The Portal Archive: Polden, XXI Vek; October 2010

Polden, XXI Vek (Noon, XXI Century) is a Russian science fiction magazine, founded in 2002 by Boris Strugatsky. The Strugatsky Brothers, Arkady (1925-1991) and Boris (b. 1933) have dominated the Russian science fiction for decades. The magazine’s title is clearly derived from their novel Noon, XXII Century. In May 2007, the magazine became a 176-page monthly, with a printed volume of 13,000. It is also available electronically from The magazine shares its publisher with Vokrug Sveta (Around The World), the Russian counterpart to National Geographic. The Vokrug Sveta logo is displayed prominently on the front and back covers of Polden, as well as in several other places in the magazine.

The October issue of Polden features one novella, three short stories (although one of them can be classified as a novelette), the conclusion of a serial, and three non-fiction essays. Two of the contributing authors are the former members of the Strugatsky Seminar, a writers group that was influential in Russian science fiction during the 80s and 90s.

The novella, “Rubicon,” by Ludmila Makarova (the pen name of Ludmila Bekmacheva), is set in a near future, at a time when the narcotic drugs have been finally defeated by nano-block devices, compulsorily installed in all citizens of the Russian Federation. But the “dependency market” is not eradicated so easily. Even before nano-block devices went into production, drug lords had figured out a way to induce a state of narcotic-like euphoria via hypnotic stimuli, making the people ask for more.

Cyril Goltzov is a psychologist and hypnotist, working at Rubicon, a super-secret agency created to fight this novel brand of narco-trade. The story shows several examples of him helping the victims: a young girl standing in pouring rain for hours before a seemingly innocuous shop window; a woman entranced in front of her mirror by the butterflies moving in patterns over her animated blouse, while her apartment starts smelling like something died there; Cyril’s own friend, hooked on the hypnotic music in his earphones. The victims fall in three broad categories: the visualists, the audialists, and the kinesthetes, depending on which of the five senses dominates in their mode of dependency—each requiring a different kind of “bait” to free them from their trances.

But then something new comes up, as Cyril learns of a suspicious performance at a local theater, apparently involving all senses at once. The perspective of someone achieving the Synthesis, a Holy Grail of the new narco-dependencies, is frightening. The earlier attempts haven’t met with success yet, but who knows?

With some difficulty, and with loss of life, the Rubicon team manages to disrupt the performance and help the people caught in trance. But something breaks in Cyril that evening. Little does he realize that the performance was but a rehearsal for something far more devious. For who is the best training target for Synthesis if not the Rubicon specialists—precisely because they have been trained not to succumb to the hypnotic input via any of the sensory modalities? For what is that if not a Synthesis “with a minus sign?” The minus sign that can be easily reversed.

The novella is filled with exquisite but subtle imagery, evoking all sensory modalities. It’s so subtle sometimes that one can miss it on the first reading. But it strikes in force during the second one.

In Recruiter” by Alexander Golubev, two Russian soldiers, with only three months remaining before their release from compulsory service, stumble upon an abandoned U.S. Army base in Vietnam—and an unexpected visitor looking to recruit new soldiers for a war on an alien world. Although exploring the question of what it takes to fight for someone else, this short story fails to surprise.

The title of “The Case of Papa Carlo” by Natalya Egorova and Sergey Baiteryakov is an allusion to Aleksey Tolstoy’s story about Buratino, the Russian counterpart to Pinocchio. In that story, an Italian master named Papa Carlo makes Buratino out of wood, but the doll comes to life. In The Case of Papa Carlo, John Corti is a cop—and a renowned woodworker in his spare time—living in the world of “multitransformer” furniture. The Black Cube corporation apparently has a monopoly on programmable furniture that can change shape and texture on demand.

John is called on to investigate several cases of what, at first sight, look like unfortunate accidents of people killed by furniture falling on them at the most inopportune moments, somehow with some vital organ in the way—although, in one case, it looks like the hapless victim may have initiated a particularly radical transformation for a chair he was sitting in at the time.

The plot is enhanced by a strained father-son relationship between John Corti and his son. Despising the multitransformers, John doesn’t realize that his son, not wishing to continue the family tradition of cop service, secretly enters in a prestigious online multitransformer design contest. If he makes the top five, his future is set.

Unable to complete a gift for his girlfriend’s birthday on time, John must cheat and temporarily use a multitransformer, intending to replace it with real wood as soon as he can. Naturally, he doesn’t get a chance to do that. Nor does he know yet that every single victim of the “accidents” had made it into the contest’s top five.

Nathan Blai’s “Reverse” is an atmospheric tale of a sushi delivery man, working his ass off on Valentine’s Day. But all the places he ends up visiting with the orders remind him of the lost loves he’d had—those that broke with him and those that he broke with, as well as those with whom he had never had a chance. Always reliable despite its age, the cassette player in his old car breaks, starting to play the music in reverse, and Oleg revisits the old decisions that had made him into the man he is. Could he have done things differently?

By the night’s end, his car changes into a brand new Land Cruiser, and he himself into the owner of a huge corporation. The unattainable love of his student days is waiting for him at home. But somehow, he cannot shake off the feeling that he was robbed that night of something important.

“The Icy Nights of October” by Sergey Solovyov conclude The Loop of Amphisbena (can also be translated as The Noose of Amphisbena) serial about a time traveler. A professor, having invented a time machine back in the 60s, now finds himself in the post-Perestroika era. His former KGB boss-turned-extrasensory-artist is murdered in the professor’s old apartment. Still receiving checks from his dead benefactor while living in the man’s vacation home, the professor feels the noose tightening around him, as he spots the same men whose earlier visit had led to the murder. Can he revive the time machine, if he still doesn’t quite understand how it worked the other two times?

But even more than by plot, the story strikes this reader by its mood, the authentic ambience of the old Russian intelligentsia. Despite the apparent urgency, the professor remains somewhat aloof, looking at the world around him—the scenery, his animal and human neighbors—with an acutely introspective eye.

The story’s narrative structure further enhances this effect. For example, the third section of the story is entitled “3. Fear in Literature and in Life”; it’s divided into three half-page subsections: “Fear in Literature,” “Fear in Life,” and “Voice of Reason.” This peculiar blend of science fiction thriller with the Russian tradition of literary reminiscence is striking.

Of the three non-fiction essays, one, by Anton Pervushin, addresses the potential energy crisis in the future and what is being done about prolonged “natural gas pause” in Russian strategic energy planning. Another essay, by Mikhail Nekhoroshev, tells us about an attempt by an intrepid Russian inventor in the 19th century to construct an airplane with a steam engine; curiously, the author opens the essay by bringing up the only science-fictional story by Dostoyevsky. In the last essay, Sergey Strelchenko talks about a real case that appears to be weirder than fiction: a cactus reported to grow in a woman’s body. When asked if science fiction writers could have come up with that, he has to answer yes—but can you name a science fiction story where the same thing happens? (Hint: A short story by an Austrian science fiction author Herbert Franke, published by Wilhelm Goldmann Verlag in 1982.)


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