Russian Science Fiction Literature and Cinema: A Critical Reader

By Pierce, John | Extrapolation, April 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Russian Science Fiction Literature and Cinema: A Critical Reader


Pierce, John, Extrapolation


Vintage Russian Visions. Anindita Banerjee, editor. Russian Science Fiction Literature and Cinema: A Critical Reader. Brighton: Academic Studies Press, 2018. 380 pp. ISBN 978-1-61-811723-6. $39.99 pbk.

Reviewed by John Pierce

Banerjee's reprint anthology has something in common with Arthur B. Evans's 2014 Vintage Visions: some of its essays are truly vintage.

Darko Suvin's "The Utopian Tradition of Russian Science Fiction" dates back to 1971. Two others are from the 1980s, before the fall of the Soviet Union; two more are from 1996 and 2000. Even more recent essays in the collection have been overtaken by history. Evans gave authors a chance to add updates or further comments, but that is not the case here. Another annoyance is the lack of notes on the contributors. There are also omissions in the index-which, for example, overlooks references to postmodern theorist Jean Baudrillard.

Much of the focus is on familiar icons of Russian philosophy, literature, and film, such as Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (the cover features a cosmonaut) and Nikolai Federov. Canonical writers range from Aleksandr Bogdanov, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Aleksei Tolstoy, and Mikhail Bulgakov to Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Canonical sf films include Yakov Protazanov's Aelita (1924) and Andrei Tarkovsky's Solaris (1972) and Stalker (1979), and canonical interpretations belong to Suvin's Marxism, the Cosmism favored by Banerjee, and post-Soviet postmodernism.

Banerjee herself contributes "Generating Power," a selection from her own We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity (2013). She centers on the metaphorical use of electricity, citing Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818), an inspiration for the utopian mythology in Vladimir Odoyevsky's 4338 (1837-1839) and the gothic foreboding in Valeri Bryusov's "Rebellion of the Machines" (1908). Nikolai Shelonsky's In the World of the Future (1892) is an exercise in "vitalist alchemy" and even "folk chiliasm," she claims, but gets his first name wrong as Vladimir. This is in keeping with her thesis that the emergence of Russian sf was inspired as much by religious philosopher Federov as by astronautics theorist Tsiolkovsky, with an emphasis on the quest for immortality and even resurrection of the dead, rather than the conquest of space or technological advances.

Some Russian sf classics are bones of contention. Suvin saw Bogdanov's Red Star (1908) as a work that melded utopian vision with imaginative technology to update the European Martian tale. For Banerjee, however, his key influences were Henri Bergson and Ernst Mach, and the point of the novel was not mere utopian socialism but "a vision of humanity transformed into a practically immortal collective organism through the mutual exchange of blood" (142).

Offending Lenin for being "idealist," Mach's influence on Bogdanov is well known. So is his obsession with massive blood transfusions (he died from one in 1928, knowing nothing about blood types). But he has also been credited with breakthrough ideas like "tektology," an anticipation of general systems theory. Only in Mark B. Adams's "Red Star: Another Look at Aleksandr Bogdanov" do we learn that he picked up the term and the concept behind it from evolutionary philosopher Ernst Haeckel.

Adams credits Bogdanov with one insight: on Earth, the first socialist countries would be "like islands in a capitalist and even to some extent precapitalist sea" and, in their defense, turn to "unavoidable terror and militarism, and the barbarian patriotism that is their inevitable consequence" (37). His main point is that Bogdanov was a syncretist, embracing Marx and Haeckel, Bergson and Mach, materialism and vitalism, and other isms that were in the air. "Bogdanov's originality, such as it was, lay in the unique ways he navigated the flood of ideas washing his intellectual generation" (50).

There are revisionist takes on two classics, Zamyatin's We (1923) and Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog (c. …

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