Russia: Roadside Picnic and Tale of the Troika by A & B Strugatski
China: SF from China
Scotland: Memoirs of a Spacewoman by Naomi Mitchison
America: 900 Grandmothers by R. A. Lafferty
Science Fiction is largely an international phenomena that likely did not began in the English speaking world. Cases can be made for it starting in German with E. T. A. Hoffman's "The Sandman" or French with Verne or Voltaire. Defense can even be made that it's originated in Latin with certain Medieval stories of scholars building robots or from Chinese stories of a somewhat earlier period with similar themes. In the case of China one of these early robot tales is even referenced in the collection I will be reviewing.
In modern times a variety of events have influenced each region or cultures. Eastern Europe has had a powerful impact on SF, from the word "robot" to modern regulars in magazines like Interzone. Due to a series of political and social upheavals China is relatively late in the game, with Fantasy perhaps gaining more Western appeal. Also Chinese SF tended to be more influenced by non-English mentors in the Soviet Union and France. The Celtic nations are poised to gain prominence among English speaking readers with their familiarity with English and the rise of several new magazines. And oddball writers whose style fits no time or place can crop up anywhere.
I will began with the Soviet Union. By all accounts the Strugatski's began their writing lives as enthusiastic supporters of the system and largely wrote joyous propaganda for its utopian ideals. However by the time of these works their view had darkened somewhat, to the point where the triumph of science or reason is seen more cynically then you would find in much American SF. Yet at heart these two stories are surprisingly simple, almost folk tales really, with the more complex elements being more by implication or subplot then the main story. At heart Roadside Picnic would appear to be about a troubled man with a dangerous job who wants to do right by his family. His dangerous job is getting objects from an alien crash site? Picnic? testing ground? What it is proves not so important to him as what it can do for or to those around him. What matters is that whatever it is it has killed many of his friends and caused his daughter to be born with a strange degenerative condition. It is a thing that promises miracles, which it largely either does not deliver or delivers only with a great price. In some ways it reminds me a bit of "Rogue Moon", but I think I liked it a bit better.
This main story is also different than this might make it sound because it has a certain dark humor along with a character who actually manages to be a jerk you can care about. He is a drunk, a criminal, and has a rather violent streak. Yet he is complex and really seems to care about his friends and child. He also manages to be quite good at a job he hates yet always seems to come back to out of needs both financial and perhaps a bit more.
The other aspect to the book is the meaning of the site and what it does. Opinions vary, but the title seems to indicate the most likely idea is it has no meaning. It is just junk that does stuff that is beyond understanding as our civilization is beyond the ants understanding. On that it began with a curious interview where the scientist denies making any discoveries about it in a manner close to comedic. He appears from time to time to, but it'd be both wrong and right to see him as some kind of wise man explaining stuff. Indeed he insists science and reason have limits and suggests a rather pessimistic view on how much mankind can understand through reason.
It is possible this makes it sound that I like the book more than I actually did. In some ways it seemed slightly unexciting and disappointing. Yet I'd like to read it again because I feel like this is a book that makes more sense with subsequent readings. The translation is fairly good in that the story seemed to go smoothly without some of the awkwardness that you sometimes find in translated works.
The Tale of the Troika was a shorter tale about bureaucratic foolishness and the strangeness that can come from too much rationalizing. It had a certain cuteness, but has likely earned it's less well known position in literature. Though it is interesting for maybe being a more direct criticism of various systems. Including ours with lines like "We don't do law by lynching here, we aren't Americans"
Chinese SF writers had to write in a climate similar to Russians, but sometimes even harsher. Many SF writers in the West speak with something close to glee of writers denounced by the government or investigated during a war. The idea of being seen as "dangerous" or "moral pollution" even being used as something close to a pitch, but in some places it is not quite as funny. At times when Chinese authors faced official condemnation this produced real fear. Authors in other genres had been rounded up at points during the Cultural Revolution. Oddly though in China SF had been often listed under science writing and intended to be a teaching tool. Therefore condemnation came from the idea that it taught children, SF tended to be linked to children's literature until much more recently than here, bad science more than bad ideology. This despite the fact a large percent of the writer's had their main career in science and returned to that when the heat came upon them.
This leads to the fact that on the whole the stories tend to sound old fashion or strange. Some of them do have a certain effectiveness and a few show familiarity with Western modes. In "Death of the World's First Robot" and "Conjugal Happiness in the Arms of Morpheus" old style Chinese stories are fused with Asimov's Laws of Robotics. The first is interesting for involving what may be the first robot story dating back to the Zhou dynasty. The second takes the traditional Chinese idea of a man falling to ruin because of an indulgent woman and goes in a somewhat different direction with it. At times the story is hilarious, but towards the end the robot wife evolves beyond her programming and at a trial somewhat dramatically questions the entire nature of Chinese views on gender, love, etc. Though the nature of the statements on women or democracy seem rather bland, in context the story seemed quite shocking. Almost like having a 1950s American SF story advocating gay rights or Maoism.
Often though the stories seem to be fairly simple happy stories where science solves all and Chinese patriotism is triumphant. At times these managed to be less insufferable than that sounds as the stories focused on some amusing event, a fairly universal moral, or just showed a side to Chinese culture you sometimes do not see. Still I tended to prefer the stories that had just a bit of a darker streak to them. Like the ones I have named and "The Mirror Image of Earth" where the aliens show them Chinese history in it's light and dark moments. Specifically the Cultural Revolution. Ending with them leaving rather than having to deal with humanity at all. Likely though Chinese SF has come a long way since so I look forward to a future version of such an anthology.
From China to Scotland. It has come to its own in SF in recent years with a Worldcon soon to be set there. Naomi Mitchison was an early Scottish writer of SF&F. Mostly Fantasy but she did have a strong background in biology, even being J. B. S. Haldane's sister. She also was an early crusader for women's rights, had been adopted by the Bakgatha people of Botswana, worked for island communities in western Scotland, and may be science fiction's only centenarian. The specific book "Memoirs of a Spacewoman" received classic status by the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 1995.
It isn't hard to see why in a way. Though she was in her 60s when writing it the book likely seemed ground breaking at the time on women's issues for SF. The main character, as well as much of the cast, are women scientists. Completely independent yet very far from celibate spinster's. Indeed it could be said this is close to a reversal of pulp tropes as in this book randy women go out to lust over alien men rather than vice versa. In fact the book at times is a rather silly sex comedy.
Yet the best parts of it involve figuring other ways to think or view the Universe including ethical concerns. Indeed the strongest part of the book involved an all female team Mary, the title Spacewoman, joined to study a Butterfly like race. Though occasionally awkward the discovering of how the aliens worked socially and biologically as well as the ethical issues involved had real interest. The dynamics of the group and how they worked within their non-interference directive also had some interest. Another interesting moment came early in the book when she analyzed a creature that lacked all sense of dualism. Even the concept of "left & right" or "up & down" or "right & wrong" proved meaningless to these creatures.
Sadly though I felt the book had some very extreme awkward aspects. Much of it focused on the least interesting elements. Some elements involving talking dogs, the French, or alien sex came off intensely goofy or inexplicable. Further it seemed to go at a lazy pace then rush toward a slightly confusing finish. There is a tendency to think books now are too long, but at well under 200 pages this one seemed almost too short. Or perhaps short in the wrong places. It might have been nice if some things had been tightened up while others been expanded a bit.
Finally I end on another Celtic author of sorts. R. A. Lafferty. I did not exactly finish this collection so I will take the highlights of what I read and discuss some themes I noticed in the collection.
One story I enjoyed I read first at Sci-Fiction and you can find it at their archives. It is about gypsies and Los Angeles. Some of the stories came in a kind of series, the best being some of the ones about a proto-AI called the Epikt machine and a people called the Camiroi. The Camiroi stories had a kind of dark humor that seemed close to being like Monty Python at times. That could be taken as an insult as I do not generally like Monty Python, but they tended to have a few worthwhile sketches. The Epikt machine stories varied. "Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne" being maybe the best while "What's the Name of that Town" had the interesting quality of being horrifying to the reader while the characters found the events funny.
Of the stand-alone stories the best had to be "Slow Tuesday Night" It is short enough I do not want to give away much, but basically it involves a speeded up world. Another interesting one had the cutesy title of "Snuffles" yet proved truly ominous. One of those stories where Nature or some kind of God or what have you has a truly vicious streak with a willingness to torture those who mock it. Something of a mixture of SF and horror. The rest proved extremely bizarre or frustrating, including the title story. One "The Name of the Snake" was quite poor, but surprised me by having the most annoying Catholic Priest I'd ever read in an SF story. I think that might be because it may have been intended as a parody of A Case Of Conscience by Blish.
As for trends the most interesting: a deadpan treatment of the bizarre, precocious kids, and worlds or species usually being created roughly in accordance with the Bible.
Despite reservations I felt slightly saddened that the last person to check the book out did so over twenty years ago, with the pages even being damaged.
In conclusion these four books represent a variety of cultures and nations. Though two are from the English speaking world their perspectives are perhaps even more different from each other than anything. One a feminist biologist who crusaded for birth control, the other an ardent Catholic whose scientist characters disbelieve in evolution. So each representing a completely different nation or world views. Yet all showing the diversity within SF within and beyond borders.
Copyright © 2002 by Thomas R.