A Whiff of Cold Air: The Longing for the Lost Dream of Space in Soviet and American Science Fiction.
(The Moon Dream), by Alexandr Lazarevich, 1989
Requiem, by Robert A. Heinlein, in Adventures in Time and Space, eds. Raymond J. Healy and J. Francis McComas, Random House, 1946
The Moon Dream and Requiem are two stories written by a Soviet and an American speculative fiction writers, separated by ideological and temporal borders, yet, related by a surprisingly close sentiment towards the space frontier. They come from an era of clearer dividing lines where the enemy was treacherous and the friends were reliable as our leaders liked us to think.
The Soviet story The Moon Dream was written in 1989, when the once mighty Soviet Union was falling apart. To the best of my knowledge it never saw printing. I encountered it on the Russian Samizdat site (http://zhurnal.lib.ru/l/lazarewich_a_w/) following a link on an astronautics discussion forum, many years ago. The name of the site literally means self-publishing, but for the Russians it bears a special connotation?this word was used to refer to the illegal publication of dissident books in Soviet times, usually simply by typing them on a typewriter, on carbon paper. It may sound like another web venue for self publishing, but Samizdat is more than that, it is the place where Russian bestsellers such as Sergey Minaev’s Metro 2033 saw its first readers. Every month a few of the novels first published on Samizdat go into print, and the electronic texts quietly disappear from the site.
The Moon Dream belongs to the cryptohistory genre, which is defined by the premise that something happened in the past that remained secret and led to our present-day reality, as opposed to the alternate history, in which the past, the present, and the future are unlike the ones we know because some event in the past, ‘the so-called point of divergence,’ had a different outcome than in our history.
Lazarevich says in the introduction that the story was inspired by the 20th anniversary of the Soviet non-flight to the Moon. The declassified Soviet archives and memoirs of the retired Soviet cosmonauts and engineers tell us that the Soviet Union indeed attempted to fly a man to the Moon. Hardware was developed, and the Soviet lunar module even flew in Earth’s orbit for testing. Ultimately, the effort withered after the American lunar landing, because the Soviets could not accept to be second. Today, historians still dispute the real reasons for this failure?a late start, insufficient resources and, paradoxically, decentralization of the efforts, being chief among them.
Later on, the Soviet Union developed and carried out an advanced program for unmanned lunar studies, culminating in a few automated sample return missions. Lazarevich bases his story on these events, but overwrites the history of the first probe to perform soft landing, Luna 8, and tells us how the gravely ill chief designer Sergey Korolev rides this station on a one way trip to the Moon. Korolev the character connects the story with the real past: Korolev the historical personage was the head of the Soviet Moon program, a mystical figure behind all the successes and the propaganda stunts that filled the newspapers at the time. Indeed, he died shortly before the flight of Luna 8 from complications during hearth surgery.
For a reader from Russia, the story has a strong emotional charge, and judging from discussions on the Internet, the emotions cover a wide range. There are some outright rejections?the Soviet space program ultimately was launched in the Stalin’s age of terror, and Lazarevich admits that. But there are comments expressing deep admiration because the story fulfills the fondest dreams of the Russian space cadets, and offers a short escape into a world of an alternative Moon race outcome.
There are not enough examples in the cryptohistorical genre, but these two types of reactions are common tropes in alternate history, which is often used to express political views or to construct a dream world. These are especially common in East European SF written after the fall of Communism, but the Western reader may have encountered them occasionally as well. Some typical examples in the space-oriented sub-genre are the Children of Apollo by Mark Whittington and Resurrection Day by Brandon duBois, which express rather partisan views, and, I suspect, dream up their fictional worlds according to the political preferences of their authors.
Lazarevich wrote his story at the end of the Cold War, but he is clearly a child of his time, and he can’t escape the stamps of the Soviet thinking. Nevertheless, his story has one redeeming quality which justifies the half an hour it takes to read it. The Moon Dream is a powerful manifestation of the longing for a new frontier, for space. This idea is expressed herein a brutal but very intimate way. Korolev of Lazarevich doesn’t explicitly say “I go to the Moon because I can” but he surely does go. The writer escapes the zero-sum-game thinking of the Cold War evading temptation to replay the political and propaganda match, reaching an alternative outcome. The flight of Korolev is a personal journey which evades the omnipotent eye of the government. The Chief Designer walks around the lunar surface much like any tourist who wants to absorb the spirit of a strange new city and must do it on foot.
Requiem was written in 1939, and it appeared in the Jan 1940 issue of Astounding. The story carries the typical American go-get-it attitude. It follows the tribulations of Delos Harriman, an entrepreneur, a super-successful Howard Hughes or Bill Gates of the space industry, who never flew in space himself. He is an influential player in Heinlein’s future history milieu. Most Western SF readers are probably familiar with him from the novella The Man Who Sold the Moon that appeared in 1950, which describes the phenomenal success of Harriman in turning the space into another open frontier.
In Requiem we meet an old and broken man, who has all the riches of the world but never managed to go to space himself. Tragically, the person who made it possible to take a suborbital flight for twenty-five dollars at a county fair has never ascended above the Earth’s grip: there was no room for a second passenger on the first flight to the Moon, and after that Harriman became too important an asset for his company to be allowed into space (interestingly, Yury Gagarin was also forbidden to fly, even on a jet fighter, for a while, as he was too valuable for Soviet propaganda).
Harriman is far from his prime and he suffers from heart problems that leave him a limited time to fulfill his dream. Ridden with despair, he embarks on a illegal and risky trip that will take him to a grave marked with a “shipping tag torn from a compressed-air container, and pinned to the ground with a knife.” The tag bears a quote from the Robert Louis Stephenson’s Requem.
The tragic conclusions of both journeys are obvious from the start: Korolev and Harriman overtake many obstacles on the Earth, they survive precarious journeys in space, but their hearts give away shortly after they land on the Moon. Yet I was elated reading these stories because the two protagonists achieved their dreams. Heinlein is clearly a better writer. His work is more dynamic, he uses indirect means to evoke emotions, and he follows my favorite cinematic approach: ‘show, not tell’. In contrast, Lazarevich is more talkative and the author’s voice comes through in the narrative, and even obscures the voices of the characters at times. His story contain some heavy infodumps and yet, it was much easier for me to relate to, perhaps because of the common background and the similar psychology of people from Bulgaria and Russia.
The premise of a one-way flight to the Moon or Mars has been used a lot in SF. The legend has it that a non-suicidal version in which the astronaut would be regularly supplied from the Earth was even proposed to NASA by a team of engineers from a contractor in the 1960s, when the Soviet delay was still unknown. As far as it is known, the space agency never pursued the idea, but Robert Altman used it in his 1968 movie Countdown, and the writing team David S. Michaels and Daniel Brenton wrote the novel Red Moon, which describes a similar attempt by the Soviets. The idea was in the air, and it is not surprising that Heinlein and Lazarevich arrived at very similar stories, despite their vastly different life experiences. We can not exclude the possibility that the Russian writer has read the work of his American counterpart, but clearly there is no plagiarism here?The Moon Dream contains a distinct mix of tragic destiny, daydreaming and even a touch of revisionism, so typical for the Slavic world.
The Moon Dream and Requiem are separated by nearly half a century, they bracket a grim period of history, and their authors have vastly different backgrounds: Lazarevich is a professional translator in the Russian space industry, and Heinlein . . . We all know who Heinlein is. Yet the two men are inherently alike because they explore the human condition in their stories, transcending the eras and political systems: the ability to dream, to face challenges, and to transcend circumstances. The comparison between The Moon Dream and Requiem demonstrates that the science fiction genre is a perfect tool for capturing and expressing the best human qualities.
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