November 01, 2008

Underground Novelist

In the Soviet era, science fiction often served as a thinly-veiled vehicle for criticizing the failures of communism: writers like Ivan Yefremov or the Strugatsky brothers could send a protagonist to a distant world to criticize a utopia gone wrong; a writer could ruminate on the degradation of human values amidst the mindless pursuit of technology and progress; individuals could oppose faceless bureaucracies eerily similar to those Russian readers faced in everyday life. What is more, the accepted canon of American science fiction writers – Bradbury, Asimov, Heinlein and others – offered subversively American views of the future, which might well be at odds with the bright and glorious prospects touted under communism.

As author Sergei Lukyanenko (Night Watch trilogy) recently said in an interview with Russky Reporter, “Science fiction rebelled a bit. This is primarily because writers were not allowed to think freely... The science fiction writer was not allowed to conceive of a future that was not communist. So he had to shift the action to other planets or parallel worlds, otherwise the book would not get through. Therefore, science fiction in the Soviet era often bore elements of political satire...”

The collapse of the Soviet Union led to a temporary decline in science fiction, yet the scene has been changing: the chaos of Russian democracy has been replaced by a uniParty wedded to big money and big business; mass dissent is all but outlawed, while isolated, low-volume opposition is allowed, even encouraged; political apathy and consumerism are gnawing at the fringes of the Russian soul; a gaping chasm is growing between society’s haves and have nots. “Today, the need for camouflaged speech is gone,” Lukyanenko said. “Yet science fiction still raises socially significant themes. Perhaps it is not as noticeable, because one no longer has to read between the lines.”

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