August 28, 2013
by Josh Billings
In 1968, or so the story goes, Gene Roddenberry had a problem. His critically-acclaimed television series Star Trek was being attacked in the press – not the American papers, but the Soviet ones.
The editor-in-chief of Pravda, Mikhail Zimyanin, had pointed out in a recent editorial that the Enterprise listed not a single Russian among its crew – a fact that, according to Zimyanin at least, revealed the show’s future to be bunk, and its pretensions towards humanistic inclusion nothing more than the usual moose-and-squirrel hypocrisy. For a high-level apparatchik this was less an actual complaint than an excuse to wail…But then Roddenberry was not your average capitalist stooge.
Within a few weeks of hearing about Zimyanin’s complaint, he hired a young actor from Chicago named Walter Koenig to play a new character on the show: an impressionable but fiery ensign from Pushkino named Pavel Andreievich Chekhov. He wrote a letter to the Comrade Editor-in-Chief informing him of this change. There was no reply. It didn’t matter. By the end of the season, Koenig’s passable accent and borderline copyright-infringing resemblance to Davey Jones had caught on, and he became a staple of the show. The rest, as they say, is history, or the future, or a future that would eventually be made history by a gigantic red lava lamp and some Romulans.
Trying to follow the career of someone as well-traveled as Ensign Chekhov is a good way to give yourself a bad case of Rigellian Fever; but I think his origin story is worth investigating, if only because it illustrates two indisputable truths. The first of these truths – self-evident to anyone who follows the industry, or watches Entertainment Tonight, or has stood in line at a supermarket trying to remember who, exactly, Amanda Bynes is – is that American television producers are touchy. The second – more mysterious despite its also being kind of what we expect – is that Russians take science fiction very, very seriously.
Why do they do this? Why don’t they follow our western example and cram their fantastiki onto shelves whose mouth-breathing prowlers evoke as much disdain from the salesclerks as their purchases do from most literary critics? Do they simply not get it – they way they don’t get soup, for example, or rock and roll? Or is there something more sinister going on here: a nationalist plot, say, whose practitioners massage their knuckles like moisturizer spokeswomen and cackle gleefully at the thought of foreign audiences puzzling over the noticeable lack of serfs, mushrooms, self-sacrificing prostitutes, or any of the other eminently “Russian” tropes that it’s taken us a century or so to recognize? And if that’s the way they’re going to be then why don’t we just repay them in kind (or rather not repay them) by shifting our attention to authors who understand that when I start reading a Russian novel, I expect to be enjoying some serious soul-expansion within ten minutes, max. Five if it’s a novella.
For the most part, we have done this: we’ve moved on, or at least past, consigning these enragingly-slim masterworks (“No no no!” we shout, “Don’t you understand? Russian novels are big – like the taiga! Or Doctor Zhivago’s heart!”) to the purgatories where they belong. And for the most part, that’s where they’ve stayed for the last fifty years: buried in backlists, feted at the odd conference, defended and passed along by people whose fervent devotion made them resemble less authorities than fans.
Of course, “fan” can mean “fanatic,” too, a type of individual that, as Dostoevsky is fond of warning us, you probably don’t want to be cornered by at a party. So, being sensible readers, we don’t. We stay in the middle of the room, with books whose main ambition seems to be a resurrection of the pre-Soviet past. But maneuvers like that can be tricky, and the results often read less like a rebirth than a Weekend-at-Bernie’s-style reanimation: yeah that’s Leo, no, he’s not dead, he’s just a little bit Grossman. Just a touch Solzhenitsyn. Got a slight case of the Franzens.
And yet, like one of those very same harping, gum-on-your-shoe Dostoevsky protagonists, Russian science fiction survives. Flourishes even, at least in its home country, which after all has a robust tradition of living underground. The trick seems to be to use what you’ve got, instead of what you’re given; hence, I think, the strange mixture of philosophy, humor, fantasy, and, yes, genre in books like, say, Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx, or Vladimir Sorokin’s Ice Trilogy, or the Strugatsky Brothers’ Definitely Maybe – a mixture that, though it may seem strange at first to those of us used to well-defined boundaries, can end up making the very concept of genre seem stolid and most works of realism as bound as any bodice-ripper.
Maybe this is one of the reasons that the international reception of many of these books has been so splotchy – despite being interesting, intriguing, fascinating, even pleasurable they are not always pleasing, in the traditional sense of the word. They don’t play by our rules. And, because they don’t play by our rules we assume they don’t play by any rules at all. They require work, sometimes a lot of it, to fit into our larger ideas of what books are, and what literature does. Occasionally they ask us to change those ideas.
In this way, ironically enough, they resemble less the latest bestsellers than those original 19th century masterpieces, which invented new genres with each subsequent book. The usual take on this incredible period was that it occurred because the authors in question, being Russian and therefore a little bit insane/unschooled/full of vodka, decided the way that most of Europe had been writing and reading up to that point was arty and fake, not at all what real life was like, and that they were going to correct this and did correct this by writing all these masterpieces.
Which is true enough, I think, but also not totally true if you look at authors like Gogol, Dostoevsky, or Pushkin – authors for whom reality existed, but was still slippery and difficult, less a matter of accumulated details and accurate dialect and more a matter of a word not used that much these days in talk about books: truth. “Realism” in this way was like any other blanket term: if you used it to cover your head, your feet got cold, and vice versa. In order to make it through the night, you might have to write a few ghost stories, or pull the not-very-realistic move of having your protagonist be a human nose. And a good writer did this, because he was flexible and willing to put his audience in the risky position of not knowing exactly what it was reading. The audience had to be willing to be in that position.
Over a century later, we are still trying to read our books with exactly the right blend of seriousness and play: Zimyanin’s misplaced literal-mindedness (as if the Enterprise were an actual ship with its photon torpedoes trained on Moscow), with the invention of the artists who understood that life as we know if is often less reality than a vision. Or a version, of something somewhere else – something dangling above our lives, or behind it, like a light bulb on the other side of a wall. Something we have to search to discover and may never find, which doesn’t dull our Chekhovian desire to boldly go — even if all that means is being willing to stick with a book that appears to be doing everything wrong, in the hope that it will eventually turn out to be doing the most important thing right. For all its difficulties, Russian science fiction gives us the opportunity to be willing like this.
There’s another version of that Chekhov story, by the way – but it’s not real. Or rather, it may be real, but it’s not true. According to this version, there wasn’t any Pravda editorial: there was just The Monkees. Roddenberry saw an episode and was impressed, not as a prophet of our common humanist future, but as a businessman. He wanted those young eyeballs. So he found someone who looked like a Monkey and shot him into space. Where he still is, and always will be – for unlike the past, which any student of science fiction knows is always changing, a good future lasts forever. Or at least as long as there are people willing to pay attention to it.
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 begborrowstijl.blogspot.com.