Better Read than Dead: A Three-Part Investigation into Soviet Science Fiction

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  • It was by fortuitous accident that I stumbled upon the work of Dmitri Bilenkin while rummaging through the dusty enclave that is the science fiction anthology section of the Montclair Book Center. His book, The Uncertainty Principle, by title alone intrigued me and soon learning it was one of a series entitled The Best of Soviet Science Fiction not even the Glavlit could bar my ownership of this gem.

    Naturally I was flooded with questions. Is this propaganda or reactionary? Under whose regime did he write? Does it deal with the bomb? Is it any good? There was only one way to find out – I read the book. 

    My initial intention was to do a comparison study between Soviet and American science fiction through the lens of the Cold War. The idea was quickly shelved as I realized the potential magnitude of the project. Your aging author can only write one book at a time.

    But all is not lost. In lieu of trudging through volumes of U.S. – Soviet relations, policies, and authors, I will present for you, the Unwinnable Faithful, an examination in three parts. The introductory piece will look into the underlying themes of Bilenkin’s short stories and will be followed by articles concerning the novels World Soul by Mikhail Tikhonovich Emtsev and Eremei Parnov and Self-Discovery by Vladimir Ivanovich Savchenko, respectively. This is by no means an arbitrary decision. My knowledge of Russian Literature post-Gogol is limited to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s 1962 novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich – a far cry from science fiction. I hope that with the conclusion of this series I have made discoveries of my own – for better or for worse.

    I am led to understand that a majority of Soviet SF works have yet to be translated which would explain why I had not previously encountered it along the course of my literary travels. As a result, this is new and exciting territory for me and I would be honored if you accompanied me on the adventure.

    All of Your Bureaucracy Are Belong To Us – The Fantastic Fictions of Dmitri Bilenkin

    There is surprisingly little by way of information available about Dmitri Bilenkin. JSTOR yielded but three articles that make mention of the author, one of which is merely a bibliography of Soviet SF that has been translated to English. Beholden to the ever dubious Wikipedia, my investigation into the life of Bilenkin is limited at best. Born in 1933, he began writing science fiction in 1959 and did so until his death in 1987. Bilenkin was a geologist by education and served on a variety of expeditions. A member of the Communist Party, he also held membership in the Union of Writers of the USSR.

    The majority of Bilenkin’s output was published during the Brezhnev era which began in 1964. Under Nikita Khruschev the USSR enjoyed a relative cultural freedom which Brezhnev quickly did away with. Until his death in 1982, Brezhnev led a repressive, militaristic regime. The only thing missing from this Neo-Stalinist brand of government was a good Pogrom.

    Purges aside, it was through the lens of the Brezhnev Cult of Personality that I approached Bilenkin. Science fiction operates not only to push the (logical) limits of the imagination, it is a vehicle for serious social and philosophical examination. It takes a page from the Faustian mythos and applies it to the potentialities (negative as well as positive) of science. To ignore the moral implications inherent in such advancement would be to write a piece of fantasy. In the introduction to the stories collected in The Uncertainty Principle, Theodore Sturgeon focuses on Bilenkin’s almost obsessive appreciation for beauty. He describes the author as if he were a literary Monet whose “rich and delicate appreciation for the nuances of color and texture is beautifully exercised.” Correct as the observation may be, foreseeing a scorched-earth, post-apocalyptic wasteland is not a prerequisite for good science fiction. The future may be grim, but it can still be beautiful.

    Nowhere in the introduction is there mention of social or political commentary or criticism in Bilenkin’s work. That Sturgeon focused on artistry and ignored what hid between the lines is curious until one discovers the piece was written in 1978, four years before the end of Brezhnev’s reign. It would be academically naïve to think Sturgeon overlooked the subtext at work in Bilenkin’s fiction. Rather, under a cloud of cultural repression and paranoia (there were an estimated 10,000 political and religious prisoners in the USSR under the regime – Wikipedia), it is likely that the editor was fearful of exposing a writer he so admired.

    The Iron Curtain has fallen and the cloud of repression has lifted. Beautiful as his stories are, Bilenkin’s artistry does not obscure his knack for social commentary. Four stories in particular clearly implicate the Brezhnev regime as arbiters of inanity. They betray a criticism of Brezhnev’s (as well as his predecessors’) arbitrary bureaucratic practices as well as his militaristic pragmatism. Not always explicit, the stories are succinct accounts of the soviet phenomenon.

    So we begin…

    Modernized Hell

    The “Faust Theme” has forever existed in literature. In Bilenkin’s variation, Modernized Hell offers a glimpse of how Hell goes about its official business. A devil visits Stepan Porfiryevich Demin who falls under the category of “utter bastard” and has exhausted his quota of base acts. Forced to surrender his soul to hell, he outsmarts his devil and thus escapes damnation by signing his name in unsanctioned ink. As a result, Demin is demoted from “utter bastard” to “low-down scum” and is free to enjoy a doubled amount of base acts.

    Exposed in this brief narrative are the pratfalls of socialist bureaucracy. Hell’s moral ranking of individuals and allotting of sin quotas is immediately reflective of the stratification of soviet society that limited and individual’s social and economic mobility. Not only are the rank-and-file beholden to such hierarchies, they never know when the rules will change. Demin’s limit of base acts was cut in half without warning by the powers that be, presenting quite a challenge to the reader to not infer an indictment of soviet bureaucratic operation as arbitrary.

    The matter of the ink presents an argument for stability through tradition. Hell is quite concerned with keeping up with all of the innovations and modernizations of “evildoing.” The devil-arbiter illustrates this sentiment. He is dressed in the latest fashion and shows greater interest in television than expediting his duty. Demin, on the other hand, is a self proclaimed traditionalist who is able to outwit the system through the conservation of old values as exemplified by the fountain pen. This criticism of obsessive modernization focuses on more than merely its effect on bureaucracy – it gives rise to an ethical discourse. Nevertheless, Bilenkin believes the pen is much mightier than the machine.

    Final Exam

    Pavlov must take an exam in order to father children. In the Soviet Union one’s social capital and mobility were entirely dictated by the state. As a result, social stratification and the limiting of rights are by no means strange bed fellows. Taking this to the extreme, Final Exam is a glimpse into the frightening potentialities of such control.

    Bilenkin invokes a sense of militarist efficiency to compliment his continued criticism of arbitrary rule in the U.S.S.R. Delivered by machine the computerized exam consists of four immediately graded questions ranging in topic from “the negative aspects of projection” to “the formula for self-respect”. The cold, detached notion of psychology and responsibility (surmised as “maturity”) expected of the examined renders childbirth wholly clinical, divorcing it of both nature and nurture. Maturity is cultivated to mirror the trained, well-oiled machine that is the military. In a time of military expansion under Brezhnev, Bilenkin foresees the potential imposition of such ideals upon society.

    A Mistake is Impossible

    Henry Miller once wrote “The dreamer whose dreams are non-utilitarian has no place in this world. In this world the poet is anathema, the thinker a fool, the artist an escapist, the man of vision a criminal.” It is this belief in dreams as degenerative force that fuels A Mistake is Impossible. In order to cultivate a wholly functional society Bilenkin presents the reader with a machine that measures intellect and ability to the end of eliminating one of “his youthful dreams” so that “he’ll rise as an adult.”

    The result of the operation is the dispensing of a card outlining one’s professional capabilities. Socioeconomic progression becomes a matter of science. The virus that is ambition is cured. Dr. Reshetov, under whom the test is conducted, knows not whether the operation is good or bad, only that it is necessary.

    Analogous to Final Exam, Reshetov’s machine again forces the notion that maturity and adulthood are clinically developed. The results are ineluctable. Segei, the boy upon whom the test is conducted, throws his crumbled card out the window. Bilenkin follows this act with “The card stubbornly opened flat” – the results cannot be subverted.

    The Time Bank

    Hardly a day goes by without an individual wishing to regain x-amount of time. Countless minutes are wasted over trivial matters, throwing a wrench in the gears of productivity. Bilenkin, a man obsessed with the manipulation of time, solves this problem in The Time Bank envisioning an institution wherein all of life’s wasted moments may be deposited and withdrawn. Lyova, the physicist who developed the process describes it as such:

    Think how much time we lose standing in line, waiting in restaurants,

    at boring lectures. Hours and days crossed out from our lives!…But

    no more. Now you deposit them in the bank – for the future. For ex-

    ample, suppose you’re writing…You’re creating, you’re happy. But

    the inexorable hands of the clock announce that you must stop…

    Tragedy! But starting tomorrow, it will be different. You’ll simply

    withdraw the hours you put away and go off and create in

    supratime.

    The meta-temporal realm of supratime is the answer to wasted time. Finally society can function on a purely productive level, the pinnacle of society as machine. What more could a militaristic bureaucracy ask for?

    In a moment of traditionalist worry, the narrator’s wife cautions, “Perhaps we should stick to the old way.” Again Bilenkin cautions his readers against hyper-modernization which, as noted in Modernized Hell, exposes loopholes and a weakness in the Regime. And she is right. As soon as the bank is operational people begin taking advantage of this new luxury. Workers abandon meetings, children disappear from school, and a husband leaves his wife mid-stroll. Instead of a rise in productivity, human nature takes its course and responsibility is shirked. People disappear en masse into supratime. Within the day the time bank becomes regulated. It is announced that people may not make withdrawals during working hours. To further complicate things, a man is robbed of his deposits. Regulations lead to closures and the narrator ultimately observes “I don’t know if it’s right or not, but for many years we’ve been living in the old way.”

    Bilenkin’s short works are not wanting for social commentary. However, as rooted as they are in the operation of the soviet bureaucracy, they are not scathing indictments. Rather the stories seem to present a dialogue between present and past as a means not to subvert but to ensure a government that benefits rather than hinders society. Bilenkin was a member of the Party as well as its Union of Writers which betrays at least some allegiance to the old soviet ideals. Perhaps he simply wanted to avoid censorship – or worse, Siberia.

    ~

    If you enjoyed this piece we encourage you re-post it. As well, you can follow Peter on Twitter @peterlangcrime. He’s less wordy, oftentimes funny, and trying really hard to cope with being so “plugged-in.”

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