Omon Ra (1998)

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I’m fascinated by the concept, albeit pretty much firmly in the realm of fantasy, of lost cosmonauts. The idea that the USSR was so obsessed with besting America in the space race that they would stop at absolutely nothing to do so is interesting and horrifying at the same time. In a way, this is a sarcastic book about that very subject as well as a criticism of blind nationalism and the concept of “national heroes”.

One of the more outlandish things in the book takes place when the main character, Omon, enlists in a flight school only to discover that they do not create any pilots, but push their students through a series of grueling ordeals (like forced foot amputations) in order to turn them into national heroes. He thankfully escapes this fate and goes to cosmonaut training which is even more disturbing. I did a bit of research and (according to Wikipedia) this whole thing is a reference to a famous Soviet ace-pilot Alexey Maresyev, “who despite being badly injured in a plane crash after a dogfight, managed to return to the Soviet-controlled territory on his own. During his 18-day-long journey, his injuries deteriorated so badly that both of his legs had to be amputated below the knee.” In the World of Omon Ra, this is seen as the quickest way to create national heroes.

This book reminds me of Doctor Strangelove in many ways – it’s very surrealist, a dark comedy, and very acerbic towards the failings of the USSR. This book is not for everyone, but if you have an interest in history, dark comedy, or the space race this might be a fun read, and at only 150 pages or so, it’s a quick one. Perhaps my only big quibble with the book, and with many translated books, is that the writing is very simplistic, meaning that much of the nuance of the original book was probably lost in translation. I will definitely have to find more books by Victor Pelevin in the future.


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Roadside Picnic (1972)

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I have recently been on a big Russian science fiction kick these past few months (We, Omon Ra, Night Watch etc), and discovered that this book inspired a video game I like, so I figured that I should pick it up. The game in question, “S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: Shadow of Chernobyl“, is not really a remake of this book, but after reading the story – it borrows many plot points. It’s weird to know how old this book is (1972) and to see how it predicted the way people would treat an exclusion zone that folks try to sneak into. Granted, Chernobyl was a huge nuclear disaster, and the incident that creates tension in this book is a low-key alien encounter.

It seems that, years prior, an alien invasion of some sort occurred. These aliens, thinking that we were basically ants to them, ignored us completely, left a bunch of trash everywhere, then simply left. A comparison is made that it was like a situation where humans have a Roadside Picnic and leave garbage everywhere – animals would be scared and confused, and have no idea what we left behind. Their trash, however, isn’t just regular trash, it’s so bad that the areas affected end up called “zones”. These areas exhibit strange and dangerous phenomena not understood by humans, and contain artifacts with inexplicable, seemingly supernatural properties. Of course, a huge black market pops up to take advantage and folks start making a career out of sneaking in and stealing this stuff.

I really enjoyed Roadside Picnic, but it wasn’t perfect. It seems so short and has a somewhat unsatisfying open-ended finale. One can surmise what happens at the end, but you never really know. If you want to read something a bit different, this is a decent quick read that keeps you on the edge of your seat.


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Uncovering Soviet Disasters: Exploring the Limits of Glasnost (1988)

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“A disturbing aspect about the Soviets’ reaction to revelations of their secrets was the insistence that any Western attempt to explore these secret mishaps had to have been inspired by malice, not by an understandable interest in the truth. Even during the period of glasnost the ancient and strident Russian paranoia toward foreign curiosity about their failures is very evident.”

– James Oberg, Uncovering Soviet Disasters

One of my favorite “mysteries” is the conspiracy of the lost cosmonauts. Basically, it’s a theory that claims that “The Space Race” may have been built upon the corpses of many forgotten heroes lost to both time and Soviet censorship. These so-called “lost cosmonauts” have been proven to be usually more fantasy than fact, and I don’t actually believe in many of the stories that have been circulating for upwards of sixty years. But all one has to do is listen to the chilling Judica-Cordiglia brothers audio recordings from 1962 that claim to be the last words of a handful of such cases, and think “what if…” I was looking for a book on this subject and was shocked to see that there really aren’t many that aren’t conspiracy nut garbage, so I broadened my net and found a series of books written by James Oberg during the Cold War. There is a chapter in here about lost cosmonauts, both factual and mythical, and information on the narrative that makes a conspiracy like this so hard to shake – if the USSR lied and covered up so much stuff, what don’t we know about?

The Purpose of Uncovering Soviet Disasters by James E. Oberg is to explore the USSR’s new (at the time) government policy of open discussion, or Glasnost (openness in Russian). The USSR had routinely covered up almost any bad news pertaining to not only government affairs but personal tragedies for so long that many were living in a dream-world of sorts for many years. This book is an attempt to “level the playing field” and expose a lot of these blatant misuses of censorship. Oberg does this by organizing everything into a series of articles each covering a different Soviet Era disaster that had been in some way wiped from public records or covered up.

Oberg usually presents many sides to each story, and since most of his “experts” were going off of eye-witness testimony or professional gut-feelings, many of the theories were vastly different from one another. For example, chapter one talks about a suspected anthrax epidemic in the early 80’s that caused dozens of deaths, but was almost unheard of until the fall of the USSR within the country itself. Some experts chalked it up to being a case of tainted meat, others blamed it on a misplaced vaccine that somehow got out of a medical facility. Since this book is so old (it was published in 1988), it was fun to look up many of the incidents listed to get an update of what really happened (since all of this info has largely been unclassified since). After the fall of the USSR it was revealed that, according to Wikipedia, that the USSR did in fact violate a biological weapons ban and produce Anthrax like many suspected, and the whole ordeal was caused by a miscommunication between workers in said weapons facility rendering a vent system offline for a few days allowing anthrax to escape unfiltered into the town. Now the whole ordeal is called “Biological Chernobyl” and is pretty infamous.

Some of the stories are a bit “tainted”, I suppose, with American Cold War era propaganda – many Soviet “characters” are described in a less than flattering manner. In many instances, the reader is presented with the narrative that The USSR was always up to no good as if populated entirely by mustache twirling Bond Villains, or reactionary morons that were only trying to protect themselves in the face of disaster. while this wasn’t too over-the-top, it colored an otherwise well-done book. He does go to great length to talk-up the heroism and toughness of many everyday Russians in an almost “noble savage” sort of way, leaving you to admire their resolve. If anything, I REALLY wish there was a later edition of this where Oberg went back and updated everything, but alas the entire book would have to be basically re-written, and he is now in his 70’s.

All-in-all this is a good read despite the age and political motivation. I will need to look into reading more of Mr. Oberg’s work.

We (1921)

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“You are afraid of it because it is stronger than you; you hate it because you are afraid of it; you love it because you cannot subdue it to your will. Only the unsubduable can be loved.”

I recall reading an interview with George Orwell some years ago where a lot of the discussion seemed to veer towards the origin of perhaps his most notable work, Nineteen-Eighty Four. In this interview, Orwell discussed a story that had captivated his imagination in such a way that he became obsessed with the ideas it shared. I had never heard of this old story, a novel called We, but wanted to read it. He cited that We was his basis for his story, and assumed that Brave New World by Aldous Huxley shared a similar origin. This got me thinking – why had I never heard of this? Well, thats easy; The Iron Curtain and age kept this story somewhat buried under other stories that borrowed heavily from it. Being a fan of dystopian stories, and especially ones like Nineteen-Eighty Four and Brazil – I knew I would love We.

We was Written in the early 1920’s by Russian novelist Yevgeny Zamyatin as a satirical jab at the CPSU (Communist Party of the Soviet Union) and was confusingly only released in his motherland of Russia in the late 1980’s. In fact, it was released in America first! This was, of course, because his work was banned by the very Communist party that is was making fun of (imagine that!). Yevgeny Zamyatin was an old school Bolshevik, and found his views largely less and less popular amongst people that were once of a similar mindset after Tsar Nicholas II was removed from power.

We is a story of the horrors that would be caused if humanity eventually adopted a purely scientific and atheistic society based on the writings of Frederick Winslow Taylor. Humans are reduced to mere labor machines with numbered names and absolutely zero sense of individuality. Everything is precisely planned and scheduled, and everyone somehow persists on food derived from petroleum production. Everyone lives in clean glass and plastic tower blocks and the world seems to be devoid of vegetation. There are many similarities with Nineteen-Eighty Four, but We is less dreary in many ways. Granted, Zamyatin’s masterpiece is by no means a happy story, but it’s distance from many of the actual horrors that Nineteen-Eighty Four were based on keeps it somehow more fantastical.

The protagonist, a man simply known as D-503, is very unlikable for the most part; a fact that could be jarring to readers that like to read from the viewpoint of a square-jawed He-Man that rights all wrongs. D-503 is not heroic, he is actually cowardly to a fault. The book is basically a chronicle of D-503’s decent into madness after discovering his long suppressed imagination or “soul” and his inability to deal with emotions and fear that comes with it. I felt that the story ends somewhat abruptly, but it follows the structure of a series of diary entries so it’s not completely out of place. I was happy that the post-modern writing style feels somewhat contemporary despite being nearly 100 years old, this is very easy to read as long as you can get over the style, especially the free flowing dialog that makes other books like Ulysses really hard to read.

Truly a classic everyone should read.