Tuesday, November 2, 2021

The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov

Satirical novella of science gone wrong
Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940) is best known for his novel The Master and Margarita, which has become something of a cult classic in English translation. Prior to writing that magnum opus, Bulgakov had published several novellas including The Fatal Eggs, a satirical work of science fiction. The Fatal Eggs was originally published in the Russian literary journal Nedra in 1925, but the story takes place in the near future of 1928 and 1929.

Professor Vladimir Persikov is a zoologist who specializes in amphibians. One day while peering through a microscope in his laboratory, he discovers an optical abnormality arising from the light refracted through his device’s lenses. After serendipitously isolating a specific red wavelength of the visible spectrum, he notices that the microorganisms within this ray of light experience remarkable fertility, growth, and physical fortitude. When word gets around of the professor’s findings, it is said that he has discovered the “ray of life.” Meanwhile, a mysterious plague has struck the chickens of Russia and decimated their population. Before he has been able to conduct satisfactory experiments on his invention, Persikov’s red ray is co-opted by the government to combat the poultry plague. In science as in love, however, only fools rush in, and the unwise haste with which the ray is applied to the chicken problem leads to unforeseen and terrifying consequences.

The first third of The Fatal Eggs is quite fascinating science fiction. Though the concept of the red ray is not entirely realistic, it is treated realistically in terms of the scientific method of its discovery. This results in a tone of verisimilitude similar to the science fiction novels of H. G. Wells, who was a major influence on Bulgakov. After a gradual crescendo of suspense, the plot of The Fatal Eggs climaxes in scenes of chilling horror and thrilling action worthy of a vintage monster movie.

In between its promising start and exciting finish, the mid-section of the novella is more satirical in nature. Through Persikov’s dealings with the government, Bulgakov lampoons the Soviet socialist bureaucracy, particularly in regards to its policies toward science and public safety. Today’s reader may not find Bulgakov’s satire entirely successful at generating laughs, however, since the humor is almost a century old and the comedy has somewhat of a Dadaist sensibility reminiscent of fellow Russian Yevgeny Zamyatin’s dystopian novel We. The English translation (by Carl R. Proffer in my edition) may also be at least partially to blame. The English text reads awkwardly, as if the Russian prose may have been translated too literally, and the translator perhaps assumes too much knowledge of Russian history and culture on the part of the reader, resulting in some disorientation for Westerners.

Overall, The Fatal Eggs is a little too comical, to the point where the humor undermines the impact of the story’s science fiction elements. Bulgakov’s writing is more effective in the suspenseful scenes than in the satirical passages, leaving one to wish that he had devoted more energy in the horror direction. Even so, there is still plenty to enjoy in this truly off-beat and uniquely Russian work of science fiction. Fans of writers like Wells and Jules Verne should certainly give it a try.
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