Erika Gottlieb

Introduction: Dystopia West, Dystopia East

(Excerpt)


The vanishing of speculative fiction with the two time-planes

The second thing that strikes us immediately in this body of literature written under dictatorship is that for over sixty years—that is, between Zamiatin’s We, written in 1920, and Aksyonov’s and Voinovich’s novels, written in the 1980s—the dystopian impulse did not seek its expression through works of speculative fiction. What are the reasons for this conspicuous absence of the Western model of the futuristic-speculative genre, with its distinction between two time-planes?

The first and most obvious reason is Stalin’s “fantasectomy,” his banning of works of speculative literature after 1929. As Zamiatin anticipated this in the “fantasectomy” of his protagonist at the end of We, as soon as “Stalin consolidated his power as the only legitimate source of utopian thought, he undertook his ‘anti-fantasy project.’” His role as the Masterbuilder of the New Man was parallelled by that of the Masterdreamer, for “a crucial element of the cult of Stalin was his alleged ability to see far across the land and into the future. How could mere writers share his vision?” (It is interesting to note that at the emergence of another omniscient dictator, Hitler, speculative literature in Germany, including science fiction, “went through an almost identical transformation at the same time.”13)

But does such a political climate provide sufficient explanation to our question about the paucity of works with a futuristic structure in our period? We should first of all rule out the hypothesis that this paucity could have anything to do with national temperament or the literary traditions in these countries to which Philip Roth has referred as the “other Europe.”14 Prior to the introduction of Stalin’s totalitarian rule, Poland, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia had a rich tradition of futuristic speculation or fantasy.15 As for Russia, when Zamiatin wrote We, he had already completed another speculative novel with a futuristic structure and was also in a position to have read numerous other Russian novels of the previous generation that demonstrate this structure.16  However, when a Russian translation of We appeared in Czechoslovakia in 1927, although without the author’s consent, Zamiatin aroused Stalin’s relentless anger against any kind of speculative literature as inherently subversive to what Stites calls Stalin’s own “anti-utopian utopia.” In 1931 Zamiatin was sent into exile: other writers of speculative fiction were punished more severely.

Yet Stalin’s ban on the publication of speculative literature does not fully explain why writers stopped writing in this mode. After all, speculative literature was not the only type of literature suppressed by Stalin; any work that could be construed as directly or indirectly critical of the state utopia could come to the same fate. As we can see from the fate of the writers in our selection, works of the dystopian impetus without the futuristic time-frame were also repressed, their writers persecuted, and yet there was no dearth of works of this nature.

To find a second and probably equally important reason why no dystopias with a speculative, futuristic structure were written in the period in question we should probably assume that the imaginative process functions in a certain way when projecting the fear of catastrophe into the future, and in a different way when responding to catastrophe experienced as reality. After the 1920s the nightmare in the dystopian fiction in the East is no longer connected with a terrifying future that an author could warn readers about: it is simply a statement about the way things are, rendered most of the time through emotional understatement. In other words, at a time when an entire society seems to be labouring in the throes of an enormous fantasmagoria about the future, it may be quite natural that the writer’s criticism of this society avoids the form of speculative fantasy, advocating instead the truthful examination of the flaws of the present and the past.


13 Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, 236, 229.

14 Philip Roth edited a series of translations from Eastern and Central Europe under the title “The Other Europe.”

15 One should only mention Stanislaw Witkiewicz’s Insatiability, an intriguing novel that foresaw, in 1929, Poland’s catastrophe in 1939, and his dystopian plays, such as The Shoemaker. The Czech Kafka’s The Trial, The Castle, and In the Penal Colony foreshadow the totalitarian nightmare more than a decade before its appearance, while Karel Capek’s RUR and War with the Newts examine impending social catastrophe in the guise of science fiction. In Hungary, Frigyes Karinthy’s Travels to Faremido and Capillaria are satirical fantasies in the framework of the Gulliveriad, and Sándor Szathmári’s Kazohinia also belongs to this genre. Szathmári’s In Vain is a dystopian novel speculating about the defeat of utopian aspirations throughout history—acknowledging the influence of Karinthy and Imre Madách’s philosophical drama, The Tragedy of Man.

16 Zamiatin, for example, could have read “Valery Bryusov’s Republic of the Southern Cross, written in 1905 … about a metropolis of 50 million beneath a glass dome,” as well as Nikolai Fedorov’s An Evening in the Year 2217 of 1906, about a society wherein citizens wear numbers on their arms and register for “sex-choosing sessions.” (Stites, Revolutionary Dreams, chap. 1.)


SOURCE: Gottlieb, Erika. Dystopian Fiction East and West: Universe of Terror and Trial. Montreal; Ithaca, NY: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001. pp. 19-20, 289.

Note references to Čapek, Madách, Karinthy, Szathmári, in footnote 15, above. Re Frigyes Karinthy, in connection with Dostoevsky, Ray Bradbury, see also pp. 53-54, 94. Note discussion of Imre Madách (Chapter 2: Nineteenth-century precursors of the dystopian vision: pp. 43-49, footnotes 290-292); see footnote 4 on György Lukács and the banning of The Tragedy of Man under Stalinism. 

See also:

Stites, Richard. Revolutionary Dreams: Utopian Vision and Experimental Life in the Russian Revolution. New York: Oxford University Press, 1989.


Karel Čapek: The Absolute at Large: key philosophical excerpts

War with the Newts (Excerpt on the Language Problem) by Karel Čapek

Yevgeny Zamyatin on Revolution, Entropy, Dogma and Heresy

Jevgenij Zamjatin pri Revolucio, Entropio, Dogmo & Herezo
(en Esperanto, trad. Ralph Dumain)

Lukács in Moscow: RAPP, Mór Jókai, Socialist Realism

Gary Saul Morson:
Genre, Utopia, Sideshadowing, Tempics, Prosaics, Parody, Misanthropology, Philosophy, Literary Theory, Borges:
Select Bibliography

Karel Čapek: Selected Bibliography & Web Links

Futurology, Science Fiction, Utopia, and Alienation
in the Work of Imre Madách, György Lukács, and Other Hungarian Writers:
Select Bibliography

Sándor Szathmári (1897-1974): Bibliografio & Retgvidilo / Bibliography & Web Guide

From Eden to Cain: Unorthodox Interpretations & Literary Transformations:
Selected Bibliography

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


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