Half a life by Kirill Bulychev
Translated by Helen Saltz Jacobson
Around the time I picked up my copy of “Dead Mrs Stratton”, I also tracked down a copy of “Half a Life”; I’d read about it on the Science Fiction Ruminations blog and it sounded fascinating. Iron Curtain sci-fi has become something of a thing with me recently; the Strugatskys and Stanislaw Lem have produced some of my favourite books, but Bulychev seems less well-known in the UK and I was keen to explore a little more widely. Bulychev, in fact, was extraordinarily prolific if you check out his Wikipedia page. However, very few of his works have appeared in English, and this collection, first published in the USA in 1977, is becoming harder and harder to track down.
“Half a Life” contains 7 short works, including the title piece which is the longest, and each is a little gem of tale. The book opens straightforwardly enough, with the setting of a small, oblast near the Volga. We are in post WW2 Soviet Russia and the army veteran ranger is waiting for a visit from his sister-in-law Natasha. Widowed Natasha is in the habit of leaving her daughter Olenka in the country for a break, and when she visits to collect her we sense a growing attraction between the two adults. However, this will be cruelly disrupted, as the story makes a sudden shift to the future, when an abandoned spaceship is discovered by a party from Earth who decide to tow it home. Exploring the wreck, one of the astronauts discovers a kind of journal kept by Natasha, and begins to piece together the story of a woman abducted by an alien ship as a specimen for a roving intergalactic race, trying to hold onto her sanity and her humanity. It’s an inspiring tale of resilience, strangeness and braveness, and left me feeling very moved.
Could he had missed traces of Natasha, walked right by them? Even on Earth, when one withdraws from the everyday world of airports and large cities, one loses the ability, as well as the right, to judge the real meaning of the things and phenomena one encounters. How much more true this was for the objects on an alien spaceship: the hemisphere, rolling away so easily from his feet; the recesses with their forgotten objects, and tools whose functions were a mystery; the tangled maze of wires and pipes; the bright stains on the walls; the bars on the ceiling; the sections of slippery floor; and the ruptured, semitransparent membranes. What sort of creatures had controlled the ship?
Although this is very much the centrepiece of the book, the rest of the stories are just as engrossing. “I Was the First to Find You” takes us along with a space expedition searching for signs of intelligent life on other planets; however there is an ironic temporal twist that affects their findings. “Protest” tells of the issues facing the Galactic Olympics – how is it going to be possible to have rules and regulations when the physicality of each race is so different? “May I Please Speak to Nina?” is a lovely little tale of telephone calls that transcend temporal boundaries. “Red Deer, White Deer” is set on a distant planet which has parallels with the development of early intelligence on our own. “Snowmaiden” again touches on the impossibility of connections between different races from different planets with completely different physical requirements to live. And the final story, “First Layer of Memory” is a very clever take on the trope of memory transfer.
Nature is cruel to intelligence. Still untempered and unaware of its potential strength, intelligence finds itself surrounded by powerful enemies; it hovers always on the brink of extinction. Enemies, both here and on Earth, are always more insolent and equipped with sharper and bigger teeth than the forebears of intelligent creatures. One must outwit them, hide from the, survive – on the other hand, without powerful enemies, one’s intelligence would not be sharpened.
Really, this is a wonderful collection of stories. I suppose I consider myself as a bit of an amateur when it comes to sci-fi as I haven’t read great amounts, and it’s a long time since I read any hard sci-fi and fantasy. Nevertheless, it seems to me that the best of the genre speaks to us about the human condition and how we would behave in certain circumstances. As this is Soviet era writing I found myself inevitably wondering if there was a subtext to the tales; and certainly it’s possilbe to draw some comparisons from the title story, where a woman is taken into custody and imprisoned for no apparent reason. And there is a specifically Russian feel to the stories, particularly in the time shifting “Nina”, which uses a specific historical setting, during food shortages in WW2, to tell another touching tale. There’s a poignancy in many of the stories, although there is also humour, with “Protest” reminding me very much of the light, ironic touch of Lem.
But I think Bulychev’s work transcends boundaries; whether we read of Piotr or Peter, these are all human beings with whom we can identify, experiencing extraordinary situations and trying to cope wherever they are. Bulychev’s book is a remarkable and moving one, and it’s just a terrible shame that more of his work hasn’t been translated.