The State of the Art: Another World of Science Fiction
By Joe Haldeman
Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact
I'm pretty sure it's the only one whose writing began on a cramped little tray hemmed in by smoked reindeer meat and cold Finnish beer. Seven miles over the Arctic Ocean, I'm writing in the warm belly of a Finnair DC-10, while below me unrolls a thoroughly hostile chiaroscuro of black water lanes crazing through blinding snow, as the icepack shivers apart in concession to spring. If we were exposed down there, we would die in minutes if not seconds, and the only thing keeping us alive is a complex smorgasbord of loud machinery that gives disconcerting shudders and lurches every now and then. Yet for the first time in a couple of weeks I feel quite safe and comfortable: I've been two weeks in the Soviet Union.
Which is true but not fair. Intourist and the Soviet Writer's Union, in the process of shuffling our group of science fiction writers and fans from Moscow to Kiev to Leningrad, went out of their way to make us feel wanted and important. And some warm times, as you sat digesting your fifth shot of vodka, as you smoothed yet another incredible pile of caviar onto fine-grained black bread-as you tested cultures by trading jokes and photographs-some warm times you felt almost at home. But then there would be a look. There would be a word said or, more often, not said. And the look or the word was a wall.
You are the aliens here.
We want your understanding, yes. But don't try to make us understand you. We already know what you are.
Part of this feeling was certainly projection on my part. No American my age, born at the end of World War It and growing up in the Cold one, can look at the hammer and sickle and see simply a warm symbol of workers' solidarity. No one whose main exposure to the Russian language has been the scary, inflexible rhetoric of Stalin and Khrushchev and Brezhnev can hear its musical lilt with simple pleasure. And those of us who carry Russian lead in our bodies, mementos of the late unpleasantness, might be excused for finding uncomfortable the sight of thousands of Soviet soldiers massed for May Day celebration.
But it wasn't only projection of my own generation's fears and prejudice and memories; the others felt it too, with birthdates from 1901 to 1964, black and white, VFW to NOW. It was not just culture shock or linguistic isolation. It was real. It was a wall.
And despite all of my preparation, it took me by surprise, which 1 think is the point of this essay.
I have been not quite around the world in the service of science fiction, which is to say in self-service to my own career. (I hope next year to complete the circle with China.) With and without interpreters, I've sat with foreign cohorts and tried to penetrate the barriers of Serbo-Croatian, Japanese, Hungarian, and every common European tongue-not to mention the strange varieties of Oklahoman they speak in England, Ireland, Australia, and Brooklyn. By and large we have been able to communicate, because we share the metalanguage of science fiction. Let me give you some rules of its grammar:
All things change.
There is no thought that cannot be challenged.
Philosophy does not change reality.
The past is a closed and dusty volume. The future is real but malleable.
Die Gedanken sind frei: thoughts are free.
Soviet science fiction can be good, but it applies a different grammar. Some things do not change. Some truths are not to be questioned. Phenomena inconsistent with Marxism do not exist. The past is our guide to the future; its essential character was predetermined by the wisdom of Marx and Lenin. And your thoughts are only free so. long as you keep them to yourself.
Not all Soviet writers feel this way, of course. Just the ones who get published.
I found out that not much of my own work is publishable in the Soviet Union, even though it is generally critical of American values and often sympathetic to socialism. It sometimes treats things that don't exist, though, such as homosexuality,* and it is often negative if not downright seedy.
[In one of the books 1 read preparatory to visiting Russia, the author tells of being shown a classroom full of third-graders who were diligently practicing their handwriting. Something about the sight bothered him, and after a moment he caught it: Where were all the left-handers? he asked the teacher. "Oh;" she said with a smile, "we have no left-handed children."]
The one word that kept cropping up when we discussed science fiction with Soviet critics, editors, and publishers was “kind”. This was emphasized in every formal meeting, and also came up when we were just sitting around our hotel rooms, speaking clearly into the television set. A work of art must be kind. I finally objected, while meeting with a children's publisher in Leningrad. I asked the translator what they meant by kind-in English, I explained, it is a rather broad word, encompassing shades of accommodating, empathetic, polite, benevolent, considerate, merciful. She said, "Yes, of course," which was an answer we got to a great variety of questions, and told me the Russian word: dobreya, amplifying the translation by saying it meant "good will." My Russian dictionary at home adds the helpful definition "nice."
In one of the books 1 read preparatory to visiting Russia, the author tells of being shown a classroom full of third-graders who were diligently practicing their handwriting. Something about the sight bothered him, and after a moment he caught it: Where were all the left-handers? he asked the teacher. "Oh;" she said with a smile, "we have no left-handed children."
Most science fiction in the Soviet Union seems to be published under the rubric of "children's literature." When we asked whether that meant it was relegated to a second-class status, we got the same protestation everywhere (indeed it sometimes felt as if an approved script had preceded us from city to city)-children's literature must be good literature; its standards must be even higher than those imposed on literature for adults. I'd never deny that this can be true-if I've ever invented a character half as good as Long John Silver or Huck Finn, I'm not aware of it-but it doesn't really answer the question. A better answer was provided by the often repeated assertion that one of the most valuable functions of science fiction is to instill an enthusiasm for science in the young, and prepare them for careers in science and engineering. Also repeated was the pleasant term "moral guidance."
People familiar with the history of American science fiction will hear the ghost of Hugo Gernsback in those two statements of purpose, but it's not the old-fashionedness of the attitude that is disturbing. Gernsback was just one brilliant, cranky man, and the only power he had to enforce his attitudes was the rejection slip. A Soviet writer's manuscript is judged not only by an editorial board, but by committees of people whose primary interest in the work is not literary. If they reject your manuscript, you can't just mail it out to another publisher. If they reject it with enough force, you may find yourself in a place where the postage rates are rather high.
Politics aside (as much as possible), this root assumption, that the moral content of a story has to be consistent with a predetermined formal dialectic, seems absolutely antithetical to the spirit of science fiction. A lot of good science fiction-I would like to think most of it-makes its philosophical points obliquely and even .outrageously. There is strong moral content in Delany's Dhalgren; in Ballard's Crash; in Wolfe's The Claw of the Conciliator-and if the truths we find in such works are not very comfortable, if they are unkind, they are no less true.
To mitigate that a little, it has to be conceded that any writer-any artist-creates his work within a framework of approved values characterizing the moral and ethical consensus of the most powerful stratum of his society, and all of his work is at least unconsciously affected by that consensus. You might -' even go so far as to say that most serious work is centrally' concerned with such conventions, either reinforcing them or" questioning them. Limiting the artist's universe to reinforcement, then, doesn't in theory prevent him from doing serious work. I would chafe under the restriction-probably find another way of making a living-and so would most of the writers I know. But we didn't grow up in so tightly controlled a society. It could be that a Soviet writer accepts political conformity as a condition of employment just as easily as I accept ' the condition that my work must be entertaining (when in my heart I would rather that it be important), with neither of us` thinking too much about it in the day-to-day production of work. A cage can be made of exceedingly fine mesh.
I wish I could have talked freely with a Soviet writer. ' That was "not possible," another phrase we got used to. We' met them only in very public circumstances, with translators and others monitoring what was said. The people we talked to' in private were publishers, critics, and copyright-office people > who spoke good English, had traveled to foreign countries, and were allowed to come up to our rooms unaccompanied. They didn't earn such privileges by voting Republican. If any,. writers were similarly privileged, they either weren't interested in talking to us or their English wasn't up to the job.'
[" We were told that English was virtually the second language of the Soviet Union, with some 70 percent studying it in school. But outside of IntourisU` control. I made better use of German; very few people could, or would, . answer the simplest question in English. This is not necessarily sinister. Foreign language is a use-it-or-lose-it proposition, and there aren't many.; opportunities for an ordinary Russian citizen to practice English.]
It seems to me that a Soviet fiction writer must have a hell of a job in front of him, serving three masters at once. The work has to be ideologically correct, of course, but if the writer' is a serious one, he has to juggle that with the obscure yet compelling demands of an artist's sensibility and conscience. While those two balls are in the air, he has to add a third one, a crumpled-up balance sheet, because-sad shade of capitalism-if a writer's books don't sell, he stops getting published. If he doesn't publish for a few years, the State compels him to take a useful job somewhere. (The State has some compassion, though; it does make allowances for illness, family problems, and age. In terms of material comfort and security, at least according to the picture the Writer's Union painted for us, a Soviet fiction writer is better off than his average American counterpart.) He gets paid according to a simple formula that takes into account the length of the book and what type of book it is, and he gets paid again promptly for each subsequent edition. This has to make his financial life a lot more manageable than an American writer's. He may never become a millionaire, but neither will he ever spend months bickering over the size of an advance, and then more months waiting for the publisher to come through. He has no worries about health care, insurance, libel laws. His union maintains large, comfortable clubs in all the major cities, and vacation retreats at the seashores, spas, and mountains. In many ways, it sounds like a good life.
I would love to compare notes with one of them, talk honestly about the tensions and compromises that lie between the thought and the book, compare the satisfactions and troubles that each of our systems offers its servants. The formal differences seem profound, but I suspect that in the most important parts of our lives, in the business of properly ordering thoughts and putting them down in just the right sequence of words-and then living with the rest of the human race, away from our typewriters-we go down the same tortuous road.