Glasnost for Soviet Science Fiction

Article excerpt

A more-open Soviet Union is letting science-fiction writers do what they do best: dream of a better future.

Science fiction is regaining popularity in the Soviet Union a decade after some observers declared the genre to be exhausted following the creative surge of the 1960s. One catalyst to this renewed interest may be the atmosphere of glasnost - openness - that in 1989 permitted an influential Russian science-fiction novel, written in 1920, to be published for the first time in the Soviet Union.

The novel, Eugene Zamiatin's We - hailed as a masterpiece in the West - was "a political dystopia about a nightmare collective state," says Georgetown University history professor Richard Stites. This pessimistic vision was an answer to the Bolsheviks' love of modern machines and scientific technicism, which Zamiatin, who was an engineer and had lived in England, deemed "the principal menace of the twentieth century," writes Stites in Science and the Soviet Social Order. Little wonder, then, that Zamiatin's anticommunist voice should be officially silenced along with most other kinds of dialogue in the Stalinist era.

Like all literature, science fiction has a role to play within its culture, says Stites. If "serious" literature is a reflection of a culture's past and present, science fiction tends to reflect its possible futures. While popular books about science show what types of food there will be in the future or paint portraits of futuristic cities and transport systems, science fiction tackles the emotional and cultural impacts of these scientific scenarios.

In the last 25 years, Soviet science fiction has not only addressed such technological issues as artificial-organ transplants, chemical control of aging, and the symbiosis of humans and computers, but has accompanied these discussions with "an examination of their effects on people and their society, by ironic twists, unexpected outcomes, anxiety, failure, reversals, or details about the role of technology in everyday life," according to Stites.

Among the major themes Stites identifies in contemporary (postStalin) Soviet science fiction are:

* Scientization of emotions, dreams, and the psyche. Dreams may be manufactured by computers to make a dreamer believe he has fallen in love or to prevent a depressed person from committing suicide. Example: "What Never Was" by Dmitri Bilenkin in The Uncertainty Principle (Collier, 1978). …