The Pest

Valentina Zhuravlyova

Translated by Holly Smith


I first set eyes on this little girl three years ago, and then she was quiet as a mouse. She asked shyly for autographs and gazed into the writers' faces, eyes wide with amazement.

During those three years, she didn't miss a single meeting of the science fiction writers' association. To be honest, no one invited her. But no one chased her away either (and here, without a doubt, we are to blame and bear the full measure of responsibility). She sat on the edge of her chair, trying not to miss a single word. Even those who mumbled or obnoxiously babbled nonsense received the same undivided attention Cicero himself no doubt commanded in his time.

Gradually, we got used to her and to the fact that she was so quiet. Therefore, when she finally started talking, we were quite taken aback. It happened during the discussion of a new novel which was overburdened with scientific explanations and empty verbosity. The author was very fond of his novel, and our criticism was having no effect on him whatsoever.

"So," said the author, smiling with good humor, "let's ask a child. As they say, 'From the mouths of babes and sucklings...' Hmm... Well, my dear, did you like anything about my book?"

And the little girl replied eagerly:

"Yes, of course."

"Wonderful, very good!" exclaimed the author, grinning from ear to ear, then asked: "What exactly did you like?"

"Antokolsky's poem. On page fourteen, there are eight lines, and they were wonderful !"

And then I saw that the shy little girl had disappeared, only to be replaced by a brazen little devil in green britches and a lilac jacket, the pockets of which were bulging with books. Her malicious eyes were outlined (not very skillfully as yet) in black eyeliner.

From that moment on, our meetings, as the first author to suffer so succinctly said, turned into smoke breaks next to a powder keg.

The Pest was rather condescending with me, reserving her most scathing comments for after the meetings, as she was accompanying me home. I invited her over once, and after that, she would turn up on my doorstep almost every evening. But that didn't bother me a bit. She would rummage through my books, find something interesting, then sit on the divan for hours on end in silence. Of course, this silence was relative. She bit her nails, grunted with satisfaction, and if something really struck her fancy, she would whistle. This was how she imagined the crab-spiders from some science fiction story she had read whistled. She read everything—not just science fiction.

"By the way, Romeo was a fool," she said, laying aside a volume of Shakespeare. "Let me tell you how he should have abducted Juliet..."

However, her only true love was science fiction. She read even the worst stories and then stared blankly at the ceiling for ages. There was no way to break her of this habit, for she was imagining herself in the heroes' places, reworking the plot. In the process, she frequently lost all sense of what she had read and what she had invented herself.

One day, for example, she announced in all seriousness that she had met up with an invisible cat.

"I could hear the sounds, but I couldn't see the cat. So I realized at once that I had found it."

"What?"

"The cat Griffin performed the experiment on. After that, Camp asked the Invisible Man, 'Can it be that even now an invisible cat is wandering over the Earth?' And Griffin replied: 'Why not?' How can you forget such

104

things?! That invisible cat must have had invisible kittens. Don't you see?.."

In general, the Pest noticed minor details in science fiction stories almost no one else picked up on. What happened to the model of the time machine, for example. The model, mind you, and not the actual machine. Wells' novel implies that the model set off to travel through time. So why was it that after Wells so many stories about the time machine were written and not a single one about the model?

Moreover, the thing that interested this girl the most was, "Why not now?" She said it as one word: "Whynotnow?" Could, for example, the decapitated head of some professor be revived, "whynotnow?" Could the bathtub be filled with some thin gel and someone be submerged in it to hybernate for centuries, "whynotnow?"

Once she came upon a story of a man who flew with wings that had electroplastic muscles. She flipped the pages of the magazine back and forth for a long time, examining the pictures, then inquired:

"Whynotnow?"

She quit reading for three days and pestered me to death with that "whynotnow?" of hers.

Finally, I took her to see an engineer I knew. This man had the patience of Job: he could converse calmly with anyone, even with inventors of perpetuum mobile.

The little pest pulled out the magazine at once and demanded, "whynotnow?" So the engineer got out a book about the theory of flight and explained in great detail why not now.

The bigger a living creature, the less favorable the ratio between the power it produces and its weight. Therefore, such big birds as bustards and swans can't fly very well. A horse couldn't fly even if it had wings. Man lies somewhere on the border of an acceptable power/weight ratio, for the power a man can produce is sufficient to raise 70-80 kilos into the air. However, when we take the weight of the wings into account, this ratio becomes unfavorable.

The engineer explained all this to the Pest most carefully, using figures, illustrations, and examples. She listened without interrupting and crinkled her nose suspiciously. Since I didn't know her very well then, I didn't realize what that gesture meant.

She disappeared for about ten days, then she showed up with a battered suitcase tied shut with string. I thought she was going on a trip.

"Here are the wings!" she spat out.

She was hopping with impatience. I was surprised that the Pest had actually done something: up till that point, she had limited herself to theoretical pronouncements.

"The boys made the wings." Unlike the way she usually spoke, this was said with slow solemnity. "I thought them up, and they made them."

This was something new. Some boys had appeared on the scene.

"Now I'll explain," she said, tugging at the string holding the suitcase shut. "We've already tried them, and they work really well!" I was used to her imagination and expected to hear something at least a bit fantastic. But she explained her idea, and it was actually quite simple, or in any case, it seemed realistic. Moreover, she explained it all in a few words.

A person weighs too much to fly with wings. So we shouldn't try to build a muscleplane for him, she explained, inventing the necessary words as she went along. A muscleplane should be built for animals that were lighter than man.

"In general, it's sheer egoism," announced the Pest, "that for the past thousand years, man has been thinking of wings for himself alone. Why not make wings for animals?"

Why not, indeed? The explanation had taken an unexpected turn, and I did not know what to reply.

In the suitcase was a large sherbet cat. The creature was lying on an ordinary umbrella. Or more precisely, on a former umbrella, for these were wings made of an umbrella.

"Now, you'll see," said the Pest and proceeded to fasten the wings to the cat.

The feline was absolutely calm throughout all this. I had never seen such an unflappable cat in my life. The beast did no.t express its displeasure in any way while the Pest was strapping its wings on with a belt. The large black wings made the poor cat resemble a pterodactyl like those in the illustrations to science fiction stories. It did not seem concerned in the least that it had just become the world's first winged cat.

The beast squinted and glanced lazily about the room, then yawned good-naturedly and made its way unhurriedly to the armchair. The Pest helped the cat up, and it folded its wings under itself and was fast asleep in the twinkling of an eye.

I explained to the Pest where she had miscalculated. It wasn't enough to have wings. The entire organism had to be adapted to flight. Here, anatomy wasn't the only important factor: the psychology of the animal had to be taken into account. An animal had to know how to fly and want to fly for it to get off the ground.

That was terribly logical, but the Pest crinkled her nose and shook her head.

"What's all this psychological stuff," she said in an offhand manner. "That cat has a psychology, too..."

She got her jacket from the front hall, rummaged in its infinite pockets, pulled out a mouse, and put it on the table. A live one, mind you. Everything else happened so fast it made my head swim. The sherbet cat leapt toward the table in a flash and as quickly as if it had been shot from a cannon. The cat had probably calculated the leap correctly, but it had forgotten about the wings, which opened with a snap when the hapless creature was already in the air. So the cat soared past the table. It was a gigantic leap, and if it hadn't been for the wall, the cat would have flown for thirty meters or more. The poor beast smashed into the wall, shook its head wildly, and flew up to the ceiling. The wings creaked and banged, and this frightened the cat, so it circled the chandelier quite rapidly. Then something happened to the wings, because the cat, thrashing and hissing, plopped onto the chair...

We were silent for a while: the only sound was the labored breathing of the frightened pussy.

"That's too bad," the Pest finally said. "We should have gotten a bat, and the cat would have flown around after it for all he was worth. What do you think, can flying cats do anything to help the economy?"

I assured the Pest that the economy would survive quite well without flying cats. And flying dogs, too. I was sure the Pest would think up a way to make dogs fly next.

"Flying dogs..." she pondered. "Flying sheep dogs would have an easier time looking after their herds. But it would be better if those ... what are they ... could fly. Then they wouldn't need to be protected. They would be able to fly away if there was any danger."

"What are you talking about?"

"Sheep," impatiently snapped the Pest. "Sheep or rams... They would be able to fly to alpine meadows. Wouldn't that be great?"

I realized I would have to be extremely careful with the Pest. She could pervert any idea to suit her own conceptions, and there was no telling what she might come up with. Choosing my words carefully, I explained to the Pest that it was not a matter of mere chance that some animals have wings while others do not. In essence, wings are appropriate in some cases, and some cases only. Wings are useful only when an animal spends a considerable portion of its time in the air. In all other cases, wings would only be an unnecessary burden to the animal, dead weight to lug around.

The Pest silently stuffed the cat back into the suitcase.

"Don't be discouraged," I said as she put her jacket on.

She threw a blank gaze my way and said distractedly:

"Yeah, sure..."

A week later, an article appeared in the city paper: "Can Chickens Fly?" The author, a Ph. D. in biology, wrote that over the past few days, local residents had observed a peculiar phenomenon of nature: a chicken flying for long periods and at great heights. It had been considered up till then, noted the scientist, that the chicken's wings were poorly suited to flight. But obviously, insufficient study had been done on such a seemingly familiar creature as the chicken. The article ended in the following manner: "There is no doubt that in time, science will unravel this mystery of Nature as well."

I had no doubts whatsoever that there were no mysteries involved here: the Pest was responsible for everything. And by the way, so was I. After all, I was the one who had told her that wings should not be just dead weight. Perhaps that was what had given her the idea about the uselessness of chicken wings.

I called the engineer I had taken the Pest around to see.

"You know, there's something to that," he said when he had heard my contradictory explanations. "No, really, there is. After all, bionics—technology copying nature—is thriving.

So why shouldn't the reverse of that branch of science exist? You could consider that girl of yours the founder of a new branch of science concerned with adapting technological developments to nature. Judge for yourself. After all, they shoe horses, don't they? What's that you say? Flying sheep? I don't know about that. But if you take a rabbit or a jerboa... I'll do a few calculations this evening and see what I come up with."

There was another article in the next day's paper. This story noted that the swans which had lived happily in the ponds of the city park for the past eight years had suddenly risen to the air at great speed and flown off for parts unknown.

I was rereading the article when my doorbell rang. It was the Pest, and I had never seen her in such an exuberant mood.

" I have a brilliant idea!" she exclaimed from the threshold. She was terribly pleased with herself and was not in the least put off by my gloomy appearance. " I'll tell you all about it right now..."

"You mean about the chicken?" I inquired with mild curiosity.

"The chicken—oh, that's nothing!" the Pest said with a wave of her hand. "That was a piece of cake."

Then I asked about the swans. The Pest frowned impatiently.

"The swans are no big deal either. Maybe they just decided to spent most of their time in the air... You said it yourself. All we had to do was make their wings longer, so we glued on more feathers. That keeps their wings from being dead weight. You know, you can make pigeon's wings longer too, and then they can fly faster. But fish will be even more interesting."

"Fish, you say?" I asked frantically, trying to gain time.

"Yes, of course," she continued. "You see, their fins are like wings, too. Dolphins, for instance. Imagine how well they'll be able to fly! Or swordfish... They can go eighty kilometers an hour as it is. So if we attach wings, just think of the results... So do you think the economy needs flying fish?.."

For an instant, I was afraid I would lose my cool and not know what to say. This pesty little girl standing before me suddenly seemed to be the living incarnation of fantasy—the very essence of the genre. And this incarnation was impatient, not wanting to know any boundaries. She had a scratched nose and sparks in her eyes. I had to do something fast. So I fell back on evolution: wings and fins were the result of a long process of selection which resulted in the most utilitarian forms.

"What do I care about evolution!" exclaimed the Pest, cutting me off. "After all, evolution isn't finished, yet. It is continuing even now, but very slowly. So why don't we speed it up a bit? Whynotnow? After all, you can do everything faster. We'll speed up evolution. Don't you see?"

I could already imagine this "sped up" world in which flying cats chased after bats, where winged dogs raced after flying rabbits, where elephants on water-wings caught up with winged dolphins, and where fishermen suspended their nets from hot air balloons... It suddenly occurred to me that I had opened Pandora's box. And I felt—in all seriousness—a sense of responsibility before all humanity.

Fortunately, I was saved by a flash of inspiration just then. It was a brilliant idea that worked quite well, and it came just in the nick of time. Just a minute longer, and nothing would have been able to stop the Pest.

"Wings, for goodness sake! Who needs them?!" I said, trying to keep a straight face. "Anything can fly on silly old wings. They're already so outmoded it makes me want to laugh. Antigravity—now that's another matter entirely. True, some people think that's an idea for the distant future. But why? Whynotnow?.."

*     *     *

Now, as I am writing these lines, the Pest is sitting in an armchair by the window with her legs crossed. She is reading all by Landau and Kitaigorodsky. She's been reading nothing but physics for two months now. And nothing terrible or even out of the ordinary has happened

in all that time. She just sits there with her nose in a book, biting her nails and mechanically wrapping her hair around her index finger. Everything is calm and quiet.

For the time being at least.


SOURCE: Zhuravlyova,Valentina. "The Pest," translated by Holly Smith, in When Questions Are Asked (Moscow: Raduga Publishers, 1989), pp. 102-114.

See also:

Ballad of the Stars: Stories of Science Fiction, Ultraimagination, and TRIZ, by Genrich Altshuller writing as G. Altov, Valentina Zhuravlyova; edited by Steven Rodman; translated by Roger DeGaris; with a preface by Pavel Amnuel. Worcester, MA: Technical lnnovation Center, 2005. (Original ed. 1982.)

Star River Test (Genrich Altshuller) Donkey Axiom (Genrich Altshuller) Star Captain Legends (Genrich Altshuller) Snow Bridge Over the Abyss (Valentina Zhuravlyova) Adventure (Valentina Zhuravlyova) To Continue Beyond (Valentina Zhuravlyova) Ballad of the Stars (Genrich Altshuller, Valentina Zhuravlyova) On the Power of Fantasy (Genrich Altshuller) Ultraimagination: A General Introduction to TRIZ.

Valentina Zhuravlyova / Zhuravleva:
English translations

Includes all the following & more:

"Storm" by Valentina Zhuravleva

"The Astronaut" by Valentina Zhuravleva

Stone from the Stars” by Valentina Zhuravleva

Starlight Rhapsody” by Valentina Zhuravleva,
translated from Esperanto by Donald J. Harlow

Starluma Rapsodio” de Ĵuravleva Valentina,
tradukis Aleksej I. Verŝinin

Science Fiction & Utopia Research Resources: A Selective Work in Progress

Offsite:

Starlight Rhapsody” by Valentina Zhuravleva
Moscow News, January 1, 1960. p. 7
(Different translation)

Chapter 11: Human Monsters Under My Bed (Sam's POV)
by Alec Starr (Alec's Hidden Fics)

Valentina Zhuravleva - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Valentina Zhuravleva @ Ĝirafo

Valentina Nikolaevna Ĵuravlova
(sciencfikciaj rakontoj)

Valentina Ĵuravlova - Vikipedio

Affective machines or the inner self?
Drawing the boundaries of the female body in the socialist romantic imagination

by Alexey Golubev


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