It’s a truism in the literary world that each new piece of writing published owes its existence to thousands of years of literary tradition. Everything is influenced by and to a certain degree shaped by what came before. Even the avant garde, in attempting to break free of the shackles of the past, gives a nod to everything from Gilgamesh to Leopold Bloom. Nothing truly exists in a vacuum, and we are all standing on the shoulders of giants—the great literary minds that paved our way.
Of course, certain periods in history have conspired to allow parallel literary development. Most of these moments are lost in antiquity, and the cause of the parallelism is mainly isolation and the simple lack of knowledge about the competing literary tradition.
However, the situation of two groups working in a vacuum existed in the past century, on a much smaller scale but in a very noticeable way, and this recently came to my attention from a completely unexpected source: two science fiction anthologies from the 1970s.
The two anthologies in question, serendipitously read in close succession, are:
Final Stage: The Ultimate Science Fiction Anthology (1975) edited by Edward L. Ferman and Barry N. Malzberg. This on the face of it is a fairly standard major-publisher sf anthology. The premise was to pull together a bunch of big names notable for one topic or another and ask them to write, for example “The Space Exploration Story to End all Space Exploration stories.” There are a bunch of good stories but nothing earthshaking in there.
The Ultimate Threshold: A Collection of the Finest in Soviet Science Fiction (1978) edited by Mirra Ginsburg, on the other hand, does exactly what the title says; it gives us a glimpse of the best of what was being written behind the Iron Curtain.
After finishing the collection of Soviet stories, the first thing one thinks to do is to check the years they were originally published because they read like something from a much more naive age in the development of science fiction than the ’70s. To my surprise, I found that many of the stories were reasonably recent when the book was published.
So why are the tales so basic? Why did we have a bunch of Western commercial writers getting a truly interesting take on everything from robots to sex (and sometimes robots and sex) while the more introspective and literate Russian tradition was mired in an embryonic state, exploring ideas which, to a Western reader, would have seemed amazingly old-fashioned?
My first hypothesis was that the Soviet writers just weren’t that good, but that can be quickly discarded. The writing was (taking into account translation issues and ideology) excellent, mature, and balanced. The writers, then, clearly weren’t the problem.
So why were good Soviet writers of the ’60s and ’70s (with a notable exception or two) producing conceptually limited work that would have struggled to earn a place in the pulp science fiction magazines of the 1930s?
The answer lies precisely within those pulps.
At the height of science fiction’s Golden Age, there were countless magazines full of science fiction available on newsstands around the US. From these unregarded pages sprang the early greats of the genre such as Asimov and Heinlein, but there were innumerable other writers pounding out dozens of tales for dozens of magazines every month.
The result in such an ecosystem could only be the exploration of every idea that could possibly occur to people, in detail, with a ruthless Darwinian weeding out of the overdone and the trite—which eventually led to science fiction becoming more mainstream and also led to the “New Wave,” which brought it to the level of the truly “adult” genres.
By the time the Ferman/Malzberg anthology was published, the level of writing needed to publish in the sf genre in the West was extremely refined not just in prose quality but also in how deeply thought-out the ideas needed to be. The Soviet writers didn’t have that history to fall back on, and that shows in the stories presented.
All in all, the back-to-back reading of these two anthologies gives an fascinating look into what could happen when the natural development of literature is cut off by isolation—with the added benefit that the stories from both anthologies are also entertaining reads.
Of course, this isn’t to say that all the science fiction produced behind the Iron Curtain was limited in this way. There is no accounting—ever—for genius, and in that regard, one need look no further than Stanislaw Lem’s brilliant oeuvre.
But for mere mortals, it was an unfortunate time to be a Russian writer!
Gustavo Bondoni lives in Conesa, Buenos Aires.