Aelita by Alexei Tolstoy

Soviet sci-fi has been a bit on my radar recently, what with my reads of the Strugatskys and Kirill Bulychev in particular. However, the genre has quite a history, and one of the earliest examples was the novel “Aelita” by Alexei Tolstoy. The book was adapted into a notable film, known for featuring some wonderful constructivist design, and I have seen this; however, I was keen to read the book and recently turned up a really lovely copy.

aelita cover

Tolstoy himself was distantly related to the well-known novelist of that name (!), and Alexei managed to have a long and fairly illustrious career as a writer under Soviet rule. The latter fact has earned him a certain amount of censure as he’s credited with going along with the Soviet regime just for a quiet and comfortable life; I’ve seen him described as a “brilliant and faithful bard of Stalin” which is quite a condemnation. I wonder if the reality is more complex than that, and I do want to explore this Tolstoy’s work a little more. However, on to the book in hand.

“Aelita” was published in 1923, and is another piece of evidence for that decade being one in which Soviet arts managed to flourish before the clampdown of Stalin’s Red Terror. Set in a post-Revolution St. Petersburg, now Leningrad, our hero is Los; grieving over the death of his wife, he has lost himself in his work, building a rocket that will travel to Mars. Struggling to find a companion to travel with him, he’s eventually joined by Gusev, a retired soldier who’s always looking for adventure. Against all odds the two travellers set off and do make it to the red planet.

Of course nowadays we know much more about what Mars is like, and that it doesn’t sustain life as we know it, but back in 1923 Los ad Gusev find that the planet does indeed have a civilisation, although it is in decline. In fact, the Martians appear to be in an advanced state of capitalism, with a huge gulf between the ruling elite (the Engineers) and the general people, with the latter in dreadful working conditions (sound familiar?) As if that isn’t enough, the Earthmen discover that the planet is dying; they are dependent on the polar icecaps melting to provide water, and they aren’t – an environmental catastrophe diametrically opposed to the one we face on Earth today.

Some images from the "Aelita" film

Some images from the “Aelita” film

The visitors from Earth cause much consternation among the Martians, particular Aelita, the daughter of one of the Martian leaders. She and Los fall in love, thought it is of course a doomed love. Meanwhile, the good Soviet Gusev encourages a revolution amongst the Martian workers and battle breaks out. As the conflict rages, Los and Aelita are captured by the Engineers’ forces – will they escape and will Los and Gusev ever get back to Earth?

His brain chilled. That reddish globe of the Earth was so much like a flaming heart. And man, an ephemerid, coming to life for a moment; he – Los – all alone had, with his mad will, cut himself adrift from it, and was now sitting like some forlorn demon on this wretched patch of desert land. So this was solitude. Was that what he had wanted? Had he succeeded in escaping from himself?…

From what I recall of “Aelita” the film, the book is certainly quite different – and in a good way (yes, the book is *always* better!) This is Wellsian sci-fi (which I do love) and very inventive and exciting. I can’t really comment on the science on display here, because I have little or no scientific knowledge; but it sound convincing and wasn’t overwhelming or obtrusive so that’s all that matters. Because what’s important here is the story of people; Los, in particular, is a very engaging character. The death of his wife has hit him hard and he feels he has little to keep him going to attached to Earth. But he soon realises that his flight to Mars is an attempt to fly from himself and that’s impossible. His tragedy is to love someone unattainable and to face a second loss. I wonder how significant his name is? As for Gusev, despite his apparent simplicity as a Soviet soldier figure, he too is in search of something; having given all during the Revolution and Civil War, he finds ordinary life hard and is happy to jump into the conflict on Mars, bringing his socialist beliefs to the oppressed people here.

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“Aelita” has some wonderful writing, and Tolstoy’s vivid descriptions of the ship travelling through space, the Martian people and landscape are memorable. Cleverly, he creates a shared heritage between the Martians and Earthlings (which I won’t reveal) and this really is an inventive book. The technological leap forward represented by the flight to Mars was probably a reflection of the optimism felt in 1920s Soviet Russia; a sense that they’d survived the Revolution and the Civil War and were striding forward into the brave new world of the Communist future. Alas, I suspect “Aelita” could and would not have been written ten years later, and I’m going to try to look out some more of Tolstoy’s work to see where he progressed later into the Soviet years. However, “Aelita” itself was a fabulous read – and I rather wish we still had more mystery about the Red Planet out there!

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