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“Life on other planets is difficult” (Einsturzende Neubauten)

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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!

 

What it means to be human

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Two more short stories by Kirill Bulychev

As you might have noticed, I was mightily impressed with the sci-fi short stories of Kirill Bulychev when I read his collection “Half a Life” recently. He was a very prolific author in his native language, but a quick search online revealed that not an awful lot of his works have been translated. However, I had a browse on the wonderful resource that is the Internet Speculative Fiction Database and found that there are some of his short stories in other collections and so I sent off for one that sounded particularly appealing – “World’s Spring”.

When it (finally) turned up, it was a lovely hardback edition – ex-library from the USA but in pretty condition despite that and the collection as a whole sounds really interesting. It’s one of the Macmillan Best of Soviet Sci Fi collections (as was “Half a Life”) and is translated by Roger DeGaris. The book is edited by Vladimir Gakov, apparently a sci-fi critic from the Soviet union, and he also provides a short introduction to each story. The volume is divided into four sections, entitled “Space: Amid the Stars – and on Earth”, “The Future – Fears and Hopes”, “Parallel Worlds: Space and Time” and “Aliens: Human and Nonhuman” . Bulychev’s two tales fall into the second and the last sections, and are just as good as the previous ones I’d read.

worlds spring

Bulychev really is a master storyteller, and in both stories he wrong-foots the reader from the beginning, not letting on quite who/what the protagonist is. In “An Ugly Bioform”, we meet (logically enough) a bioform – a human who has been surgically altered to survive extreme conditions on other planets and in other environments. Returning from his mission, he is somewhat alienated back on earth and unsure of his future until local events thrust him into a situation where his physical condition can be of use. The second story, “The Choice”, features someone who initially appears to be human, albeit with powers to change form and influence people. However, as the tale progresses it becomes clear that there is more to this person that meets the eye and they have a big decision to make about their future.

There is a consistent theme in both stories about belonging; whether you are a human originally or not a human, how much of your identity is defined by where you live and where you grew up? The stories explore these aspects of living very thoughtfully and Bulychev never hits you in the face with his message. Whilst celebrating simple human existence and the joys of life on earth, he shows the possibilities that could be out there in the universe. He also tells his story brilliantly, drawing you in and gradually revealing more about his characters and their setting until you’re completely involved in their fate – a real achievement in a short story. There’s a poignancy in both stories as we watch the characters wrestling with their circumstances and trying to make the right decision. In an era when the world is full of horrors, it’s timely to consider what it is to be a human being and what our responsibilities are to each other.

The introduction to the first story by Gakov is revealing; he discloses that Bulychev is the pseudonym of an academic and sings the praises of his prolific works, describing his work as “psychologically penetrating”. Of course, Wikipedia will tell you much, much more nowadays, but at the time of this book’s publication (1981) there was probably very little known in the west about the author. Gakov rates Bulychev highly, putting him as second only to the Strugatskys. I’ve probably not read enough of either of these to agree or disagree with that opinion, but I certainly rate Bulychev highly myself – and I fear another visit to the ISFDB may be due…. 🙂

(As an aside, this whole collection does look rather lovely – it contains a number of names I’m not familiar with, and when things are a little less frantic, I’ll spend some time exploring it!)

People are the same the world over…

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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

“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.

Bulychev

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.

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