Doorway frames as a teleportation portal to anywhere. Wandering in the lunar vacuum. The quest to breed a new species from chimpanzees, the sentient homo-chimps. The reanimation of the heads of the dead. An intelligent robot whose feedback loop went wrong. Russian science fiction has some incredible ideas that it comes up with, and a book like Red Star Tales, a collection of various Russian works of science fiction translated into English, is an excellent showcase of their diversity. The stories are so different from each other that it seems hardly fair to speak about them as a whole, so different are their premises and ideals, some ferociously avant garde, others very akin in their feeling to works such as Brave New World, others still a curious mix of old and new with their visualization of life on other worlds combined with old units of measurement.
Since the stories are so unique, to discuss the book I’ll just mention my favorites. One of the most intriguing is On the Moon by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, covering a trip to the moon by our main character and his physicist traveler, exploring what it is like to live on the moon in a vacuum, in lower gravity, to travel with and against the sun on the moon and the mechanics of movement. It is not the deep social commentary or tragic sadness that much of Russian literary from the late 19th century: instead it has a frolicking sense, exploring the sensations of this absurd and wonderful adventure, where somehow they survive in a vacuum but water boils, where they have to figure out how to cook food without the possibility of lighting a fire, where the heat of the sun chases them across the surface of the moon into deep lunar crevices as shelter. It’s a wonderful examination of celestial mechanics and a whimsical space exploration.
Another favorite is the tale of the homo-apes. It purports scientists working to breed super-intelligent apes, a new sentient race upon the earth. What is fascinating however is that the perspective is from the homo-chimps, and shows their feelings in front of scientists and their clinical and superior language about their creations. It also does its best to try to portray their thoughts and mentality and to portray them as being sentient but genuinely different from the humans, such as their ability to sense emotions and intent much better than humans. It’s a great look into attempting to portray sentience without being human.
Two stories is certainly not enough to declare that there is a pronounced proclivity of Russian literature to examine it: but I can’t help to be impressed as well by another work, on the robot AMU and the inclusion of secondary response mechanisms in an effort to produce a robot capable of something approaching sentience for space exploration. It is great at illuminating unintended consequences and an alternate type of intelligence. It is also comedic and amusing with AMU saying “Hi, how are you,” whenever he meets a human, in line with his protocol – while the humans try to fight back and resist this gentle giant.
There is a great adventurer and jester in the form of Soda Sun, also the name of the chapter by Mikhail Ancharov, which plays around with the idea of scholarly pranks and yet also comes up with really intriguing ideas, such as there being some form of the devil who served as the real life inspiration for him. It is a hard story at times to follow the ins and outs, but it has a sense of real joy with this lovable, charismatic, trickster of a main character.
Perhaps the most innocuous, but also the most touching, is the chapter of a housewife whose front door in her apartment receives a mechanism that functions akin to a magic portal, where she can imagine another place and then open up a door to go there, if there is a door on the other end. It is a charming chapter as she learns how it works, as she deals with the absurdity of life, and as the incredible new device is married with her quiet domesticity and everyday worries. And the relationship with her young son is charming, sweet, and heartwarming.
Some chapters however, simply seem confusing: consider Mixed Up by Vladimir Savchenko, which has a fascinating ideal of being able to travel across the stars through psychic powers that transform oneself into a type of radio mechanisms. But the chapter is incredibly difficult to understand with its wandering style which suddenly diverges out onto new subjects, extremely scattered and often incomprehensible.
What seems very distinct from American science fiction is that there is far less of a proclivity to want to overwhelm the reader with signs of the technological sophistication of the future. American science fiction takes a delight in mechanisms, in new inventions, new devices, that pepper the pages like the discarded jumble from a crazed inventor’s factory. Certainly, there are times when some of these technological wonders, like the final chapter which posits a space going society, which has mastered flying cars. And furthermore some of the older chapters do posit a world of machine proliferation a l’outrance: the chapter on machine rebellions for example, portrays one where every need of humanity is taken care of by machines, from the moment that one wakes up until the time when one goes to sleep: perhaps it just appears normal to us because that is how our world has become, and its revolutionary character at the time is less visible. But regardless Russian science fiction, or at least this selection of it, seems less concerned with wowing us with machines, and more interested in social effects.
The downside to the book to my eyes is that it doesn’t provide supporting details and analysis. It is merely a compilation of stories, with a scattering of footnotes beneath. If every chapter had had at its end a few pages discussing the historical context, analyzing the piece, the author’s biography and motives in writing the piece, it could have been far more complete as a historical-literary source. The stories themselves are well done, but they are isolated, without the framing which would give an understanding of how they fit into broader Russian society. It’s a fun and engaging series of science fiction short stories, but it could have been more as a combined literature collection and investigation of Russian society and history.