The Air of Mars
Translated and edited by Mirra Ginsburg

I shared a picture of this book a few weeks back when I picked up a copy, thanks to a hint from Joachim Boaz at Science Fiction Ruminations; having provided a guest post for him on Women Soviet Sci Fi authors, he knew of my interest in such things, and this book features two such pieces! It has the added bonus of a work by a favourite of mine, Kirill Bulychev, so of course it was inevitable I’d track it down! As I mentioned, this is an ex-library book from Towson State University in the USA, and it still has the library card and tag in it, which I love. Though interestingly enough, it seems to have been classified as “Juvenile”, which is kind of odd – maybe some libraries consider sci-fi only suitable for teenagers… 😉

As this is probably not a common book, I thought I’d list the contents, which are:

Temira by Olga Larionova
The Brat by Valentina Zhuravleva
A Tacan for the Children of Earth by Kirill Bulychev
We Are Not Alone by Sever Gansovsky
Twelve Holidays by Vladlen Bakhnov
The White Pilot by Mikhail Yemtsev and Yeremy Parnov
A Ticket to Childhood by Victor Kolupayev
The Garden by Gennady Gor
The Air of Mars by Dmitry Bilenkin

Of the authors included, I’ve read Larionova and Bulychev, and heard of Gor. So this is something of a voyage of discovery for me!

The ever-dependable Mirra Ginsburg states in her short introduction “In choosing the stories, I sought above all for variety, excitement, surprise and delight” – and she delivers that in bucketfuls. What is so impressive about the book is the range of the stories: encompassing everything from traditional space-based narratives through future Earth tales, time travel and clever authorial in-jokes, the scope is wide and very entertaining.

“Temira” and “Tacan” are structured as traditional outer space tales with expeditions from Earth visiting other planets and civilisations. However, both delve into the effect that Contact can have on a different world, although in the latter Bulychev seems to conclude that some alien beings are subject to the same vanities as humans. Two of the stories, “Holidays” and “A Ticket”, feature time travel, and the latter is particularly poignant as the narrator grapples with the fact that his past and his visits to it seem unlike those of others. “The White Pilot” is almost Wellsian or Vernian tale, with a shipwrecked man developing a strong link with marine life.

Naturally, the king never consulted anyone when he devised his innovations. True, he was surrounded by counselors and sages, but in Yonia counselors earned their title only by listening to the king’s counsel; and sages, by nodding sagely every time the king spoke. (“Twelve Holidays”)

“The Garden” and “We Are Not Alone” were more fable-like in atmosphere. The former again features time travel as well as a being with the ability to make an exceptional transformation. The latter is a dystopian story of a society kept in darkness, and it is this tale that most strongly resonates as one making parallels with Soviet society. “The Brat”, however, is a very different kettle of fish; more of an in-joke about science fiction authors and very funny.

That just leave the title piece, “The Air of Mars”, which is a marvellous story about a doomed man on the surface of that world. Lost and running out of air, a condition he had on Earth which was regarded as a kind of disability turns out to be something he can work to his advantage on a planet with different physical requirements. It’s a moving and powerful read, and a strong end to an excellent collection.

The library trappings…

Normally when I read Soviet sci-fi I end up looking for hidden messages or subtexts, as so many authors living under repressive regimes have turned to sci-fi as a way of hiding up their ideas and their dissent. Certainly, there were elements in some of the stories here, most obviously in “We Are Not Alone”, when any heresy against the dominant ideology is harshly punished. And in “Twelve Holidays” the clever trick used to get rid of a ruler could have been wishful thinking on the part of an author living with the cult of great leaders. However, whether or not there are hidden messages, all of these stories sparkled and entertained and made me look at the world and universe around me with fresh eyes – which for me is what I look for in science fiction writing.

So once again, Soviet science fiction does the trick. It certainly seems that the communist years where a golden time for that kind of writing, and I don’t think I’ve read a dud in all the short works I’ve read recently. This book is another one of Macmillan’s Russian Science Fiction issues, and it seems that the publisher can take much credit for bringing these works to the English-speaking world; not only have some of the other Soviet works I’ve read come from them, but I also have another one of Ginbsburg’s translations for them lurking on the stacks – but that’ll be for a later date…. In the meantime, this one comes highly recommended!