February 01, 2016

8 Sci-Fi Futures That Explain Russia Today


8 Sci-Fi Futures That Explain Russia Today

For some, Evgeny Zamyatin is the man who gave birth to Russian science fiction. So, in honor of his birthday, here are eight (mostly contemporary) Russian novels that dip into the sci-fi and speculative fiction genres, and in so doing, reveal something about Russia and the world beyond.

1. Red Star, Alexander Bogdanov (1908)

Red Star

Okay, so this is before Zamyatin. But as a pro-communist vision of an interplanetary future utopia, how could it be left on the sidelines? Here’s the gist: after the Revolution of 1905 fizzled out, resolute reformers continued to fight for the success of communism. Even if at that point success was only imaginable on Mars.

Bogdanov, who famously died attempting to administer a youth-restoring blood transfusion on himself, envisioned the fall of capitalism and the birth of a new society based on “tectology,” now seen as a precursor to systems theory. Even if his non-Leninist Bolshevism went the way of, well, non-Leninist Bolshevism, his view of a technocratic future has some eerie resonances with the technology-based world of today. Well, aside from the Mars part.

2. We, Evgeny Zamyatin (1921)

We

This novel is Big Brother’s big brother. And not only did Zamyatin’s magnum opus influence Mr. Orwell, its gloomy, glassy dystopia had an impact on the genre as a whole. Zamyatin’s vision of the One State is replete with people known only by numbers, an all-knowing Benefactor, and literal liquidation of dissent. No wonder Zamyatin faced some heat when his fictional world started to resemble the newborn Soviet Union a bit too closely.

Whether you interpret the novel’s glass houses and punishment of free-thinking as a symbol of the new Soviet government’s increased censorship (which, admittedly, is what Zamyatin did) or a sign of the Snowden era to come a bit (a lot) later, the result is a prescient portrayal of multiple futures, and none of them too bright for humanity.

3. Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1972)

Roadside Picnic

Aliens pay Earth a visit, but just long enough for a PB&J by the side of the road. Thirty years after the aliens decided humans were too bland for so much as a “howdy,” humanity’s still cleaning up the extraterrestrial equivalents of forgotten candy wrappers and sandwich rinds – not to mention mysterious objects, body-invading slime, and enough mutations to go around.

The basis for Andrei Tarkovsky’s movie Stalker (and a gaggle of video games), Roadside Picnic’s black market for alien goods and fixation on the forbidden unknown hints at the draw of the West, with the taboo blue jeans and rock ‘n’ roll that went along with it. But that alien utopia isn’t just an allegory: it warns that the desire for the foreign, in the late-Soviet context or anywhere else you can picture it, may end up no more than pie in the sky.

4. Moscow 2042, Vladimir Voinovich (1987)

Moscow 2042

This novel imagines Moscow in (you guessed it) 2042, from the vantage point of 1987. The Moscow of the future has realized “communism in one city,” apparently a step-up from the socialism of the narrator’s day. In the apparent paradise of MoscowRep, the Party fights the rings of capitalist hostility, people receive according to their (state-determined) needs, and society runs on the recycling of secondary matter (just guess what that means), all while a Solzhenitsyn-esque tsar-wannabe plans the restoration of empire from beyond the grave.

Written as the Soviet Union veered toward disintegration, Moscow 2042 puts a parodic twist on all things socialist, yet levels a genuine critique against dogmatism of all sorts. Voinovich’s dystopian future may be based on the Soviet Union’s past, but his condemnation of a society based on absolutes and censorship seems increasingly relevant today.

5. Night Watch, Sergei Lukyanenko (1998)

Night Watch

Just a typical day in Moscow: riding the subway, office boredom, a first date, and battling to the death with the occasional evil mage. The first of Lukyanenko’s pentalogy introduces a world where “others” walk among humanity, engaged in a constant fight between light and dark while humans go about their business unawares – at least, until they step into the twilight and become a shape-shifter, vampire, or warlock.

In a saga focused on the eternal battle between Light and Dark (for the curious, Stalinism was a force of Light gone awry), landing on the side of morality isn’t always as easy as you’d think. And especially in the aftermath of the Cold War, escaping so black-and-white a view of good and evil seems almost easier to accomplish in the realm of magic.

6. The Last Ringbearer, Kirill Yeskov (1999)

Imagine a world where hobbits’ giant, fuzzy feet aren’t proof of their humble but ultimately moral nature – instead, they’re instruments of terror.

Yeskov’s inverted Middle Earth is a land where the Orcs are the good guys, and the Elves are the false prophets of light, liberalism, and other imposed (read: European) values. In this inversion of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, the association of Russia with the traditional bad guys isn’t just acceptance of doom: it’s a statement that being the hero depends on who’s telling the story.

Russia’s complex affiliations with Mordor have been reclaimed in more ways than one. With the Ring of Power buried somewhere in the Middle East, Middle Earth is a fitting spot for transplanting Russia’s ideological sparring with the West.

7. Day of the Oprichnik, Vladimir Sorokin (2006)

Day of the Oprichnik

The technology of the future meets the brutality of Ivan the Terrible meets some eerily familiar qualities of Russia in 2016. Following a day in the life of a henchman of the new tsar, the near future Sorokin depicts speculates on the intensity of violence and corruption that would (and could) accompany a new authoritarianism.

Sorokin’s restored Russian Empire, powdered with familiar Soviet strictures, is replete with Chinese-made mobilovs and Mercedovs, hallucinogenic fish, and violence that might seem gratuitous – except nothing is gratuitous in the name of the new order. Sorokin described his novel as a “mystical precaution,” but its mystical nature becomes a bit too realist in Putin’s Russia of murdered opposition leaders and accusations of corruption at the top. At least hallucinogenic fish are still a thing of the future.  

8. The Librarian, Mikhail Elizarov (2007)

The Librarian

History thinks of socialist realism as a genre whose tractors and positive heroes could bore the most patient readers to tears. In this novel take on a derided literary form, a set of just such tedious texts turn out to impart special powers to those brave enough to make it through them. Let the bloodbath begin.

Elizarov’s world is a twist on the violence, poverty, and despair of early post-Soviet Russia and a caution against blind belief in any system. The catalyst for that belief could be a charismatic leader, drug-like fulfillment, or the desire for something to make life worth living. And if there’s a book that can do all that, that’s as good an argument as any for literature’s role in paving the path to Russia’s future – speculative or otherwise.

You Might Also Like

Red Star Tales: A Century of Russian and Soviet Science Fiction
  • October 15, 2015

Red Star Tales: A Century of Russian and Soviet Science Fiction

For over 100 years, most of the science fiction produced by the world’s largest country has been beyond the reach of Western readers. This new collection changes that, bringing a large body of influential works into the English orbit. 
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
Jews in Service to the Tsar

Jews in Service to the Tsar

Benjamin Disraeli advised, “Read no history: nothing but biography, for that is life without theory.” With Jews in Service to the Tsar, Lev Berdnikov offers us 28 biographies spanning five centuries of Russian Jewish history, and each portrait opens a new window onto the history of Eastern Europe’s Jews, illuminating dark corners and challenging widely-held conceptions about the role of Jews in Russian history.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
The Moscow Eccentric

The Moscow Eccentric

Advance reviewers are calling this new translation "a coup" and "a remarkable achievement." This rediscovered gem of a novel by one of Russia's finest writers explores some of the thorniest issues of the early twentieth century.
Russia Rules

Russia Rules

From the shores of the White Sea to Moscow and the Northern Caucasus, Russian Rules is a high-speed thriller based on actual events, terrifying possibilities, and some really stupid decisions.
Survival Russian

Survival Russian

Survival Russian is an intensely practical guide to conversational, colloquial and culture-rich Russian. It uses humor, current events and thematically-driven essays to deepen readers’ understanding of Russian language and culture. This enlarged Second Edition of Survival Russian includes over 90 essays and illuminates over 2000 invaluable Russian phrases and words.
Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

Faith & Humor: Notes from Muscovy

A book that dares to explore the humanity of priests and pilgrims, saints and sinners, Faith & Humor has been both a runaway bestseller in Russia and the focus of heated controversy – as often happens when a thoughtful writer takes on sacred cows. The stories, aphorisms, anecdotes, dialogues and adventures in this volume comprise an encyclopedia of modern Russian Orthodoxy, and thereby of Russian life.
Fish: A History of One Migration

Fish: A History of One Migration

This mesmerizing novel from one of Russia’s most important modern authors traces the life journey of a selfless Russian everywoman. In the wake of the Soviet breakup, inexorable forces drag Vera across the breadth of the Russian empire. Facing a relentless onslaught of human and social trials, she swims against the current of life, countering adversity and pain with compassion and hope, in many ways personifying Mother Russia’s torment and resilience amid the Soviet disintegration.
Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar

Bears in the Caviar is a hilarious and insightful memoir by a diplomat who was “present at the creation” of US-Soviet relations. Charles Thayer headed off to Russia in 1933, calculating that if he could just learn Russian and be on the spot when the US and USSR established relations, he could make himself indispensable and start a career in the foreign service. Remarkably, he pulled it of.
Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod: A Novel in Many Voices

Stargorod is a mid-sized provincial city that exists only in Russian metaphorical space. It has its roots in Gogol, and Ilf and Petrov, and is a place far from Moscow, but close to Russian hearts. It is a place of mystery and normality, of provincial innocence and Black Earth wisdom. Strange, inexplicable things happen in Stargorod. So do good things. And bad things. A lot like life everywhere, one might say. Only with a heavy dose of vodka, longing and mystery.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955