The Icebreaker

Essay by PAUL DI FILIPPO

During itsseventy-year lifetime, the Soviet Union was the perfect Other for Westerners: acolossal enigma, alternately dystopian and utopian, onto which we could projectall our fears, hopes, and dreams; a funhouse mirror in which our own culturewas reflected in amusingly warped fashion; an outré parallel continuum fromwhich bizarre messages trickled out at irregular intervals, bearing cryptichints of off-kilter wonders, quotidian strangeness and kludgy tech. The IronCurtain was no mere metaphor, but rather an imposing information barrier likethe force field around Coventry, Robert Heinlein’s land of dissidents, rogueideologues, criminals and nonconformists.

Inthis ancient era, science fiction readers and writers had some vague notionthat the speculative literature of the Soviet Union represented a bracinglyalternate family of narratives, a non-Anglo, non-Euro, non-North American, non-LatinAmerican tradition of proleptic storytelling that sprang from an alien lineageof fabulism.

 But solid examples of actual SF from theCommunist Bloc were sparse on the ground. A few pioneering anthologies croppedup. Isaac Asimov, himself of Russian birth, introduced Soviet ScienceFiction and More Soviet Science Fiction, both appearing in 1962; Pathinto the Unknown, Last Door to Aiya and The Ultimate Thresholdfollowed over the next eight years. Meanwhile, a few individual authors, suchas Stanislaw Lem and the Strugatsky brothers, were plucked by western translators like beet chunks fromthe Soviet borscht.

Just when itseemed as if Soviet SF might be gaining a faltering foothold in theconsciousness of Western readers, the political empire collapsed, taking theSoviet cultural superstructure with it. Since 1992, interest in—and accessto—translated SF from Russia and other ex-Bloc countries seems to have fallennearly to pre-1962 levels. Only the novels of Victor Pelevin (The Life ofInsects) and Sergey Lukyanenko (Night Watch) appear to have madeeven a dent in American perceptions. Now, with the publication of two newtranslations of the remarkable work of Russian satirist VladimirSorokin—jaunty, despairing, cynical, hopeful, traditional and postmodern byturns – an even more explosive impact seems likely.

Inhis native country, Sorokin—born 1955—is a figure of controversy andadmiration, even occasionally spawning public protests against his bold andirreverent fiction, which was of course mostly suppressed under Communist rule.Reading his newest work, Day of the Oprichnik, part of a concertedpublishing effort to introduce him to English-speaking readers, one encountersa Swiftian writer steeped in globally shared images out of science fiction, butwhose sensibility is deeply rooted in Russian culture.

InOprichnik, it’s the year 2028, and Russia has reinstated the Tsar andthe royal family, withdrawn from contact with the West behind new barriers,ceded Siberia to the Chinese in exchange for favorable trade conditions, and,most crucially for our story, instituted a new internal security elite calledthe “oprichniks”, of whom our narrator, Komiaga, is one. Given a freehand to repress dissent, the oprichniks have become a decadent pseudo-SS givento graft and self-indulgence, hypocritically masquerading under the guise of amonastic piety. As we follow Komiaga through the frenetic course of 24jam-packed hours of brutality, venality, political chicanery and blindabsurdism, we watch a country willfully plunge back into the worst excesses andinjustices of the nineteenth century, while maintaining a postmodern,technocratic veneer. The oprichniks drive autonomous “Mercedovs,” gettheir news from holographic “bubbles” and employ rayguns and lasersin their depradations—as well as the old-fashioned torture rack and knives. Theblend of antique and futuristic creates a fascinating literary estrangement, aswell as symbolically representing our current global dilemma: tied betweenretrograde and forward-facing horses of stasis and change.

Thebrilliant self-delivered portrait of Komiaga and his crowd is an achievement ona par with Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a book which is certainly themodel for Oprichnik. In fact, a literal book-burning scene occurs insubtle fashion at one point, as if in homage to the classic Bradbury text. Aswith Fahrenheit, the transvaluation of values is so massively andconvincingly portrayed that the topsy-turvy world of future Russia begins toassume a nightmare substantiality equal to our current milieu, casting itsunborn shadow threateningly backwards in time.

Sorokindelights in an Orwellian buggering of language, even italicizing the worstperversions of speech. For instance, lighting a blacklisted nobleman’s house onfire is called bringing in “His Majesty’s red rooster,” whileraping the wife of the disgraced man is “the way it’s usually done.”The oprichniks achieve a leering self-justification through such linguistichypnosis.

ButSorokin also dazzles with sheer science-fictional wordplay, along the lines ofLem in his The Futurological Congress. The section describing thesanctioned audiovideo channels for tame dissidents is one such passage,reveling in babble such as “the behavioral model of Sugary Buratino, andmedhermeutical adultery…” Likewise, Sorokin nods to famous SF works: Ascene where the torturers ingest drugs via living fish injected into theirveins recalls both Rudy Rucker’s drug Merge and Jeff Noon’s psychedelicfeathers in Vurt. And who are some infamous enemies of the state? Noneother than “the cyberpunks.”

Itwould be wrong to give the impression that this book is gray and grim. Despiteall its too-plausible horrors, it remains a rollicking rollercoaster of a tale,compulsively, LOL-ishly readable (the climactic gay oprichnik orgy is a tour defarce), full of unrepentant rude lifeforce, much like Norman Spinrad’s classicfaux-Nazi fantasy The Iron Dream, a debauched fever fugue featuring awomb-crazed return to some fairy tale past—and resembling, to our Westernchagrin, a Tea Party convention where attendees dress like the Founding Fathersand spout reactionary bile.

Sorokin’s IceTrilogy, here translated piquantly by Jamey Gambrell, who also handled Oprichnik,was originally published inthree parts from 2002 to 2005. It’s a Cossack of a different regiment entirely,with each installment displaying a contrasting storm of weirdness that add upto a cumulative gonzo hurricane.  

Part1, Bro, starts out like an old-fashioned Tolstoyan bildungsroman. We areintroduced to Alexander Snegirev, born in the year 1908 to a well-off family. Frombirth he’s an oddball, not fitting in, although he tries to play a part in thetumultuous history of the next twenty years. The naturalistic gravitas of thisearly section convinces you you’re reading a straight historical novel, andgrounds the subsequent fantasy with deep roots. For when Snegirev tracks downthe Tunguska meteorite that fell coincident with his birth (on an expeditionthat plays out like Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala), his life veers off therails. Touching the alien “ice,” he receives a revelation: he is oneof an elite cohort, some 23,000 souls, nescient fallen angels trapped in mortalclay. His real name is “Bro,” and his mission is to reassemble histribe prior to Armageddon.

Therest of Bro reads as if Kurt Vonnegut, Doris Lessing and Thomas Pynchonhad re-scripted Hammer Film’s cult classic Five Million Years to Earth,after mainlining Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land. It’s aGnostic odyssey down familiar twentieth-century history rendered utterlyMartian by Bro’s perspective and insider knowledge. His death by natural causesat the end of WWII culminates the first book.

Part2, Ice, immediately throws us for a loop. As with most middle volumes ofany trilogy, it’s somewhat protracted and bridge-like. The book opens incontemporary times, and Bro’s recruiters are still active, continuing to searchout the missing 23,000. But the conspirators seem to have devolved somehow fromthe plateau of Bro’s nobility, becoming more violent and meaner, heedless ofthe “meat machines” (all the humans other than the chosen Brotherhoodof Light). In stripped-down, punkish prose, Sorokin offers some Russian mobdoings (gangsters have become entangled in the Tunguska ice trade) and detailspost-WWII Brotherhood history through the eyes of a woman named Khram, the newleader of the fallen angels. We end this installment with the appearance of ayoung boy who seems destined for large things.

Part3, 23,000, confounds our expectations again by following immediatelyupon the last sentence of its predecessor. The mysterious boy is kidnapped bythe Brotherhood, subjected to the awakening initiation, and christened Gorn. Heis instrumental in the completion of the sect’s century-old quest, a denouementfor which Sorokin pulls out all the outrageous stops, masterfully employing twonew human viewpoint characters, Olga and Bjorn, whose lives have brushed upagainst the Brotherhood in the past. Brashly and shamelessly, the author evenmanages to redeem what amounts to the biggest SF cliché of all times, the”Adam and Eve” New Genesis ending.

Amidall this apocalyptic adventuring, the Ice Trilogy provides asurprisingly trenchant examination of all cults and belief systems and nascentreligions, from Mormonism to Jonestown, Scientology to Mayan 2012 Eschatology. There’sa comic-book quality to much of the action (consider how close Sorokin’s storyis to that of the X-Men and their Cerebro scanning device that seeks outmutants), but Sorokin uses it to frame genuine philosophical debates about seriousontological conundrums. Ultimately, his trilogy delves with great subtlety intothe idea of a life powered by mystical rapture– a notion whose fascinations anddangers require no translation.