Monday, November 15, 2021

Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction, edited by Alexander Levitsky

More an academic monograph than a sci-fi anthology
Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction was published in 2007. The target audience for this book seems to be editor Alexander Levitsky’s fellow scholars in Russian studies or literary criticism. There is nothing wrong with that, of course. For what it is, it’s quite well done. When this book pops up as a Kindle Daily Deal, however, the average reader may think it’s simply an anthology of short stories from Russian authors that will appeal to a curious science fiction or fantasy buff. While there certainly is material here that the general reader will enjoy, there is also quite a bit of historical and cultural analysis in the form of critical essays between the entries. The works collected here are not chosen for their entertainment value but rather for what they reflect of Russian and Soviet culture and to support Levitsky’s theses on those topics. Some of the greatest writers in Russian literature are included here, but in order to fit all their works into the volume many of the selections had to be abridged. Much of the book’s contents consists of truncated stories or isolated chapters from novels. Even if those chapters pique your interest, you may not be able to find the complete novel in English translation.

All the reservations mentioned above are forgivable, given what Levitsky is trying to accomplish with this book. What really disappointed me about this volume, however, is the extremely broad parameters of what is considered to constitute fantasy or science fiction. In one sense, just about anything that’s fiction could be considered fantasy, but most readers would probably apply the word to the Lord of the Rings genre or at least fiction in The Twilight Zone vein. Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky are certainly among Russia’s greatest authors, but one could question whether some of their works included here really qualify as fantasy. In Levitsky’s definition, however, all manner of dreams, ghosts, angels, folktales, and religious visions of the afterlife are included. As an analogy, imagine if someone were to compile a book on English fantasy and science fiction that started with Beowulf and proceeded through Arthurian legends, Robin Hood folktales, Thomas More’s Utopia, the Romantic poets, and Dickensian ghost stories before ever getting to William Morris, H. G. Wells, or J. R. R. Tolkien, abridged excerpts from whose works would occupy only the final quarter of the volume. The result would say a lot about British culture but would likely leave typical fans of the science fiction and fantasy genres disappointed with the overall offering of selections. Such is the case here. I learned a lot about Russian literature, but wasn’t interested in much of the literary content presented.

Of course, there is much to like in this volume as well. Valery Iakovlevich Briusov’s story “Republic of the Southern Cross” is a delightful horror story of a utopian city in Antarctica. Alexander Ivanovich Kuprin’s “Liquid Sunshine,” about an eccentric scientist’s visionary experiments in South America, calls to mind the sci-fi tales of Wells or Arthur Conan Doyle. Mikhail Bulgakov’s entertaining satirical novella The Fatal Eggs appears to be reproduced in its entirety. Space travel doesn’t factor much into the collection until four-fifths of the way through, where there’s a special section devoted to it. Three fragmentary stories by Andrei Platonovich Platonov contain enough innovative scientific theories to spawn at least a half dozen sci-fi novels. Ivan Antonovich Efremov’s novel The Andromeda Nebula is an intriguing Star Trek-style saga of mankind’s exploration of the galaxy, but the reader only gets portions of the first two chapters.

None of my comments are intended to be negative criticism of Levitsky’s scholarship. Kudos to him for writing this book. I’m just trying to help other readers decide if they want to read it.

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