Round Table of Soviet Authors: Why Western Sci-fi is Lame

ANDROMEDA: A SPACE-AGE TALE | Ivan Yefremov | First edition in English

At first, the Soviet Union during the 1970’s appears to be a unexpected source of great science fiction literature. While the romanticized themes of cybernetics and automation certainly made their way into Soviet pop culture, the Soviet Union missed the computer revolution entirely, leaving it with seventeen times less the amount of computers per capita than the United States (Freeze 436). Even so, the Soviet Union emerged as a power house for science fiction, giving rise to some of the best, most creative science fiction authors of all time. However, with the rise of science fiction in both the Soviet Union and the West came yet another opportunity for competition.

An article recounting a conversation held at a round table between Soviet science fiction authors demonstrates that there was a stark ideological difference between Soviet and Western sci-fi. In short, the round table goes into detail as to why Soviet sci-fi is superior to bastardized Western sci-fi. One of the authors in particular goes into a comical tirade about how Western sci-fi has devolved over the years. He states that Western sci-fi has become nothing more than a cheap knock-off of preexisting work over saturated with “ghosts, monsters, catastrophes, murders and pornography”. He then claims this bastardization of sci-fi has the sole purpose stupefying readers, “instilling in them fear and distrust of their own powers and of the possibility of foreseeing and controlling the future”. One point he makes that I find particularly interesting is that this new form of Western science fiction is nothing more than the resurgence of medieval mysticism disguised by supernovas and time fractures. He backs this up by citing American author Walter Miller’s “A Canticle of Leibowitz”, in which the Roman Catholic church is the first thing to emerge on Earth following nuclear annihilation.

In response to this criticism of Western sci-fi, another author then goes on to applaude the work of Soviet science fiction, stating that, in contrast to Western sci-fi, “[s]oviet science fiction has always been suffused with a spirit of social optimism. According to him, Western authors provide only gloomy forecasts of the future, to which the only solution is often either total destruction of mankind via nuclear war, or the hellish degeneration of capitalism. He then cites the work of  Ivan Yefremov who used science fiction to paint an optimistic picture of a communist future. “The world portrayed in ‘The Andromeda Nebula’ is beautiful. The book depicts communism in the era of its great flourishing not in the form of abstract Utopian wishes but in accordance with the possibilities of social and scientific progress’.

Overall, the translation of this round table is one of the most interesting things I have read in a long time. I recommend everyone read it in full, as there are many other gems which I did not include in this post. It is so interesting to see how science fiction emerged as a platform for ideological debate.

 

 

Link to round table: https://dlib-eastview-com.ezproxy.lib.vt.edu/browse/doc/13625737

Gary, Freeze. Russia A History. Oxford University Press, 2007, p. 436.

21 thoughts on “Round Table of Soviet Authors: Why Western Sci-fi is Lame

  • April 27, 2020 at 3:20 pm
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    Ben, this is a very interesting take of the literature of the Cold War era. I am going to have to go read the full transcript of the round table that you linked. Why do you think this stark difference between Soviet and western science fiction existed? My initial thought was that the authors on each side of the topic were interested in writing about what is different and interesting. For example, in the west, which at the time had a higher average standard of living, authors focused on what was outlandish and different (ex. nuclear destruction and the end of life as we know it) while Soviet bloc authors did the same and focused on what was different from their perspective (the ideal results of a communist revolution which created a utopian society) thus explaining their more optimistic tone. I may be completely missing the point here given that I have yet to read the roundtable but that your post made me think about when I read it the first time. Great post!

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    • April 28, 2020 at 12:45 am
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      From what I have inferred, this debate of Soviet vs. Western science fiction was largely a representation of the clash between communism and Western ideology. Soviet authors viewed the optimism of Soviet science fiction as evidence that communist ideology is itself more optimistic than western ideology. They then used the apocalyptic focus of western science fiction as proof
      that, under a capitalism system, people are inherently pessimistic and fearful of the future.

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  • April 27, 2020 at 3:50 pm
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    This was a fun post to read and I found the differences between Soviet and Western science fiction to be really interesting. The contrast between the optimistic vs pessimistic take to the two cultures is not something I would have thought about but it makes sense when you think about the ideological differences of the two cultures. Western writers were expressing their society’s fears of a oppressive authoritarian government taking over whereas the Soviet writers where trying to show hope for how their society could improve. Great job!

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    • April 28, 2020 at 12:46 am
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      Thanks Kayt, it was definitely interesting to read that the Soviets, who were far behind Americans technologically proved to be more optimistic in their outlook.

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  • April 27, 2020 at 6:40 pm
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    hey Ben, this is an incredible analysis of the differences between sci-fi literature in the East and West. I like how you pointed out that both sides injected some amount of ideology into the work, and how Soviet sci-fi has a large dose of social optimism and hope for the future thanks to the advances of science and the progression of society.

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    • April 28, 2020 at 12:48 am
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      Thanks! I agree, it is always interesting to see the ideologies of societies emerge in art and literature.

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  • April 27, 2020 at 10:13 pm
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    Hey Ben! I really enjoyed reading this post! I love how you were able to find something really interesting about Soviet sci-fi despite the fact that the USSR was significantly behind in digitization. It’s interesting to analyze how the different ideologies and experiences that the US and USSR had, respectively, affected to their contributions of science fiction. Great post!

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    • April 28, 2020 at 12:49 am
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      Thanks Kendall, I agree the ideological differences were one of the most intriguing aspects of this round table!

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  • April 27, 2020 at 10:17 pm
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    You’re on a roll with finding gems in the Current Digest! I really enjoyed reading your discussion of the roundtable, and the book cover is gorgeous. I think Kayt makes a good points about the respective concerns of speculative fiction writers in the West vs. the Soviet Union. And given the censorship regime in the Soviet Union, it also seems safe to assume that sci fi authors there knew better than to write, even speculatively, about a future that would call the moral foundations of the present political order into question. I also just cherish the fact that sci fi existed and thrived in the Soviet Union in this era. We’re so used to thinking about the limits put on creative expression, and here’s an area where innovation and creativity are really flowering.

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    • April 28, 2020 at 12:52 am
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      Thanks Dr. Nelson! You make a great point about the role censorship. I wonder how much of these authors opinions has been shaped by political fear. It certainly seems in the round table that many of the authors held strong views about the superiority of Soviet science fiction so I’m sure they took a lot of pride in the optimism of their work.

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  • April 27, 2020 at 10:36 pm
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    It is pretty interesting how the Cold War was brought to a literature stand point, even if it is not directly related to the Cold War. The era itself can display many forms of rhetoric that could be nudges against one another. Your article pin-points something about American culture, that we tend to believe aspects of our own science fiction is original and unique. There are many times I have watched movies when I thought this was an American original, but in actuality it is the same plot based from a film made in another country. Definitely going to check out some Soviet era science fiction after this, great post!

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    • April 28, 2020 at 12:54 am
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      Thanks Max, you make a great point that Americans can tend towards an ethnocentric view of art and literature. Articles like this definitely show the importance of opening your mind to other cultures.

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  • April 28, 2020 at 12:23 am
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    Its interesting to read that even our literature at the time was a point of conflict. The era definitely brought out contrast between the US and USSR but I never thought about any contrast in a literary sense so your article was for sure eye opening. The fact the USSR was more optimistic really does make sense the more I think about it. Their country has just seen so much violence’s and turmoil it makes sense that writers would try and give hope for the future to come.

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    • April 28, 2020 at 12:55 am
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      Thanks Kellan, you make a good point about the far-reaching scope of this ideological conflict. It seems every aspect of everyday life provided a platform for ideological debate.

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  • April 28, 2020 at 1:51 am
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    Good post, Ben. It’s hard for me to imagine pop culture in the Soviet Union. I’m sure the government was quick to condemn and censor authors who questioned the morals of the government and communism in general.

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    • April 28, 2020 at 3:59 am
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      Absolutely, censorship definitely would have played a role, though many of these authors seem to believe wholeheartedly in the superiority of Soviet science fiction.

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  • April 28, 2020 at 2:21 am
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    This is a great post! I was completely unaware that the Soviets had any presence in the Science Fiction genre whatsoever. Now I haven’t had a huge amount of exposure to American SciFi (I’m more of a Fantasy reader), but I found the criticism of “instilling in them fear and distrust of their own powers and of the possibility of foreseeing and controlling the future” very interesting. One of the only SciFi author I’ve read extensively is Isaac Asimov, and in his writings I find a lot of uncertainty about the future. Not so much “will we have a nuclear apocalypse, or will the aliens invade” uncertainty. More “what are the philosophical and ethical questions we’re going to have to deal with in the future, and are we equipped to answer them?” kind of questions. I really enjoyed that aspect of his writings, and it makes his stories seem very novel. I find it interesting that the Soviet authors criticize American authors for something that in my own (limited) experience is not true.

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    • April 28, 2020 at 4:02 am
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      That’s interesting that your personal experience reading American sci-fi refutes the criticisms of these Soviet authors. No doubt they have strong biases towards Soviet work and would focus on criticisms which help build their case.

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  • April 28, 2020 at 5:32 pm
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    Great post! I am by no means a sci-fi buff besides the obvious Star Wars and Lord of the Rings, but I found your post really interesting. I do not think it takes a genius to see what they were talking about concerning the path that Western sci-fi had taken. I wonder if this has anything to do with the recent consumption of anime in the Western world. It would seem that maybe Western sci-fi falling off and these soviet authors saw this coming.

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  • May 2, 2020 at 4:40 pm
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    Hey Ben! I really liked your article because I’m a huge fan of science fiction. I never thought about how different Western sci-fi was from Soviet, especially because I think that I have seen and read mostly Western sci-fi. Though, I really did like the point that your source made on how Western science fiction usually describe dystopias and the end of capitalism. Now that I think about it, Western sci-fi never really puts the future or technology in a good light, technological advancements seem to bite society back in the butt in these stories. I guess I have to look into Soviet sci-fi very soon.

    Reply

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