‘Moscow, We Have a Problem!’

Article published on August 23, 2011.

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Once upon a time in the Soviet Union…

Strange as it may seem, the grey, oppressive USSR was founded on a fairytale. It was built on the 20th-century magic called ‘the planned economy’, which was going to gush forth an abundance of good things that the lands of capitalism could never match. And just for a little while, in the heady years of the late 1950s, the magic seemed to be working.

Red Plenty is about that moment in history, and how it came, and how it went away; about the brief era when, under the rash leadership of Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet Union looked forward to a future of rich communists and envious capitalists, when Moscow would out-glitter Manhattan, and every Lada would be better engineered than a Porsche. It’s about the scientists who did their genuinely brilliant best to make the dream come true, to give the tyranny its happy ending. It’s history, it’s fiction. It’s a comedy of ideas, and a novel about the cost of ideas.

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A couple of weeks ago I was reviewing the BFI’s ‘Kosmos’ season of old 1950s-70s Eastern Bloc SF films for Night Waves on BBC Radio 4, and I ended up talking about things like the interestingly different way that they treated robots, compared to western SF film – basically, as objects of humour with a little bit of pathos thrown in, to be mourned like good dogs when they expired serving their human companions. They weren’t allowed to be uncanny. They couldn’t perform robots’ central role in Western SF, of embodying our mixed feelings about science, the hope and fear we invest in it at the same time; because these films came out of a culture which was officially committed to finding science only hopeful. Instead the Czech and Soviet robots embodied an unvarying lesson about how central and indispensable people are, in line with an ideological insistence that humans are the absolute centre of the universe. That’s why they had to be silly. That’s why they couldn’t be dignified, dignity being a human quality.

But what I didn’t really have time to go into on air was the fascinating dullness of the films I’d watched, at least considered as dramas. And maybe this was a good thing. Doing the research for Red Plenty made me into a kind of connoisseur of the boring, getting a definite perverse pleasure from being the first person in thirty years to ask for a library’s copy of a book on Soviet retail prices. Open it up and what do you get? A thousand shades of thrilling grey. Not everyone shares these tastes, strangely.

But the boringness of Soviet-bloc official culture is interesting, I insist, and not just because it provides us now with a quick, vicarious sampling of what life was compulsorily like for millions of the East’s citizens. Nor because, of all the varieties of publishable film and literature in the East, Soviet and Polish and Czech SF was often the most secretly lively, filled with game-playing ironies and wittly daring implications.  That stuff happened at the level of language, at the level of ideas: whereas the kind of genuine boredom I’d like to point to here happened in the films’ invariably inert plotting, in their steady failure to generate anything much in the way of narrative tension.  You’d think that, given the great pulp resources of spaceships and rayguns, unknown planets full of monsters and distant stars beckoning, it would be difficult to avoid plot adrenalin – but a film like the 1962 Planet of Storms, from the USSR, shows it can be done. Planet of Storms has stop-motion Venusian dinosaurs, carnivorous man-eating plants, a rather cool subplot-of-ideas about a forgotten history for the human race, and a potentially treacherous American along for the ride. Yet it struggles to make you worry for a single instant about the fate of its brave cosmonauts.

The source of the boredom is, tellingly, an absence: conflict.  Things are just not allowed to go wrong enough to be exciting; or to get uncertain enough; or to get divided enough between characters who want different things. The scriptwriters and directors of Eastern-bloc SF in the 1960s and 1970s were not stuck with the extremes of Stalinist cultural policy, where conflict was only permitted on stage or in movies ‘between the good and the better’, but they were operating in an environment permanently tilted towards representations of harmony. The natural state of humanity was to be contented and unified. It only made things worse that SF tended to be set in the future, when it was to be presumed that all the battles for socialism would be long won. (On a different axis, filmmakers could wittily exploit this presumption, and make socialism so victorious it never had to be mentioned at all, thus giving their audiences a little mental holiday from it.)  The socialist world was supposed to be the future’s official incubator, the place its radiance was being fostered.

So, in terms of plots set in the future, you could have battles against nature, and battles against human weakness (apolitically conceived),  and the romance of scientific discovery, and maybe some grand stuff about memory or longterm human destiny – but you couldn’t have disagreement, you couldn’t have the audience’s sympathy being led in multiple, incompatible directions at once. The dullness is the dullness of perfection. The requirement for utopia has had the classic effect of eating away at story.

As it happens, the consequences are especially clear in the visually astonishing Czech SF masterwork of 1963, Ikarie XB-1.  Watch it on YouTube, and you will rapidly come to share my moral certainty that Stanley Kubrick saw it before he made 2001. There’s a scene in Ikarie where a desperate cosmonaut with radiation burns staggers down a beautiful corridor of op-art pillars to try to reach his ship’s control room, while electronic music hums and beeps in his ears, and every loudspeaker cries ‘Michael!  What are you doing?’ Very vivid as a spectacle; yet weirdly undramatic, because poor irradiated Michael has been driven mad by a passing nebula, and is simply, boringly deluded in his conviction that the ship must be destroyed. The voice from the loudspeaker is his kindly captain trying to reason with him.

What will it take to make this same scene live? Simple. Turn the cosmonaut with destruction on his mind into the hero, and have the voice belong to a robot – or a computer – who’s permitted enough stature to be the insane one. All together now, in tones of cool, eery helpfulness: ‘What are you doing, Dave?’

But I’ll vote for something a little different. The dull absence of story was never the truth about actual experience in the world of ‘really existing socialism’. Just beneath the surface of compulsory harmony, all of the fascinating (and dreadful, and touching) consequences of the hope for utopia were roiling away. That’s what Red Plenty is about.

And here’s Francis discussing the book for a Faber Podcast:

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