September 11, 2013

Good Pkhentzes


Andrei Sinyavsky

One thing that science fiction writers appear to have agreed on over the years is that the future will not be funny. Shiny? Yes. Jumpsuited? I think we can count on the jumpsuits. But despite its multi-millennia run of hilarity, humanity’s days as a funny species appear to be drawing to a close. From here on out (at least, from soon on out – no one being sure exactly when humor is set to expire) it will be all business. It will be bright smiles and picnics on the moon—no laughing, junior spaceman! And junior spaceman won’t laugh, because he’ll be in the future, and what could there possible be to laugh at then?

This is not to say that there aren’t any funny science fiction novels – there are, but most of the time their funniness depends on the general unfunniness of the rest of the genre. Douglas Adams’s Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy is funny, but what it’s making fun of is mostly other science fiction novels. Like Spaceballs or Scary Movie—like all satire, really—it works by placing us in the middle of a world hypnotized by its own genre, a world that has come to mistake its particular manners for truth. Chaos ensues—but not real chaos, since didn’t we already kind of know that reading about talking robots was a silly thing to do? And aren’t we less unsettled than reassured, therefore, to put down the book and return to our own significantly less science-fictional universes?

Natural as this might seem, warping between the unreal world of art and the real one of life can get significantly trickier under certain circumstances. Some of these circumstances—paranoia, say, or hallucination—might be said to originate in their dreamers’ brains (the caveat here being that science fictional masters from Edgar Alan Poe to Philip K. Dick have suggested over and over again that your personal glitch might actually be an offshoot of some larger cosmic malfunction). Others might derive more obviously with the world outside our heads. They might be products of not just where, or how, but when the dreamer lives. Soviet Russia, for example.

It is probably over-risky to call some periods in human history more or less real than others; at the same time, it’s hard to argue that certain societies are more explicit about their desire to mess with the rituals and institutions that make up reality for the majority of their citizens. One of the ironies of this is that these societies often work hardest to pretend that they’re not doing anything at all—that the realities they’re enforcing are natural, and that other countries are the ones pulling the wool over everyone’s eyes.

In the libri-centric Soviet Union, a prime forum for this denial was literature, and one of the main forms it took was a way of writing known as Soviet realism. Like most -isms, it was bunk—but it was audacious, state-sponsored bunk. Its “style,” so to speak, was less a set of coherent aesthetic choices than a sack of tics grave-robbed from the great (and frequently not-so-great) works of the 19th century. You took a dash of Tolstoy, a pinch of Chekhov —you sewed Kipling’s moustache to Hemingway’s itchy trigger finger, to the muscular, if somewhat unshapely, legs of Ambrose Beirce. When everything looked like it was in the right place you threw the switch. If you were lucky you got to stand back and cackle nonsense about your creation being alive, even though any idiot could see that it was decomposing on the table.

There were many reasons why this trick didn’t work, of course, but one of the most obvious was that, for all their literariness, the works of Soviet realism were animated by the very anti-literary conviction that the writer’s task was to depict life, not as he saw it, but as he was supposed to see it. The resulting novels, stories and plays could be called “realist” insofar as they resembled the realist accomplishments of the past; but to most readers they weren’t realistic at all. They were nightmares—or rather, they weren’t nightmares enough. Their murals of burly comrades pulling together in a spirit of joy and community had nothing to do with the sheer terror of Soviet life. But then what way of writing did?

For Abram Tertz, who was not a real person, technically, but who wrote more realistically than an army of sanctioned hacks, Soviet writing could not be beaten on its own turf—but it could be outflanked. In order to do this, Tertz (or rather Andrei Sinyavsky, the literary critic and professor behind the pseudonym) maintained, Russian literature had to rediscover a quality that it had mostly abandoned in the decades since Gogol: absurdity. Not the beret-wearing, pronounced-with-a-z absurdity of Western poseurs, but a home-grown playfulness, which took reality as anything but given and art itself as an alternate cosmos whose rules could illuminate, but did not have to match, our own. In his famous tract “What is Socialist Realism?” Sinyavsky called on his fellow writers to embrace this kind of “phantasmagoria” as a new, and more accurate, way to tell the truth:

“…I put my hope in a phantasmagoric art with hypotheses rather than a purpose and grotesquery in the place of realistic description. This type of art more fully reflects the spirit of the day. Let the exaggerated images of Hoffmann, Dostoevsky, Goya, Chagall, and Mayakovsky…as well as of many other realists and non-realists teach us how to be truthful with the help of absurd fantasy.”

“Absurd fantasy” may seem like a strange prescription for a literature suffering from the lack of reality, but Sinyavsky’s own experience as a dissident writer had shown him just how fantastic Soviet life could be. In September 1965, he was charged for publishing anti-Soviet propaganda—in particular his fantastic novella The Trial Begins. The plot of this book was based on the real-life prosecution of seven doctors by the Soviet authorities: a further level of matrushka-doll reality/writing enmeshing whose irony was apparently lost on his accusers. The prosecution lasted five months, eventually becoming one of the most famous show-trials in Soviet history. Over the course of it, Sinyavsky argued convincingly for the ungovernable freedom of the imagination, no matter what political party was in power. He was sentenced to seven years in a hard labor camp.

He served his sentence and then emigrated to Paris, where he lived as an alien until his death in 1997. It was a strange final chapter for a writer as steeped in Russian culture as Sinyavsky was; at the same time, it was nothing new. The words “alien” and “alienation” have strongly negative connotations in the west, but Russian history is full of men and women who have come to suspect, for one reason or another, that the planet they live on is not their home. Such raznochinets (the word was adopted by the intelligentsia from a Tsarist-era term used to describe non-noble citizens whose education made them untaxable) look, for the most part, like ordinary citizens. But scratch the surface of their carefully-composed disguises and you are likely to find oceans of loneliness, oddity, and desperation. Sinyavsky was no different, but he had something else—something rare enough in any writer, no matter what their genre or home planet. He was funny. Buoyed by his light touch, the “absurd phasmagoria” of alien life became both sad and strangely hilarious in a way that resonated with the many readers who defied the authorities in order to get a hold of his illegally-published works.

The best example of his humanist fantasy is probably “Pkhentz”, a short story written in 1957, almost a decade before his trial. Its hero is a life form from another planet forced by his space ship’s crash landing to pass as a clerk in communist Moscow. As aliens go, he is neither buff Predator nor cuddly ET: actually, the creature he resembles most closely in his native state is the potted cactus. Nervous and depressed, he spends his days in a state of barely-controlled terror, as he struggles to disguise both his physical weirdness (he requires daily water-baths to stay alive) and the disgust that he feels for things that humans experience as completely normal. At one point, a young neighbor who has fallen in love with him displays herself to him in the nude. It is the first time he has seen a naked human body:

“It was—I repeat—horrible. I found that her whole body was of the same unnatural whiteness as her neck, face, and hands. A pair of white breasts dangled from her front. At first, I took them for a second set of arms that had been amputated above the elbow. But each of them terminated in a round nipple like a bell-push.”

The alien ridiculing of human life is a time-honored sci-fi trope, but Sinyavsky makes his narrator’s observations physical and uncomfortable: less gag than gag-reflex. His hyperliteralization of something we usually keep hidden recalls the ostranenie technique that the literary critic Victor Shklovsky called a key aspect of Russian writers from Tolstoy to Tynyanov. The result of such “strange-making” is light-years away from typical realist writing; at the same time, I think even the most ardent admirer of the human body must admit that yes, it is somewhat realistic.

It’s funny too, in an uncomfortable way, which is what makes “Pkhentz” so different from the vast majority of “comic” science fiction. Not the humor or the discomfort alone, but the way that one combines with the other to make us squirm. For in Sinyavsky’s fiction, there’s no homecoming—no maternally-globular rocket ship to set down and snatch us back up, and then scratch a little rainbow across the sky. “Whoever doesn’t have a home now will never have one,” to quote another of the 20th century’s little green men. Phkentz’s protagonist understands this as he leaves Moscow at last to go back into the forest where he first landed and die; but his gentle author finds a way, as usual, to soften the truth:

“But that [the narrator’s death] is a long time off. There will be many warm and pleasant nights. And many stars in the summer sky. And one of them…? Who knows? I will gaze at them all, together and individually, fill my eyes with gazing. One or another of them is mine.”

Sad as this ending is, it’s also a relief: an opening out into the cosmos, instead of a protective hiding from it. What it recognizes, simply, is what Sinyavsky knew, for all his humor: the true fabric of the human universe is not energy, or dark matter, but loss, which is everywhere and touches everyone. Pretending it doesn’t exist may be seductive and even empowering at first, but it ends up twisting reality into a dream and other people into shadows, robots, monsters—into things that are, essentially, not like us. But they are like us: they’re aliens. We all are—which may mean, absurdly enough, that at the end of the day we are not alone.


Redshift is an investigation into the weird and mostly under-explored universe of Russian and Soviet science fiction. It takes as its guiding principle the idea, stated on Russian-American cosmologist Andrei Linde’s website, that ‘Instead of being the single, expanding ball of fire described by the big bang theory, the universe looks like a huge growing fractal…a multiverse consisting of many universes with different laws of low-energy physics operating in each of them’. So: fractal universe, fractured investigation. Perfect, in other words, for blogging.



JOSH BILLINGS is a writer and translator who lives in Rockland, Maine. Melville House has published his translations of Alexander Pushkin's Tales of Belkin and Alexander Kuprin's The Duel. Recent writing of his has appeared in The Collagist and The Literary Review. He blogs at