JUNE 11, 2013
“The more a particular time is experienced as a new temporality, as ‘modernity,’ the more the demands made of the future increase.”
WHEN THE HISTORIAN Reinhart Koselleck wrote the above lines in 1979, he was describing modernity in general and European modernity in particular. In fact, however, the notion of modernity’s “demands” on the future is even more appropriate as a description for the complex and extraordinary time and space that characterized Russia’s evolving modernity, from the mid-nineteenth century to the October Revolution and beyond. Or at least this is how it strikes me after reading Anindita Banerjee’s provocative, thoroughly researched, and richly rewarding book We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity. Focused on one of the most politically, scientifically, and socially convulsive periods in Russian history (roughly the 1860’s to the 1920’s), Banerjee’s book opens up a relatively understudied era in Russian science fiction, an era in which social, political and scientific demands were reflected in and also refracted through the science fiction genre.
We Modern People uses a breathtaking variety of sources, including everything from political pamphlets to portraits of Lenin, scientific and philosophical treatises, cinema, popular journals, and political pronouncements to expand not only the concept of science fiction itself but also its role in the evolution of modern social and political thought. Banerjee’s selection of fascinating novels, poetry, film, and art combines with her discussion of some of the scientific work and political thought going on in that period. This approach effectively illuminates her provocative main theme: that Russian science fiction of this period was in many ways not only richer and more exciting than its contemporary Western equivalents but also dynamically linked with the formation of modern Russian consciousness in general.
This was a demanding and highly future-oriented time in Russia, a period that covered some of the most significant scientific discoveries in history, ranging from the development of train travel and the beginning of the conquest of the air to Darwin’s theory of evolution, Einstein’s conception of relativity, and Taylor’s notion of time management. Equally important to Banerjee’s analysis are the utopian hopes and fears of the Soviet revolution and the belief, both political and spiritual, in the possibility of a new humanity. That science fiction was a popular and important vehicle to deal with these radical changes becomes clear, not only in the material she presents but also in her penetrating analysis of the dynamic interaction between genre fiction and reality. In Banerjee’s analysis science fiction served not only as a critique but as a constitutive element in the evolving “new frontiers” of Russian modernity. As she puts it, “[the other spaces of science fiction] simultaneously challenged historically entrenched models of the nation and constructed alternatives to them.”
As a Japan specialist, I come from outside the field of Russian studies and, although I maintain a strong scholarly interest in science fiction, I was initially concerned as to whether an “outsider” would be able to appreciate the specifics of We Modern People. In fact, my knowledge of Japan helped me appreciate even more the complexity of Russian identity during this crucial period. Russia, of course, was unique in occupying a peculiar liminal status vis-à-vis the West and the East, but the deep and often paradoxical combination of feelings of insecurity, competitiveness, utopianism, and dread of the future were experienced by Japan and other non-Western countries as well. These elements make this book of interest to those concerned with Russian studies or genre fiction but also to anyone dealing with modernizing societies in general. Banerjee demonstrates not only Russia’s uniqueness but implicitly opens up larger questions of other non-European societies confronting the extraordinary promises and challenges of the turn of the century.
At the same time, the specific nature of Russian society permeates We Modern People to create an eye-opening look at a culture in transition. Naturally, Russian science fiction of that period drew as much from Russian history, culture, and philosophy as it did from the extraordinary scientific and technological discoveries of the day, and much of the book deals with very specific elements in Russian science fiction that make it intriguingly different from the genre in the West. As Banerjee puts it, “[Long before its Western equivalents] Russian science fiction seems to have metamorphosed from a novelty of popular culture to an integral part of intellectual debates about the best ways to engage with the realities of the unfolding twentieth century.”
Banerjee demonstrates how science fiction helped to both constitute and engage with Russian modernity through a series of four elegantly constructed chapters, “Conquering Space,” “Transcending Time,” “Generating Power,” and “Creating the Human.” Far more stimulating than a simple chronological approach, these four foci allow Banerjee to deal with a complex of material and ideas surrounding four fundamental issues of Russian modernity.
Chapter One “Conquering Space,” is perhaps the most obvious topic, since, by the late nineteenth century, the possibility of mechanical flight, in the air or in space, had begun to transfix the industrializing world. But Banerjee begins her treatment of this topic with a uniquely Russian vision — the conquering of the vast Siberian wastes through a fabulous, hyper-powered train that, in the mid-nineteenth century writer Vladimir Odoetsky’s futuristic vision, would help Russia escape its tortuous position vis-à-vis the West and allow it to develop as the dominant power of the “Orient” (not incidentally creating what she calls a “conceptual third space beyond West and East”). Banerjee goes on to trace how the promise of escape and freedom offered by the train becomes even more emphatic in later, more conventional SF spaces of air travel and travel through the cosmos. She points to the distinctively Russian linkage of the scientific with the spiritual and poetic in the romanticized figure of the “aviator” that inspired both Symbolists and Futurists and led to utopian visions of air travel bringing the world together. Even more utopian visions characterized the work of the early-twentieth century writer and scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky who imagined humanity leaving the earth and resettling in outer space, transformed into superior entities composed of machine-plant hybrids. As Banerjee also points out, however, these optimistic dreams were paralleled by the presciently dystopian visions of other Russian writers. Many saw in the conquest of the air the seeds of global conflict, while others used the fictional exploration of Mars as a means to subtly critique Bolshevik political methods.
Chapter Two, “Transcending Time” deals with another universally important issue in science, and one of the most popular of science fiction tropes — temporality and its modern discontents. Although she does bring up H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, Banerjee’s main focus is not on the fictional notion of time travel but rather on how the very real advent of what Reinhart Kosolleck describes as “the peculiar acceleration that characterized modernity” created apocalyptic and dystopian visions. Some of these were clearly politicized, most notably in Lenin’s exhortation to Russian citizens to “do our work like chronometers!” — thus suggesting a brave new worker created through the stresses and pressures of time management. On the dissident side, Banerjee brings new insight to Zamyatin’s classic novel We and its final radical vision of a woman breaking with the state’s reproductive timetable.
The book takes pains to portray Russian science fiction as far more than dissident literature, however. Perhaps the most revelatory chapter is Chapter Three, “Generating Power,” which discusses the crucial role electricity played in the Soviet political vision and how science fiction supported that role. The chapter begins with Lenin’s famous pronouncement that “Communism is equal to Soviet power plus the electrification of the entire country.” This bald linking of electricity, which had heretofore often been seen in terms of mystical energy, to raw political strategy demonstrates with particular vividness Banerjee’s assertion of the crucial political importance of technology in post-Revolutionary Russia. Using stories, poetry, and official pronouncements, Banerjee draws a fascinating picture of the complex emotions with which modernizing Russia regarded electricity. SF pamphlets described how electricity would change the workers’ lives at the same time as invoking mystical and otherworldly associations.
The book’s final chapter, “Creating the Human,” also brings in the peculiar blend of mysticism and science that seems specific to Russian science fiction. The chapter contains a fascinating look at the dynamic between the cutting-edge scientific experimentation carried out under the new Soviet regime and its echoes and impact on the science fiction of the period. Or, in some cases, the other way round. Banerjee discusses the writer and scientist Alexander Bogdanov’s 1908 novel Red Star, which imagined a utopian Martian society based on a literally blood-mediated from of socialism. She then describes Bogdanov’s own experiments with blood and his tragic death from a blood transfusion. A compelling and chilling story, Bogdanov’s tragedy superbly illuminates the deep penetration between real-world science and science fiction during this challenging period. The chapter also treats other, less unfortunate, but equally utopian visions based on monist ideals of eliminating mind-body distinctions. Writers such as Tsiolkovsky and Konstantin Sluchevsky, with their imaginative blueprints for transcending the limits of the body and evolving into higher states, anticipate the similar but much later visions of Arthur C. Clarke in Childhood’s End or Stanley Kubrick and Mamoru Oshii in, respectively, 2001 and Ghost in the Shell.
As these last references suggest, the science fiction world that Banerjee introduces us to is both fascinating in itself but also intriguing in its links to and foreshadowings of later global science fiction. In this engrossing and valuable book Banerjee allows us to see not only Soviet science fiction in a new light but also contributes new ideas and paradigms characterizing the science fiction genre in general. Ultimately, as the title suggests, this is a book not simply about science fiction but about modernity itself, and all its puzzling, contradictory, and challenging demands.