"Day of the Oprichnik": The fascinating world of Soviet science fiction

During its 70-year lifetime, the Soviet Union was the perfect Other for Westerners: a colossal enigma, alternately dystopian and utopian, onto which we could project all our fears, hopes and dreams; a funhouse mirror in which our own culture was reflected in amusingly warped fashion; an outré parallel continuum from which bizarre messages trickled out at irregular intervals, bearing cryptic hints of off-kilter wonders, quotidian strangeness and kludgy tech. The Iron Curtain was no mere metaphor, but rather an imposing information barrier like the force field around Coventry, Robert Heinlein's land of dissidents, rogue ideologues, criminals and nonconformists.

In this ancient era, science fiction readers and writers had some vague notion that the speculative literature of the Soviet Union represented a bracingly alternate family of narratives, a non-Anglo, non-Euro, non-North American, non-Latin American tradition of proleptic storytelling that sprang from an alien lineage of fabulism.

But solid examples of actual SF from the Communist Bloc were sparse on the ground. A few pioneering anthologies cropped up. Isaac Asimov, himself of Russian birth, introduced "Soviet Science Fiction" and "More Soviet Science Fiction," both appearing in 1962; "Path Into the Unknown," "Last Door to Aiya" and "The Ultimate Threshold" followed over the next eight years. Meanwhile, a few individual authors, such as Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, were plucked by Western translators like beet chunks from the Soviet borscht.

Just when it seemed as if Soviet SF might be gaining a faltering foothold in the consciousness of Western readers, the political empire collapsed, taking the Soviet cultural superstructure with it. Since 1992, interest in -- and access to -- translated SF from Russia and other ex-Bloc countries seems to have fallen nearly to pre-1962 levels. Only the novels of Victor Pelevin ("The Life of Insects") and Sergey Lukyanenko ("Night Watch") appear to have made even a dent in American perceptions. Now, with the publication of two new translations of the remarkable work of Russian satirist Vladimir Sorokin -- jaunty, despairing, cynical, hopeful, traditional and postmodern by turns -- an even more explosive impact seems likely.

In his native country, Sorokin -- born 1955 -- is a figure of controversy and admiration, even occasionally spawning public protests against his bold and irreverent fiction, which was of course mostly suppressed under Communist rule. Reading his newest work, "Day of the Oprichnik," part of a concerted publishing effort to introduce him to English-speaking readers, one encounters a Swiftian writer steeped in globally shared images out of science fiction, but whose sensibility is deeply rooted in Russian culture.

In "Oprichnik," it's the year 2028, and Russia has reinstated the Tsar and the royal family, withdrawn from contact with the West behind new barriers, ceded Siberia to the Chinese in exchange for favorable trade conditions, and, most crucially for our story, instituted a new internal security elite called the "oprichniks," of whom our narrator, Komiaga, is one. Given a free hand to repress dissent, the oprichniks have become a decadent pseudo-SS given to graft and self-indulgence, hypocritically masquerading under the guise of a monastic piety. As we follow Komiaga through the frenetic course of 24 jam-packed hours of brutality, venality, political chicanery and blind absurdism, we watch a country willfully plunge back into the worst excesses and injustices of the 19th century, while maintaining a postmodern, technocratic veneer. The oprichniks drive autonomous "Mercedovs," get their news from holographic "bubbles" and employ ray guns and lasers in their depradations -- as well as the old-fashioned torture rack and knives. The blend of antique and futuristic creates a fascinating literary estrangement, as well as symbolically representing our current global dilemma: tied between retrograde and forward-facing horses of stasis and change.

More here.


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