Alexander Levitsky, Alexander Pushkin, Eleni Aresenieva, F.V. Bulgarin, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Turgenev, Martha T. Kitchen, Mikhail Bulgakov, Mikhail Lermontov, Nikolai Gogol, Sergei Lukyanenko, Strugatskis, V.F. Odoevsky, Yevgeny Zamiatin
I am not, by any means, an expert on Russian literature, but by chance I seem to have encountered more Russian sf than any other non-Anglophone fiction. This huge anthology is a case in point. The full title is: Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction edited by Alexander Levitsky, and this review was first published in Vector 255, Spring 2008.
Back in the days of the Cold War, Russians were almost invariably portrayed on television in the same way, heavyset and ponderous. Unfortunately, this anthology lives up to that old cliché. It is a thick, heavy tome, and it is so ponderous to read that picking it up for each new day is a heart-sinking moment.
It shouldn’t be like that. In theory this is an exciting work: a whistlestop tour of Russian fantasy and science fiction from the emergence of modern Russian literature around 300 years ago to Sputnik. Let’s face it, no anthology that contains works by Pushkin, Turgenev, Gogol, Dostoevsky, Zamiatin and Bulgakov can be all bad. And one of the revelations of this book is how many of the masters of Russian literature (there are no women here) have dabbled with the fantastic. What’s more, for most of the last century the majority of Russian literature has been closed off to the West, by politics as much as by language. So although occasional works have emerged (Evgeny Zamiatin’s We, Mikhail Bulgakin’s The Master and Margarita, both represented here) most of the contents of this book are going to be unknown to most readers. There are indeed some wonderful discoveries and charming oddities to be encountered here.
Yet the whole thing feels slow, dull, more worthy than thrilling. This is not really the fault of the stories, although there is the old problem that nothing ages like the future. The slightly oddball decision to end this anthology at the moment that Sputnik announced the birth of the space age is understandable in historical terms, but not really in literary terms. There is no living writer represented here, which means we get nothing by the Strugatski brothers, or any of that rather exciting new generation of Russian writers who seem to be emerging, such as Eleni Aresenieva and Sergei Lukyanenko. Instead we get science fictions that (with the obvious and welcome exception of We) have no real imaginative currency today. I was delighted with an extract from a piece by F.V. Bulgarin variously called Plausible Fantasies or (Im)Plausible Fantasies (the titles differ between the contents list and the story header) which presents a society a millennium or more in our future in which people travel in private steam-powered vehicles on rails and Siberia has become hot while the tropics are now a frozen waste. It is a cornucopia of invention, quaint now but probably startling when written in 1824; yet for us, it can be no more than a curiosity, the servants, the role of women, the class structure reveal a society that has not advanced one second from the 1820s. There’s nothing wrong with that, such period pieces can provide fascinating and entertaining reading. The problem is what goes around the texts.
Some of the problems can be laid at the door of the publisher: it has been dreadfully proofread. I lost count of the number of times I had to re-read sentences to get their meaning simply because important words like ‘a’ or ‘the’ were missing. And a decent copy-editor might have avoided some of the other errors. I cannot comment on the accuracy or otherwise of the translations, but I can comment on how well they have been rendered in English. And a lot of them (generally the less well-known pieces) are the work of the editor (with Martha T. Kitchen), and though Levitsky is a professor at Brown University he seems to have learned his English from a thesaurus rather than a dictionary. Their translations are often laboured and littered with odd word choices: the medieval ‘hight’ meaning ‘named’ in a story emerging from sophisticated Petersburg seems particularly thoughtless. And their translation of Pushkin’s ‘The Queen of Spades’ doesn’t manage to generate any sense of menace or even of narrative drive. By contrast, the stories translated by others, about half the book, have a grace, a drive and a sense of life about them that makes them a real pleasure to read. In contrast to the flat translation of the Pushkin, for example, ‘Shtoss’ by his contemporary Lermontov is a ghost story that generates an authentic chill.
What’s more, there are some curious editorial choices. Levitsky seems to feel that using an extravagant metaphor counts as fantasy. So there are works here, including most of the poems chosen, that you read without a clue as to why they might belong in this collection. And the editorial decision to include more than one contribution from every writer represented really does not make sense. It makes the book much thicker than it needs to be without adding much to our appreciation of Russian literature or our understanding of the literary history he is presenting. Not that this particular interpretation of history seems to make all that much sense. For instance, he presents his selections from Dostoevsky as a ‘response’ to the futuristic utopian fiction represented by Bulgarin and by V.F. Odoevsky’s The Year 4338. But this does not work: Dostoevsky’s sweet fable about a poor child dying on Christmas morning may say things are bad now, but that does not stand in opposition to or in dialogue with fictions that say things could get better in the future.
But the biggest problem with the book is the curse of academe. We are 60 pages into the book before we come to the first of the selections, and each section is preceded by its own several pages of earnest introduction. Not only is all of this not couched in the most accessible of language, it makes sweeping and not always accurate generalisations about the nature of science fiction and of fantasy, and opaque comments about the development of Russian literature that might make more sense if you are already very familiar with the subject. In other words it hovers indecisively between being an introductory anthology for the general reader and a textbook for the student, and as is often the case it ends up being the worst of both. By all means dip into this collection, there are some wonderful and surprising stories here (even if the best of them, We and The Master and Margarita, are already widely known and available); but don’t read it cover to cover unless you really are intent on studying Russian literature (in which case there are probably better introductory textbooks available).