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Bewildering Stories

The Critics’ Corner

Natan Dubovitsky’s “Without Sky”

by Bill Bowler


Without Sky” appears in this issue.

“Without Sky” describes a dystopian future. World War V is in progress. Vague and shifting factions are in armed conflict for murky reasons. The warring parties employ ultra-light, silent hi-tech aerial weaponry. The village is not attacked, but lies beneath the battlefield and is destroyed with the villagers as collateral damage.

The young protagonist’s parents are killed; he is wounded and emerges from the war with a damaged consciousness. As a result of his injury, he has become a “two-dimensional” and can only perceive in two dimensions: length/width, good/bad, black/white, lie/truth.

The narrative is fairly simple and straightforward but tells the story on two levels: the personal and the general.

On the personal level, the level of drama and pathos, the story depicts the suffering of a child during war and the changes wrought upon his psyche by physical violence. This level of the story is intimate, dramatic, and small-scale. There is only one developed character, the protagonist-narrator, and two secondary characters, his parents.

On the generalized level, the level of society, of philosophy and ideology, the story takes a broader view and depicts events affecting a host of tertiary characters who are represented as types or groups: “villagers,” “city dwellers,” “scientists,” “historians,” “economists.”

Peopled with these “types,” the story acquires a fairytale, allegorical quality. This quality is reinforced insofar as events on the personal level are depicted in the same fairytale plane: the protagonist wants to see the moon, but the sky is blocked. When threatened, he hides in the sand. When wounded, his “damaged” mind can see only truth or lies, nothing in between.

Woven into this fairy tale is a prominent thread of “Realistic” contemporary political ideology and military theory:

This was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.

And what coalitions they were! Not like the earlier ones. It was a rare state that entered the coalition intact. What happened was some provinces took one side, some took the other, and some individual city, or generation, or sex, or professional society of the same state - took a third side. And then they could switch places, cross into any camp you like, sometimes during battle.

This description of “non-linear war” parallels the current situation in Ukraine as seen from a Russian point of view, with individual regions like Crimea, and cities within regions, like Donetsk and Lugansk, splitting into opposing factions.

In fact, the non-linear war model seems applicable generally to civil wars, such as the current conflicts in Syria and Iraq, for example. Even the contemporary issue of Gay Rights, for which Russia has recently come under criticism, is raised obliquely, with reference to individual sexes from the same state taking different sides in the conflict.

“Without Sky” also develops a theory of war:

Some peoples joined the war specifically to be defeated. They were inspired by the flowering of Germany and France after being routed in the second World War. It turned out that to achieve such a defeat was no simpler than achieving victory. Determination, sacrifice, and the extraordinary exertion of all forces were required, and, in addition, flexibility, cold-bloodedness, and the ability to profitably administer one’s own cowardice and dullness.

War was now understood as a process, more exactly, part of a process, its acute phase, but maybe not the most important.

The author here employs irony and satire: fighting a war to achieve defeat. Moreover, war is no longer waged to achieve victory or defeat but is part of a process. And what is the most important part of the process, if not winning? The reader is left to draw his own conclusions, but the passage seems an ironic commentary on modern war, endless and profitable, where unlimited continuation of the conflict brings advantage to some parties, and victory can be had by simple declaration.

The rubbery nature of war and victory described by Dubovitsky brings to mind General Westmoreland’s famous exchange with General Giap. To Westmoreland’s plaintive claim that during the Tet Offensive, the Americans had won every battle, Giap replied yes, but it didn’t matter because public perceptions were changed. American soldiers drove back the enemy, but American public opinion ceased supporting the war and increasingly felt it was not worth the cost.

American and Vietnamese public opinions were locked, as it were, in a virtual conflict that ran parallel to the battlefield engagements. The stream of official propaganda issued by the American government failed to achieve the desired effect, undercut perhaps by the daily video coverage of bloody and gruesome combat that ran each night on the TV news.

Dubovitsky’s suggestion that war may not be the most important part of the process references the idea, originated by Von Clausewitz in the 19th century, that every military conflict is accompanied by an equally important propaganda war. “Without Sky” unmasks the potentially secondary nature of the shooting war but at the same time, the story itself can be construed as a work of propaganda accompanying the current shooting in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The ending of “Without Sky” hammers home the political content. “Without Sky” becomes a story not of drama and pathos, not of personal loss, but of the political awakening of the young protagonist, a theme exemplified in Soviet mainstream literature by Gorky’s “Mother” and N. Ostrovsky’s classic, “How the Steel was Tempered.”

We founded the Society and prepared a revolt of the simple, two-dimensionals against the complex and sly, against those who do not answer “yes” or “no”, who do not say “white” or “black”, who know some third word, many, many third words, empty, deceptive, confusing the way, obscuring the truth. In these shadows and spider webs, in these false complexities, hide and multiply all the villainies of the world. They are the House of Satan. That’s where they make bombs and money, saying: “Here’s money for the good of the honest; here are bombs for the defense of love.”

We will come tomorrow. We will conquer, or perish. There is no third way.

What, in the end, is one to make of all this?

Russian and Soviet literature enjoy a long tradition of political science fiction, a tradition that can be traced to Zamyatin’s revolutionary We; that encompasses Ivan Efremov’s Communist Utopian Andromeda Nebula; that runs through the works of the Strugatsky Brothers — early Communist idealists (The Land of Purple Clouds) and later, doubting skeptics (Inhabited Island, Roadside Picnic); a tradition that continues into the contemporary period in the works of Russian science fiction authors such as Oleg Divov with his post-Soviet dystopian vision Vybrakovka (The Culling). “Without Sky” continues this tradition and represents a rather interesting current specimen of the genre.

As the work of Natan Dubovitsky, i.e., Vladislav Surkov, former Deputy Prime Minister of the Russian Federation and a close advisor to Russian President Vladimir Putin, “Without Sky” takes on added significance. The story portrays, in fictional form, Surkov’s view of Russia’s current place in the world, and the nature, causes and goals of the shifting and amorphous conflicts facing Russia today. As such, the story provides insight into the current geo-political thinking, i.e., the point of view, of at least one high level and influential Russian government official.

Although the thematics of “Without Sky” provide some propagandistic value — the story, after all, was published in Russian Pioneer, a patriotic Boy Scout-like organization of young adults — the author’s use of satire, irony, humor and especially ambiguity bring added dimensions to the narrative, and lift it into the richer and more entertaining realm of art.

Copyright © 2014 by Bill Bowler

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