Dystopian Sci-Fi As the World Ends: Relevant Wisdom from Three Soviet-Era Works

In March 2020, life as we knew it ground to a halt. Schools closed, businesses meetings transitioned to Zoom, and people started panic-hoarding toilet paper.

I was neck-deep in the process of writing (or, more accurately, thinking about writing) my undergraduate senior thesis. For the most part, my life didn’t really change in lockdown: I had planned to shut myself in my room all semester to crank out that thesis, anyway. There was, however, one notable change. Whenever I told someone my thesis was on science fiction, their response—which, pre-lockdown, had ranged from “Uh, okay” to “That sounds awesome!”—was some variant of, “Oh. That must be interesting, considering, you know,” followed by a vague gesture clearly meant to encompass, well, everything.

If you’re here reading LSQ, I don’t have to tell you just how timeless and relevant science fiction as a genre tends to be. That said, here are some nuggets of wisdom from two Soviet-era novels and a short story I was studying as the world seemingly came to an end.

Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924)

Copyright: Modern Library

Set in the distant future, Zamyatin’s totalitarian One State rules the world with mathematical precision. Enter D-503, Builder of the Integral, a spacecraft meant to conquer other planets. He is a model citizen until the day he meets I-330, an anarchic femme fatale who introduces him to the possibility of a way of life other than the Vulcan-like logic prescribed by the State. Spiraling in existential dread, D-503 is helpless to resist his feelings for her, becoming tangled in a web of resistance and rebel activity.

When I-330 asks him to help her steal the Integral, he balks, stating that the One State cannot be overthrown. I-330 asks him to name the final number. When he cannot, she explains that, just as there is no final number, there is and will never be a final revolution. It is the nature of society to change and evolve, and that change must come through protest, resistance, and dissent.

With the endless bad news that seems to pour in through every outlet, any small advance or improvement may be swept away in a current of pessimism. It’s especially difficult to think of change when our very lives depend on not doing anything. But it’s important to remember that, right now, every day that you wake up and get out of bed is an act of resistance—even the days when you don’t, but decide not to beat yourself up about it. We stay indoors and try our best, and we continue to fight for what we believe in when we can. Maybe it doesn’t look like it’s doing anything right now, but, in a few years or decades or even centuries, you may be surprised to see just how much change came out of your small daily acts of revolution.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Fatal Eggs (1925)

Copyright: Alma Books

When Professor Persikov discovers a “red ray” capable of accelerating the rate of binary fission, the Soviet government is quick to seize it as a quick fix to the ongoing chicken plague (which resulted in the extermination of all chickens within the Soviet Union). What begins as a well-intentioned, if hasty, idea—importing chicken eggs from Germany and irradiating them with the ray—soon turns disastrous, when the chicken eggs are mistakenly sent to Persikov, and the ostrich and snake eggs that Persikov ordered for a different experiment are sent to the government farm and unknowingly irradiated. The resulting giant ostriches and snakes go on a rampage through the countryside, costing many innocent lives and nearly destroying Moscow in the process.

Satire of Soviet leadership aside, this novel provides a timely reminder that there is no quick and instant fix to a large-scale problem. Keep your masks on and continue social distancing after you’ve gotten vaccinated, kids—and beware of rampaging snakes in the meantime.

Sever Gansovsky’s “Vincent Van Gogh” (1970)

The short story only appears in English translation in “Aliens, Travelers and Other Strangers: New Science Fiction from the Soviet Union” (1984), which I couldn’t find a good cover photo of. Instead, here’s Vincent van Gogh’s “The Potato Eaters,” which is an important plot device in the short story.

In a world where time travel has been invented, but is strictly regulated, an enterprising man illegally travels back in time to try and obtain van Gogh’s paintings before they were famous in order to make a fortune in the present. Unfortunately, something goes wrong with his plan each time, and he finds himself returning again and again to different points in Van Gogh’s life. Somewhere along the way, the get-rich-quick scheme turns into a surprisingly poignant piece on memory, suffering, and the value of art. At its core is the message that we as individual human beings are fleeting, but our actions, intentions, and self-expression live on long after we are gone.

May 2021 be filled with your own creation in whatever form that takes, be it writing, art, knitting, making space and time for the things you love, or creating a self you feel comfortable in. I leave you with what is not necessarily a piece of wisdom, but a spot of encouragement from “Vincent Van Gogh” in the concluding paragraph of my senior thesis:

“We look to science fiction for reassurance of a tomorrow, but science fiction is rooted in the past, in experiences already lived. It falls to us, now, to build the world of our future. In the words of Gansovsky, ‘So don’t ask what tomorrow will be. If you want it to be glorious and beautiful, make it that way.’”

For more recommendations of Soviet sci-fi authors to read, see here. For recommendations of contemporary post-Soviet dystopian novels, see here.