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** HOW THE OTHER HALF READS **
THE DAY LASTS MORE THAN A HUNDRED YEARS by Chingis Aitmatov,
translator John French, Indiana University Press, 1983.
People in the Soviet Union still have a nineteenth-century allegiance
to the printed word. Authors are major public figures. Poets recite to
packed soccer stadiums. Classic works of Russian literature are available,
and their lack of Marxist ballast makes them seem vividly energetic and
relevant. In the Soviet Union you can be a 'literary intellectual,' and no
one will grin and ask what you REALLY do. You can get a license for it, and
join the Writer's Union, and the State will pay you a salary.
Chingis Aitmatov, a Kirghiz national born in 1928, is a highly
prominent, established Soviet literateur. He's been a member of the Supreme
Soviet, a winner of the Lenin Prize for literature, a Hero of Socialist
Labor, an editor of NOVY MIR, an official correspondent for PRAVDA. His
Marxist-Leninist credentials are impeccable.
And he is wildly popular. He is considered one of the most gifted
authors of the post-Stalinist generation, not only by Party hacks but by the
'liberal' intelligentsia. When a writer like Aitmatov turns to science
fiction, it behooves us to take notice.
THE DAY LASTS MORE THAN A HUNDRED YEARS, published in 1980 to vast
acclaim, is a remarkable, revealing piece of work. We should make it clear
at once that it is terrible science fiction. Aitmatov has not escaped the
condescension typical of mainstream writers who dabble in the field. In fact
the SF element has been grafted into the narrative for ideological reasons,
which is remarkable in itself.
The predominant movement in Brezhnev-era Soviet fiction was the
'village novel,' simple small-scale narratives of rural life, drenched with
pre-Revolutionary nostalgia. Through this device it was possible to dodge
the crippling load of Marxist relevance demanded of State writers.
In the early '80's, literary ideologues decided that enough was enough and
demanded that Soviet writers to produce large works on a "global scope."
Aitmatov has used wide-screen SF techniques to combine the popular 'village'
narrative with the new requirements.
Strangely, although its traditional SF elements are abominable --
ludicrous blue-haired aliens, moons and planets whizzing by at the speed of
light -- Aitmatov's novel does have a genuine SF feel. For it is about
technology and its impact on human life.
The hero is a Kazakh Central Asian railroad worker. He lives in a
godforsaken steppe railway junction with a handful of sturdy peasants. For
decades he and his friend have tended the snorting machines, living a harsh,
isolated life, not without dignity, but without much decadent fun. The book
opens with the friend's death.
The Kazakh hero stubbornly decides to give his friend a traditional
Kazakh Moslem burial, a rite worthy of a 'true steppe cavalier.' But
technical progress has invaded everything. He has given his life to the
railroad. A large rocket-complex has been built across the steppe, and its
great rumbling launches light the sky. What is left to our hero? What is
the meaning of his tribal traditions and memories? Has he thrown away his
life, or does it all mean something, was the sacrifice worth it? These
issues are handled with great skill and deep ambiguity.
At the same time, a large and somewhat bogus SF counterplot rumbles
along in parallel. The novel is set in the near future, in which aliens have
been contacted, through Soviet-American cooperation in space.
Here is another remarkable aspect of the book: its utter lack of
hostility toward the West. This space effort in administered in friendly
unison by Yanks and Soviets, from an aircraft carrier in the Pacific. (This
ship is in itself a powerful image of hope for the Soviet audience. They
have no aircraft carriers and see them as fearsome symbols of aggressive
These aliens are blissful, socially-advanced superbeings of vaguely
Marxist derivation. They are of vast power and supernal wisdom. Are we to
join them, or stick mulishly to our human heritage and its faults?
This question roughly parallels the first theme. Aitmatov attempts
to give the events in the remote railway junction a cosmic resonance. If he
fails, it's because his SF concepts are essentially ridiculous. And because,
in the last analysis, his book has the painful, disjointed feel of a work
designed by committee.
Yet it remains engrossing. Its flinching view of delicate political
issues, such as the Stalinist purges, has a hot-potato daring. Its
allusions are subtle and its scenes memorable. And there's no
red-flag-waving, sunset-riding agitprop trash here; but hard issues faced
down by a brave man who is in too deep to back out.
This book was written in a metaphorical straitjacket, and it shows
it. Yet this much must be admitted: Aitmatov's book speaks to us in the
West with force and relevance. Would our glittery, escapist tripe translate
half so well?
CHEAP TRUTH radical Sue Denim seizes the Dean's Office and issues her list of
** SON OF KENT STATE **
The 1985 Nebula Awards will be handed out on May 4, fifteen years to
the day from the shootings at Kent State University in Ohio.
Once again the armed might of conservatism faces the radical vision
of a new generation, this time across the distance of a ballot. The voices
of repression range from the senile babblings of Robert Heinlein to the
California vapidity of Larry Niven to the moist-eyed urgency of Kim Stanley
Robinson; arrayed against them are William Gibson, Lewis Shiner, and Jack
Dann. Can they prevail?
Every year Heinlein cranks out another volume of brain-dead
maunderings; every year the sycophants cry "Heinlein is back!"; every year
they lie. Even if JOB (Del Rey, $16.95) were a good book, or even a readable
book, which I assure you it is not, why would anyone want to give this man a
Nebula award? Plenty do, and it's for the same reason they gave Henry Fonda
an Oscar for a movie as wretched as ON GOLDEN POND -- because he was no
Larry Niven IS dangerous, but in a socially approved way -- much
like, for instance, an armed National Guardsman at a student riot. "War
would be a hopeful sign..." he muses in his latest perfunctory effort, THE
INTEGRAL TREES (Del Rey, $3.50). It's touted as "his best since RINGWORLD!"
by Heinlein fans everywhere. Even if it were, and it certainly isn't as good
as RINGWORLD, is that qualification enough for a Nebula? Should we encourage
this sort of thoughtless, derivative work?
As for Kim Stanley Robinson, his overwrought, reactionary, and
anti-visionary WILD SHORE (Ace, $2.95) has already been dissected by these
hands (CHEAP TRUTH 5). Suffice to say that Robinson's relative youth has
nothing to do with his literary politics -- keep in mind that the Guardsmen
that pulled the triggers at Kent State were no older than their victims.
But things are not as grim as they might sound. For once, the
radicals are not outnumbered -- they match the villains man to man. (And
men, you may have noticed, they all are. Where are the visionary women? Why
don't we have novels this year from Leigh Kennedy or Pat Cadigan or Pat
Murphy? Ask Ron Busch. Ask Terry Carr. Ask everyone you see.)
You've already heard about Gibson's NEUROMANCER (Ace, $2.95), and if
you've got any sense you've already read it. This book had half again as
many recommendations as its closest competitor to get on the preliminary
Nebula ballot, and its brilliant depiction of a credible future has appealled
to the sense of wonder in even the most hardened of intellects.
Yet it is also a victory that the other two novels made it on the
ballot at all. Shiner's FRONTERA (Baen, $2.95) comes with conscious literary
intent (allusions to Lowry, Dick, and Conrad) and decent, stylish prose; its
flaws -- a couple of characters left hanging, a technological holy grail that
is too powerful for the plot -- are forgiveable in a first novel.
Dann's MAN WHO MELTED (Bluejay, $14.95) took years to find a
publisher willing to print it, and no wonder. The raw alienness of his
future, with its eerie religions, baffling technologies, and sensual
onslaughts, is not for the timid; it's the sort of book a lot of people
would rather shoot than listen to.
And these are not the only victories. For once, there is no Connie
Willis on the ballot. Bruce Sterling has a story up, Michael Swanwick has
two, and Lucius Shepard three; two of the short stories, Shepard's "Salvador"
and Zebrowski's "Eichmann Variations" are blatantly offensive and full of
dangerously free thought.
Political oppression breeds revolution. For every Heinlein that
smites a Gibson, thousands more will rise in his place. The SF revolution is
crying out for literacy, imagination, and humanity; it needs only a victory
in the Nebulas to shatter the giant's terracotta feet. Up against the wall,
CHEAP TRUTH On-Line, 809-C West 12th Street, Austin, Texas 78701 (512)
UFO-SMOF. NOT COPYRIGHTED. Vincent Omniaveritas, editing. "The More
Things Stay The Same, The More They Change"