some godforsaken swamp…and, of course, there are the remains of the campfire, apple cores, candy wrappers, tins, bottles, someone’s handkerchief, someone’s penknife, old ragged newspapers, coins, filtered flowers from another meadow….”

In other words, the objects that scientists are studying and that mobsters are trafficking and that governments are weaponizing could be, in this reading, little more than refuse from some “picnic by the side of some space road.” The scientist says that it’s “not even a hypothesis, really, but an impression,” and this impression, at least initially, became my organizing principle for how to frame my own digital activity during the pandemic. It suddenly seemed obvious—everything in the online zones where I spent my days was just random radioactive trash. The trending topics section of Twitter was a total, complete, and utter roadside picnic of whichever politician doubted science or performed racism. Touching any of it would dissolve the bones of my day. If the pandemic was going to turn me into the astronaut in Mityok’s tiny doorless ship, and if the various gauges on all the screens were going to bombard me with junk, the trick, it seemed, would be discipline, if not outright avoidance. Don’t click, don’t even look—it might melt you.
And yet I soon realized that this framing undersold the degree to which Roadside Picnic functions as an effective capitalist critique—and, to be more specific, a critique of me. I am someone who has opined publicly and at length about driverless cars and cryptocurrency, the latter of which in particular is a topic that screams—screams—“this topic is covered in a kind of hell slime that will draw attention to your handling of it but will also probably mutilate your leg bones and also your soul.” I, like a Strugatsky “stalker” creeping into the zones to retrieve artifacts, have waded into online discourses so as to extract observations and news, then repackaged my findings as “analysis” for my own writerly profit. If capitalism is a kind of gangsterism, a seizing and reselling of whatever can be seized and sold, then Twitter was my perpetual, trashy roadside picnic where I could always find things to write about.
It got worse. I didn’t merely stalk these artifacts and sell my takes. I was, year after year, repackaging these efforts in my academic review file, demonstrating that my “stalking” was in fact an act of scholarship. Then, then, not content to merely play the role of “scholar” or “stalker,” I started exploring a new kind of backstage gangsterism; in an attempt to promote a forthcoming novel that was a rather pointed critique of the driverless car sector and tech sector at large, I began participating in the politely seedy black market of literary promotion—I give a review and you get a galley, an interview done over there to get a podcast appearance here, all of it about tech and the future, sure, sure, but all of it also very much about the digital space I can occupy in that future.
In the first year of the pandemic, I would often say, “That right there is a real roadside picnic, and I refuse to touch it.” In the second, I found myself saying: “Christ, I am hopelessly enmeshed in this roadside picnic.”
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As the third pandemic March began, so too did a new phase of my journey through Soviet sci-fi. It was at this point that I realized that the many people to whom I had professed my love for this genre now wanted to know if I had any special insight about the atrocities in Ukraine. (I don’t.) It now seems quite clear that I have spent the pandemic not reading Soviet sci-fi but misreading it—divorcing it from its various contexts and instead injecting it hungrily into my own American veins, the kinds of veins that pump blood around a person who can freely say ridiculous, privileged things like “I am a citizen of the sentence.”
I confess that I became somewhat disinterested in constructing context around Soviet sci-fi after an especially revealing instance in which context was seemingly stifled. Earth and Elsewhere, an anthology of Soviet sci-fi novellas published in 1985, is the only anthology I have ever held that does not have an introduction, afterword, or writerly profiles. The book has scant jacket copy. It feels like a risky document, a monolithic one, as though a Soviet editor handed an unmarked envelope containing five novellas to an American counterpart on a park bench in [redacted]. To contextualize and interpret these imagined futures—to stand in front of the work with a clarifying signifier of any sort—would be to endanger the project and its writer. At the time, it felt like that was all the context about what it was and is like to write, publish, and edit in what is now Russia.
I have thought often of the absence of explicit context in Earth and Elsewhere while watching Russian protestors stand quite publicly and quite dangerously in places like Moscow and St. Petersburg. The protestors have not remained in their little Mityokian cockpits. They have not examined the trash of their society and said “I’m steering clear of that roadside picnic,” nor do they seem to be asking “how can I profit from this roadside picnic.” The protestors have created and literalized a context for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, recording, with their bodies and for history, that large numbers of Russian citizens do not support this military act. The images I find myself lingering upon are those in which citizens raise their phones at the state, be it in the form of buildings or at police. The protesters have weighed their tools (phones and bodies) and also what events the state would find most disconcerting (large gatherings and unregulated broadcasts) and have wedged these tools into the proverbial socket of the Russian state.
A similar calculation occurs in the most stunning inclusion in Earth and Elsewhere, “A Tale of Kings” by sentence goddess Olga Larionova. Larionova is laugh-out-loud-while-reading funny—the protagonist, Artem, shakes as he copes with his sudden immersion into a new strange reality, and slurps his beer “like a bear cub drinking milk from a baby bottle in a circus act.” She is what I would call a narrative riot, entertainingly slipping between third and first person then also “we” and “you”; she is a stranger telling stories at a wedding table, the kind you want to slyly Google and you just know she’ll be the best dancer but above all, you just want her to keep talking, forever.
The idea of “forever” presents a problem for Artem, who is trapped in this bizarre metaverse with a strange girl. The two are alone, and though the altered reality bends to their needs, nothing ever really happens. Artem begins to correctly guess “that they were in the power of some insane but omnipotent maniac, and the only question was how long the insanity would remain within the bounds of the harmless.” Artem and the girl continually fail to crack the code of their existence, until Artem arrives at what he sees to be a final calculation: burn down their environment. He begins lighting newspapers on fire, hoping to ignite the house, the experiment, themselves. The plan: “If they had been dragged here, and this demonic pavilion created for them, and they were fed and every reasonable desire was satisfied, that meant someone needed them very badly. So now this ‘someone’ would have to take steps to save his living exhibit.”
On cue, an alien arrives. The creature did not respond to multiple pleas. It did not respond to some of Artem’s riskier explorations. This creature responded only when its carefully designed system was under a terminal threat. The alien’s appearance does not solve the drama in “A Tale of New Kings.” It merely starts a new phase of it, one in which the characters realize that power does not bow to mere customer complaints.
Ukrainians are long past this point of acceptance when it comes to confronting their neighbors. Anti-war dissidents in Russia, too, are past the point of polite rebuttal, and in the first weeks of the invasion, my own Soviet sci-fi reading habit felt silly and safe. To read fiction that had originated from an imperiled part of the world in private felt like an insignificant act when people around me were marching and fundraising and hanging flags.
Yet months later, these activities have receded or achieved stasis, and Americans have, by and large, responded to the crisis in Ukraine by obsessively discussing gas prices. We have exited the lockdown phase of the pandemic, escaping our technological entombments and emerged into the tomb that is America, and as I grapple with this transition, I find myself returning to the same Soviet sci-fi texts two years later, drawing more inspiration and direction now than I did then. These novels, stories, and anthologies are full of big sentences and big ideas, most of which concern how to be a human in an oppressive power structure. They are full of brilliantly drawn characters, some of whom escape oppression, though tellingly, when they flee, the texture of that structure remains intact. Other characters work the margins for profit, but again: there’s no change to the system, and in fact, the characters in this arrangement wind up dependent on the power structure.
Confrontation, then—not escape, not capitalization—is the only avenue that leads to transformation. The apex of such an effort might resemble the anti-war protests in Russia and certainly the Ukrainian resistance. At present, I’m most drawn to characters whose resistance starts with a mere thought, like the one Larionova’s Artem has while negotiating with the alien: “I’m thinking that you are a computer son of a bitch, immortal perverts who call themselves gods but who are powerless to force me to do their bidding.”

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