On my previous blog, Tales From the Computerbank, I would occasionally wax lyrical about my favourite short stories, a tradition I intend to keep up here.
I have always loved short fiction – almost exclusively science fiction, fantasy and horror although I’m not averse to reading some of the literary masters from time to time, particularly Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene – and have always owed a debt to The Penguin Science Fiction Omnibus, edited by Brian Aldiss, which I first read in secondary school more years ago than I care to admit, and which began my lifelong love of speculative fiction. Some stories have stayed with me and I will return to them time and time again just for the sheer pleasure of reading, so generally speaking my favourites are stories I know and love intimately.
However, every once in a while, I’ll read something new that immediately shoots its way into my favourites list. Such a story is The Astronaut by Valentina Zhuravlyova, from what could – I suppose – be described as the ‘Golden Age’ of Soviet Science Fiction.
Non-English SF in translation has long been a minor passion of mine – I say minor because I have read very little of it, mainly because it was (and frequently still is) difficult to get hold of – luckily, I came into possession of a number of anthologies of Russian SF recently and have been making up for lost time.
The most famous of the Soviet Era Russian SF writers were, of course, the Strugatsky Brothers, Arkady and Boris, and their novel Roadside Picnic has long been considered a classic of the genre (and rightly so, since it is a brilliant piece of work) but there were many others working in the speculative field in those days and Russian writers continue to produce quality speculative fiction, a slow but steady trickle of which is making its way into English.
First published in 1960, The Astronaut later appeared in the 1963 anthology Destination: Amaltheia, edited by Richard Dixon and translated by Leonid Kolesnikov and is a story of heroic sacrifice in the face of the unknown wastes of space. In many ways it is a slight story and one which would, at least on the surface, appear to conform to a certain Party line – stalwart cosmonaut gives his life so that his comrades might live and thus confirms the correctness of Soviet thinking and the notion of the noble worker. But, as with all good SF, there is much more going on beneath the surface.
When an accident on a spaceship heading towards Barnard’s Star means that the crew will be able to reach their destination but will be unable to return, the Commander elects to stay on the frozen world they are exploring in order to remotely guide the ship safely home – after it has been stripped to the bare minimum in a Tom Goodwin Cold Equation sort of way. And that, in a nutshell, is the plot of The Astronaut.
But, as with all good fiction, the bare bones of the story do not do it justice. What I found most intriguing about the Astronaut is the almost leisurely pace of the story and the way it takes risks with its narrative flow. Conventional wisdom – then and now – would have us believe that every story needs to start in media res: an action, a line of dialogue, a scene setting description. The Astronaut does none of these and rather starts with a lengthy discourse on the (fictional) nature of space travel, the temperaments of those involved and the psychological make up of would-be spacefarers and it is only after this that the narrative proper begins.
Even then Zhuravlyova plays with narrative convention – moving backwards and forwards through narrative time in what is often a dizzying and bold fashion. Information is presented starkly rather than cunningly woven (the most important piece of information, that the Commander is a painter, is boldly stated rather than wasting valuable time on, say, a scene where he is seen at his easel, contemplating the nature of art. Characterisation is equally perfunctory in many ways, with the crew of the spaceship represented by ‘types’ (although not stereotypes) rather than the carefully crafted, fully-rounded, characters that we have come to expect from the best fiction (although this is not to say that Anglo-American Sf of the same period did not suffer from the same defects). But in Zhuravlyova’s hands these become assets to the story rather than drawbacks and the climax of the story – where the now-dead Commander’s paintings, composed in the worst kind of isolation, are revealed to both the narrator and the reader – is a haunting and beautiful one.
The willingness to play with narrative forms is – perhaps – an inherently Russian one – the Strugatsky Brothers’ play similar narrative games in Roadside Picnic as does the most recent Soviet SF story that I have finished reading – Vincent Van Gogh by Sever Gansovsky, which uses the well worn tropes of the time travel story to startling effect.
Compared to much Anglo-American SF of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, The Astronaut could almost be considered a forerunner of the New Wave – and it certainly has more in common with the work of, say J.G Ballard or Theodore Sturgeon or, indeed, Cordwainer Smith than Heinlein, Clarke or Asimov – concerned as it is with form as much as content, its deeply human centre and its use of scientific (as opposed to science-fictional) language.
A magnificent short story and now firmly one of my favourites,