Did the capitalist running dogs really knee science fiction in the groin?
I’m sure you’re all grown weary of the cry that it’s all been done before so I won’t be surprised if none of you care to read past this sentence. I am, as you no doubt feared, going to assure you all that everything you dread encountering online; spam, trolls, scams, flame-wars have all been a blight on humanity long before there was an Internet for it to fester on. Heck, way back in the early 80s I even received a badly photocopied example of the Nigerian fraud letter in the post. Yes, it’s true, there was indeed a time when scam artists had to pay for a stamp in order to lure you with their too good to be true promises.
Which brings me to the topic du jour, the practise of denouncing science fiction. It seems to me that denouncing science fiction has been something of a popular blood sport in recent years. Not just the usual catalogue of disdain from outsiders declaiming that science fiction brings nothing of value to literature. The adherents of li-fi have always been a bit sniffy about other categories of genre fiction, genres such as spy-fi, sigh-fi, and Twi-fi, but sci-fi and its supposed obsession with talking squids in space especially raises their hackles. But don’t take my word for it, go read the As Others See Us sections in Dave Langford’s newszine, Ansible, if you really want to see what such people think.
However these days even some those within the fold have been getting snarky about whole sections of science fiction which they feel aren’t up to snuff. (For the record please note I’m not going to get any more specific than that. While I’m not without opinions I think that having one more person thrashing around in the big tub of lime jello controversy shouting, “Have at thee knaves!”, is, at the very least, redundant.)
Anyway, getting back to the topic of it all having been done before, would you be surprised like to learn that once upon a time the entire field of science fiction was denounced by the Soviet Union? Puts more recent kerfuffles into perspective, doesn’t it? After all, how many genres can say they were once condemned by a superpower?
It was in Fantasy Review VII #12, a fanzine published by Walter Gillings in December 1948/January 1949, that the condensed version of an article titled The World Of Nightmare Fantasies by Victor Bolkhovitinov and Vassilij Zakhartchenko was reprinted from the Soviet literary journal, Literaturnaya Gazyeta. Literaturnaya Gazyeta was a Russian newspaper with literary roots dating back to the 19th century. However in 1947, the format of Literaturnaya Gazeta was changed from a purely literary publication into a newspaper with political and social content as well.
This explains a lot because The World Of Nightmare Fantasies is an article about ‘capitalist science fiction’ so long on assertions and so very short on reasoned argument that it’s hard to imagine any literary journal, even one published in the Soviet Union, being willing to print it. On the other hand it’s exactly the sort of article I’ve seen published time and again in one political echo chamber or another. Such articles don’t need to prove any of their points when their base purpose is to confirm pre-existing prejudices.
However to be entirely fair I do need to point out that if the prose is somewhat clumsy at times then the translating and condensing of this article by unknown hands is the most likely reason. I would also blame various incorrect story titles on the quality of the translating (though why editor Gillings didn’t see fit to correct these is beyond me). For the record The Mysterious World by Eando Binder is actually Mystery World, The Secret of Mr. Wiesel by Eric Frank Russell story was actually Mr. Wisel’s Secret (later changed to Mr. Wisel for the short story collection, Dark Tides), and The Incredible Pebbles by Robert Moore Williams is actually The Incredible Slingshot Bombs. There’s also a story mentioned that’s not attributed to any author and neither I nor the incredibly knowledgeable Denny Lien have been able to divine who wrote The Lights of Mars since we can’t find any stories with this title predating the Soviet article. I can only assume that this has been mistranslated and thus who the author was is lost to the sands of time.
On the other hand I don’t think we can blame the excessive amount of invective on the anonymous translator(s). While I would assume that sentences such as, ‘The authors of these ‘scientific-fantastic’ works do everything to pervert and stultify their readers.’ read better in the original Russian version I doubt the level of hyperbole was any less absurd.
Then there is tin-ear use of language but here I don’t know who to blame. Part of me is certainly in love with the idea of a heavily bemedalled political commissar handing messrs Bolkhovitinov and Zakhartchenk a list of words and demanding that they use all of them when referring to the authors they would be criticising. However in the spirit of impartiality I have to accept that it’s entirely possible the anonymous translator(s) are to blame for some or all of the less than smooth word choices such as ‘miasma’, ‘hooligan’, ‘stultify’, and ‘ignoramuses’.
One last point, editor Gillings points out in a footnote that though this article was written in 1948 the stories discussed all date from some time previous to that. This made me wonder where the magazines had come from as I would assume wartime issues would be the least likely to make it to the Soviet Union given there was a war right in the way. My initial thought was that the authors of The World Of Nightmare Fantasies had based their research on magazines that had been taken to Europe by the US military during WWII and which had then somehow filtered through to the Soviet Union. However that only works for those named works which appeared in Astounding. Stories mentioned which were published by Amazing and Thrilling Wonder date from long before US troops set foot in Europe. For the record here’s a quick list of the named stories with their publishing origins. As you can see it also suggests Bolkhovitinov and Zakhartchenk were working from a rather small sample:
The Crystal Invaders – 1941 Thrilling Wonder
Mystery World – 1941 Thrilling Wonder
Mr. Wisel’s Secret – 1942 Amazing
The Incredible Slingshot Bombs – 1942 Amazing
Adam Link Saves the World – 1942 Amazing
Though Dreamers Die – 1944 Astounding
Renaissance – 1944 Astounding
Lilies of Life – 1945 Astounding
Destiny Times Three – 1945 Astounding
I’ve reproduced the entire condensed version of The World Of Nightmare Fantasies here so you might enjoy the authors attempt to crush various butterflies of fiction with their rhetorical sledgehammer.
And now for the fireworks:
The World Of Nightmare Fantasies
by Victor Bolkhovitinov &
The American Raymond F. Jones, experienced writer of “scientific” fantasies, attempts to lift the curtain of the future for the reader. He uses all his flaming imagination in describing a machine which analyses the inclinations , talents, character and other potentialities of a new-born infant. If it finds the child normal, it returns it to the arms of the waiting mother. If it finds a future “superman,” the mother will never see him again; he will be sent to a world “parallel” to ours where he will be raised without the help of parents. But woe to the baby the machine finds defective – it will be immediately destroyed. According to the “scientific” forecast of author Jones, a network of such machines will cover the world of the future.
This tale, monstrous in its openly fascistic tendency, appears in the American magazine Astounding, under the optimistic title of Renaissance. Jones’ fascist revelations are not an isolated instance in American science fiction literature. There are numerous such examples under the brightly colourful covers which enterprising publishers throw on the market in millions of copies. From their pages glares a fearful world, apparently conceived in the sick mind of an insane, a world of nightmare fantasies. Miasma, mental decay, fear of to-day and horror of the future: all these innumerable ills of capitalism are clearly reflected.
In their science fiction delirium, the authors reveal the innermost secret of capitalism. With shameless boldness they bring to the surface what serious literature still tries to present in a veiled form. The lackey of Wall Street, in the livery of a science fiction writer, first of all carries out the main order of his bosses: to persuade the reader of the invulnerability of the capitalist system. The wolf-pack laws, the so-called American Way Of Life, are represented as inevitable for all people on Earth, now and in the future.
No matter to what planet the author carries his heroes, he describes worlds constructed according to the American system. In The Mysterious World by Eando Binder, the bandit Yorin, following the trade of his Chicago colleagues, steals an interplanetary taxi, kidnaps the scientist Tom and the beautiful Della, and takes them to an unknown planet to look for hidden pirate treasure. In a story by Eric Frank Russell, The Secret of Mr. Wiesel, there is an ecstatic description of the adventures of a spy from Mars.
The American science-fantasy, in its unbridled racial propaganda, reaches heights which might have made Goebbels envious. The author of Lilies of Life, Malcolm Jameson, tries to impress on the reader that there is inequality on Venus and that there are inferior and superior races. With the revolting cynicism of a coloniser and a slave owner, he writes: ‘The natives of Venus are lazy, vicious and shameless. The native is a born liar and thief; he shuns work, is indifferent to physical pain and completely incapable of thought.’
The dollar, the gun and the fist function equally well on the most distant planets, even those in the dust of the galaxy. Obeying the order of the Wall Street owners, the writers glorify war as the basis of life and as the natural condition of the planet. In Destiny Times Three, Fritz Leiber Jr. describes a cruel, unending war between two nations who have swallowed all the rest. They are constantly goaded on by the thought that the war must be continued or all previous sacrifices will have been in vain. In The Lights of Mars the author foresees war not only on Earth but also on Mars.
To fortify the propaganda of the imperialist war machine, the ‘science’ fantasts of America unrestrainedly threaten with the atomic bomb monster. Robert Moore Williams in The Incredible Pebbles, describes a future atom bomb factory into which, having made a mysterious leap through time, there wander a moronic little boy with a slingshot. The little boy shoots atom bombs with his slingshot like pebbles. A hooligan with an atomic slingshot – isn’t this the true symbol of modern imperialism?
To distract the mind of the reader from ‘harmful’ thoughts on the origins of social evils, American publishers release a flood of horrifying tales with ‘other side’ themes such as telepathy, reincarnation and failure of memory. The authors of these ‘scientific-fantastic’ works do everything to pervert and stultify their readers. They foretell the total destruction of matter, which is replaced by a concentration of thought-energy. Throwing in a few mathematical theories, the ignoramuses of these American magazines arrive at a belief in the existence of other worlds in the fourth dimension. Thus, in a story by John and Dorothy de Courcy, there appears an immortal corpse out of a grave! In Joseph J. Millard’s The Crystal Invaders, the protagonists are bodiless creatures of ‘concentrated pure energy’ which by feeding on the nervous energy of people arouse in them emotions of fear and hatred.
In huge quantities appears the writing of literary fiends like Richard S. Shaver, consisting of a mixture of mysticism and sadism in the fascist style. In his novels Shaver constantly avers that all the troubles on Earth are caused by an incredibly ancient and learned super-race of Lemurians who once owned the Earth but who have been driven into deep underground caves with all their machines. They operate from these caves with special rays which inspire anti-social thoughts and actions and invite man to suicidal war.
The authors of this arch-reactionary and screamingly shameless mess cannot, however, hide their fear of the future which has seized the entire capitalistic world. Capitalism, which enslaves and exploits men, would much prefer that its factories were worked by uncomplaining automatons. So, to please their bosses, the writers bring forth a whole army of robots who push live workers out of the factories. Characteristic is a story by Eando Binder, Adam Link Saves the World. Adam Link is a robot with a platinum sponge brain superior to a human’s. In a war with monsters arrived from Sirius, he leads herds of bestial and merciless people. In Lester del Rey’s Though Dreamers Die, all humans die out, while on a faraway planet the robots survive and multiply.
In the contemporary bourgeois world, the fruits of the creativeness of inventors and scientists are turned into objects for speculation and robbery or the means of slavery and exploitation. Capitalism has chained inventors to its chariot by its patent laws and forces scientists to do things against humanity. The hero of the modern science fiction story is usually not a scientist but a business man or a gangster who utilises the fruits of other people’s labours. Science, in the opinion of the American business man, is above all else a means of enrichment, crime and tyranny.
Capitalism has no future. Time is working against it. Pessimism shows through all science fiction literature., in spite of a bravado on the part of the authors. The reader is presented with scenes of a world reverting to wilderness and of the destruction of civilisation. The revelations appearing in this delerium of unbridled fantasy, poorly concealed by the label of ‘science’, vividly betray the incurable disease of the capitalistic system. The hacks supplying the fantastic drivel feel this, and try to present the doom of capitalism as that of the world. But all their endeavours are in vain, their nauseating, evil ravings cannot fool the peoples of the world who believe in progress and the bright future of humanity.
12 thoughts on “To Pervert & Stultify”
Had a further thought: specifically, the issues containing the stories you did identify were
The Crystal Invaders – January 1941 Thrilling Wonder
Mystery World – April 1941 Thrilling Wonder
Mr. Wisel’s Secret – 1942 Feb Amazing
Adam Link Saves the World – 1942 April Amazing
The Incredible Slingshot Bombs – 1942 May Amazing
Though Dreamers Die – 1944 Feb Astounding
Renaissance – 1944 July-Oct Astounding
Lilies of Life – 1945 Feb Astounding
Destiny Times Three – 1945 March-April Astounding
So on the assumption the authors probably didn’t have much more than those on hand, I looked at the lists of the other contents of those issues and those for several months before and after them, to see if I could spot a story whose title seemed likely to be an “aha!” mistranslation as “Lights of Mars” (or one that I recognized that matched the plot premise cited).
In the event, I did not, but if someone wants to doublecheck, maybe s/he will have more luck. I used the Fictionmags Index at http://www.philsp.com/homeville/fmi/0start.htm .
Dunno if this helps any, but you might keep in mind that the Russian word for “light,” svet, has a homophone meaning “world” or in some senses “society.”
In the alternate Russian version I found online, which seems to be a different abridgement of the original (I posted a couple of attempts earlier but they haven’t shown up), the article starts by saying they had before them “tens” (desyatki) brightly-colored, etc., booklets.
Well it was a good thought even if it came to nothing.
I looked around a bit to see if I could find the original, without any luck so far. A book containing essays by both Bolkhovitnov and Zakharchenko is available here, Stories from the History of Russian Science and Technology (1957), but they do appear to be strictly science and technology, judging from the titles, without forays into social commentary.
The biography of Bolkhovitinov reads, “Writer and journalist. Born into a family of teachers. The years of his adolescence and early youth were spent under the influence of the Old Comrades of the first Sasovsky [in the Ryazan Oblast] Comsomol Youth, and of their number that of the writers Nikolai Bogdanov and Yuri Korolkov. His creative path started at the end of the 1920s as a poet. He manifested himself most clearly in the genre of scientific art. The last twenty years of his life (from 1961) he edited the journal “Science and Life,” making it one of the popular periodicals.”
Or possibly, “He manifested himself most brilliantly…” Yarko could be translated “clearly” with that verb, but in general it means “colorfully, brilliantly,” and so on. You might say I gave the most colorless translation of “colorful” possible. (It was the word Putin used to describe Trump, I might add. He seems to have meant Trump was a colorful character, but the other translation, “brilliant,” I think was used in some translations of his words and is naturally what Trump glommed onto.)
This news adds to my feeling that Bolkhovitnov and Zakharchenko were given a bundle of science fiction magazines they had never seen before and had no particular interest in and were asked to write a negative article about them. I very much doubt either author gave much thought to science fiction other than this one article.
Ha! I see the bit about Goebbels was moved to the front of the paragraph…
Anyway, the other version, the one in Tekhnika–molodyozhi, is credited to “Sovieticus Anonymous.”
The Denny and Ferret thoughts add much, thanks – basically the Soviet article was as biased and under-researched as suspected. But, considering what consumer globalisation has done to Planet Earth since, and our vulnerability to any “hooligan with an atomic slingshot” (no names from me), mightn’t the authors have made some rather prescient points?
I’ve just come across this piece and it is incredibly helpful (I’m currently writing something on the Soviet-American arguments in which this piece features strongly). To repay my having saved an hour or two googling, “The Lights of Mars” would be “The Winking Lights of Mars” by Gordon A. Giles (Eando Binder) from Amazing, Feb 1941.
I’ve been largely using the version published in Astounding (June 1949) as this is the one which would have hit the larger audience (and there are responses to it in subsequent Astoundings). I see that there are differences, most notably in the titles of the stories and slight variants in names (“The Lights of Mars” is attributed to “G Jales” , which was my clue for “Gordon A. Giles” ). This is probably due to transcriptions of the Russian text, though it raises the question, did Gillings and Campbell come across this piece separately and/or are the translations by different hands? It seems slightly odd that the apparently *earlier* publication (the Gillings) offers more accurate transcription than the later one, though I have no idea when exactly the text fell into Campbell’s hands and the difference in publication dates might easily be simply due to Astounding’s publication schedule and when it could be squeezed in.