Academic journal article Extrapolation

We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity

Academic journal article Extrapolation

We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity

Article excerpt

Alternative Visionary Modernities. Anindita Banerjee. We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2012. 230 pp. ISBN: 9780819573346. $24.95 pbk.

Reviewed by James R. Simmons

We Modern People is a slim book, but it advances a grand thesis. The author, Anindita Banerjee, a professor of comparative literature at Cornell University, argues that, in late-nineteenth-century Russia, science fiction quickly evolved from a marginal literature to a serious and important contributor to the debates over modernization. Moreover, Banerjee claims that, unlike in the West, where sf was largely an optimistic novelty fiction uncritically popularizing the wonders of science and the emerging technology, early-modern Russian sf was far more significant. This burgeoning body of fantastic literature (nauchnaia fantastika) published between 1894 and 1923 not only contributed to the formation of a unique and complex vision of modernity but was also a major participant in the formation of a distinctive Russian national consciousness.

Banerjee questions the dominant scholarly perspectives of both Russian literature and modernity. She argues that the explosion of fantastic fictional texts along with comparable periodicals, manifestos, tracts, and visual culture produced alternate models to Western capitalist modernity long before the October Revolution imposed its distinctively Soviet model of techno-scientific utopia. Following Yevgeny Zamyatin, she asserts that, in the Russian context of "combined and uneven development," sf became more than an inconsequential byproduct of idle speculation or a popular source of entertainment. It performed a radical function as a primary participant in the formation of a national mind that was constructed out of imaginary literary representations of "alternative modernities" liberated from utilitarian Western paradigms of a technologically generated and materialistically directed progress (2-3).

The book is organized around what the author calls a geographical genealogy. Rather than reconstructing a literary history of the genre with a linear chronology of authorship, We Modern People traces what she calls the arcs of continuity intended to demonstrate the continuity between this pre-revolutionary visionary literature and the Bolshevik imagination. She details four principal narratives in Russia's path to modernity that form the basis of the four sections of her book. In chapter one, "Conquering Space," she shows how imaginary locales of sf generated radically new ideologies and images of Russia. Chapter two, "Transcending Time," examines how science fictional accounts about autos, railroads, movies, and communications accelerated and compressed time, helping overcome the nation's "backwardness" {66-67). The third chapter, "Generating Power," traces how electricity evolved from a privileged novelty into a source of vitality for utopian speculation. Finally, the last chapter, "Creating the Human," reveals the ways sf became the medium for transcending the secular forces of mechanization and spiritual moral impulses that were reconfiguring humanity in the modern age.

According to Banerjee, Russian sf writers used regional geography and technological marvels such as the trans-Siberian railway and electrification as a means to articulate (for urban intellectuals, the growing middle class, and even rural provincials) a uniquely Russian visionary model of development in imaginary spaces like Mars and beyond. The predominant motif, she claims, in numerous futuristic works by authors such as Tolstoy, Sluchevsky, Federov, Tsiolkovsky, and Bogdanov, is an organicist ideal in which humanity is both spiritually and biologically transformed. …

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