Science Fiction and the Fall of the Evil Empire
By the 1970s, no one believed in Communism anymore.
Not in the Soviet Bloc, at least. Least of all those running the system and particularly not the KGB and the State Security Apparat. Which didn’t stop the vast machinery of the Communist State from shuddering on, crushing those who dared to resist, while it slowly fell apart under its own weight.
It was a strange era. Only a few observers in the West could see what was going on. The truth bubbled to the surface in the satellite states but was stomped out. Even in the USSR itself—for all too brief moments—no one seemed to care if people spoke out openly (or at least more openly than they’d have dared before), although equally brief crackdowns followed. It was the age of dissidents like Solzhenitsyn, and Sakharov—and of Stanislaw Lem, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky: the Golden Age of Soviet science fiction.
It was a time when science fiction was no longer a “safe” genre for those trying to avoid the demands of ideological conformity. It became far more than that: a way to safely criticize their own world.
The first Soviet science fiction film, Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924), was far more critical than Western reviewers have noted. It features poverty, corrupt bureaucrats, a lawless secret policeman intent on getting his man whether he did anything wrong or not, and a leader using the revolution to gain personal power. The censors would soon bury it from view.
However, this was also the fate of the rigorously orthodox Luch Smerti (1925) which deliberately copied the non-ideological Hollywood action films popular in the USSR at the time, and of Kosmicheskiy reys: Fantasticheskaya novella (1936) whose Cosmonauts leaping about on the Moon were deemed too “frivolous.”
It would be the last Soviet science fiction feature for two decades. They decreed “Soviet Realism” the official style, ended the “individualism” of the 1920s Avant Garde—and rejected anything as unrealistic as space flight.
After all, the good revolutionary should have his eyes set on Earthly challenges.
But science fiction did return, thanks to the Space Race and Pavel Klushantsev’s 1958 documentary, Doroga k zvezdam (Road to the Stars).
The slew of movies that followed echoed its documentary tone and emphasized the struggle, costs, and sacrifices needed to explore the stars. While the Space Race is still on in Nebo Zovyot (1959), the East German Der Schweigende Stern (First Spaceship on Venus, 1960) features a joint East/West mission whose scientists set aside their political differences and work together. Klushantsev’s Planeta Bur (1962) avoids the question altogether and focuses on the mission itself. It set the pattern for Soviet science fiction films for over a decade: vague Socialist futures united under a single government.
And the Commissars shrugged and let them get away with it, and instead tore apart the work of directors not working on science fiction.
But the cracks were already there.
A scientist dreams of an underwater Republic free from the ills of our world—if he can convince enough people to let him graft gills onto them—in 1962’s Amphibian Man. It is as grandiose a Socialist dream as you could ask for . . . and obviously foolish.
Nor is its capitalist a monster, and its reliable socialist reformer strays from Marxist Dogma and believes evil is part of human nature.
Perhaps everyone was too busy watching the underwater ballet to notice.
Or consider the comic thriller The Hyperboloid of Engineer Garin, whose evil capitalists are pawns in the villain’s scheme to destroy the world’s financial system and re-build it according to his utopian schemes. It all sounds suspiciously like Lenin, Stalin, or a Bond villain.
And then there’s The Andromeda Nebula (1967), whose Captain is advised (as a matter of efficiency) to have the painful memories of the woman he loves erased through the wonders of Soviet science. He refuses because that pain is an important part of what makes us human. This is of course rank heresy and smacks of “individualism,” putting his needs ahead of the collective.
Compare that to the East German Eolomea (1972), which is basically a romance until the hero leaves the girl behind for a one-way trip to explore the universe; or the utterly random—and meaningless—reversal of gravity which hurls the apparent romantic lead of Der schweigende Stern into space in the middle of a heroic rescue attempt; or the song-writing lover in Mechte Navstrechu (1963) who sacrifices himself to save an alien who isn’t even part of the collective.
As mild as The Andromeda Nebula’s deviation may sound, it was enough to scuttle a planned sequel.
But the real break happened in Czechoslovakia.
In the West, the focus was on the “Prague Spring,” the all-too-brief moment in 1968 when the Czechs tried to restore Democracy only to have the new Republic crushed by Soviet tanks.
But Czech novelists and filmmakers had been questioning Marxism long before Dubček took power: Jan Němec’s absurd—and frightening—parody of how Communism got people to manipulate themselves, A Report on the Party and the Guests, debuted in 1966. Equally critical works, like The Joke (1969) and The Ear (1970) still appeared after the Soviets rolled in, although often with devastating effects on the careers of those responsible.
While Ikarie XB-1’s 1963 space voyage is fairly straightforward, by 1966 the hopeful socialist future was gone, replaced by the absurd, in the riotous science fiction comedy, Who Wants to Kill Jessie?
A scientist learns how to view and eliminate bad dreams. Unfortunately, she doesn’t realize that it actually makes them real. Not, that is, until she gets jealous and accidentally releases the lovely comic strip character Jessie and her two pursuers from her husband’s dreams.
Her plan to make everyone happier through science is a sly parody of Marxist utopianism, and when the resulting mess ends up dragged into court, she places the blame on her husband because, after all, they were his dreams!
Other absurd Czech SF comedies with subversive subtexts followed, like I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen (1970), whose time agents try to stop the nuclear war that made their women grow beards, only to have everything stay pretty much the same because everyone waged chemical war instead!
But they also gave us the brutal post-Apocalyptic The End of August at the Hotel Ozone (1967). While its band of girl survivors shooting a live cow onscreen shocks most viewers, the ending is far worse: they destroy what little is left of civilization, not out of malice, but because it is meaningless to them.
Almost as black although surreal, absurd, comic, and falling uncomfortably between SF and Fantasy was Case for a Rookie Hangman (1970), a very strange adaptation of Gulliver’s Travels in which he visits the supposedly scientific lands of Balnibarbi and the floating island of Lemuria. But their science is mad and senseless, their actions illogical, and their rule both repressive and nearly random.
But Czech science fiction soon lost its satiric edge.
In 1966, Andrei Tarkovsky shocked Soviet officialdom with Andrei Rublev. He’d managed to make a deeply religious movie in the USSR, and despite the efforts to bury the film it won a major award at Cannes, making Tarkovsky one of the most famous Soviet directors overnight.
When he tried to make his next film, he ran into serious opposition but got permission to make an adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s, Solaris.
While hailed as one of the great classics of the genre, Tarkovsky himself didn’t think much of the film. It gets only the barest mention in his book Sculpting in Time and his few comments seem dismissive at best. He even claimed he deliberately made the first hour of the film boring, so the bureaucrats would stop watching before he got to his real themes.
At its heart, Solaris’ painful contact with a radically alien intelligence is a metaphor for man’s encounters with God. While he rarely makes this explicit, his references to Dostoevsky would have been clear to knowledgeable viewers.
He returned to science fiction in 1979 with Stalker, based on a Strugatsky brother’s story. Only this time he very deliberately made an anti-science-fiction film, rejecting the usual trappings of science fiction in an even more openly religious film, filled with Christian imagery and quotes from the Apocalypse. Again, the main theme is the difficult path to God, although Stalker puts even greater emphasis on one of his earlier themes: the helplessness of the machineries of the state against the “alien” influence, which they fail first to understand, then to control, and then to destroy.
Tarkovsky’s protégé, Konstantin Lopushansky, would bring a similar outlook to his harrowing post-Apocalyptic films, starting with Dead Man’s Letters (1986), which finds hope in the end of the world. The emotionally wrenching Visitor to a Museum, whose mutants expect a young skeptic to fulfill their prophecy, followed in 1989, just before the coming of Perestroika.
In 1977, at the height of Poland’s oppressive rule, Andrzej Zuławski began one of the blackest and most surreal SF films ever made, On the Silver Globe. Astronauts crash on a harsh alien planet, leaving only a few descendants whose civilization quickly descends into madness. A later astronaut tries to discover what happened to them is hailed as a god but then crucified by his followers. Ultimately, Earth itself begins to breakdown.
This clearly is not a rosy, socialist future. Instead, it says far more about the inherent flaws of human nature Marx denies. After two years of shooting in exotic locations, the Culture Commissar banned it and tried to destroy every scrap of film—even the props and costumes.
After the rise of Solidarity, Zuławski patched together what was left with some linking narration, which, thankfully, helps explain the parts we’d just watched.
Piotr Szulkin had far greater luck and somehow managed to make four, very black, political satires thinly disguised as science fiction, starting with Golem in 1980.
It tells the story of a man who doesn’t realize that he’s actually a copy. Accidentally allowed to take his original’s place, he finds himself beset by bureaucratic snarls, harassed by his landlord, and struggling to make sense of who he is and what is happening to him. Curiously, this synthetic human is the only character who shows any kindness or sympathy although he ultimately becomes just as corrupt as everyone else.
Szulkin’s next film, War of the Worlds: Next Century, is far darker and less comic if equally absurd: the State responds to a Martian invasion by setting up a “voluntary” blood drive, tagging the ears of those exempt like cattle.
O-Bi, O-Ba - The End of Civilization and Ga, Ga - Chwala bohaterom followed before Szulkin’s career foundered after the fall of Communism. While he’d mastered the snarls of the old bureaucracy, he couldn’t cope with the new Democratic State.
In the USSR the change took longer.
One notes, The Star Inspector’s (1980), starship crew from a perfect future, who do not take the slightest action without orders from Central. However, they soon find themselves forced to question and then disobey their orders.
Just to make things more interesting, the film is decidedly psychedelic, with a very Seventies rock score—a “decadent” style one shouldn’t find in a Soviet film. However, the enemy they face—a strange influence which robs people of their memories, enslaves them, and uses them to spread its dire influence to the stars—seems all too familiar, if highly deniable.
Other films echoed Solaris’ sense of mystery, although, like Moon Rainbow (1983), they often include a disclaimer that, even if we don’t understand this, someday we will.
But none of these really prepared anyone for Kin-Dza-Dza! (1986), perhaps the finest science fiction comedy ever made.
Two ordinary Muscovites get transported to the barren wastelands of Planet Pluk. Its Government converted all its water into fuel; matches are so rare that they are the most valuable commodity on the planet (even if no one would ever dream of striking one); and your status and how many times people must “Ku” to you depends on the color of your pants.
It is one of the most absurd worlds ever put on film, beset by crooked cops, strange customs, and the most unhelpful superior alien race on record.
But for those living under Communism, the hapless travelers yelling “Capitalists!” wouldn’t have distracted them from what they knew all too well from their everyday lives: misguided decisions, ecological devastation, appalling shortages, and incomprehensible rules.
While made in the USSR, the film is not Russian, but Georgian. The satellite countries, where the grip of communism was weakest, produced some of the most defiant Soviet Bloc science fiction: one suspects its origin in a once independent nation helps explain its daring attack on the status quo.
The exception was Erich Honecker’s repressive East Germany, whose few science fiction films remained relatively free of ideological deviations. One notes the “decadent” psychedelic design of In the Dust of the Stars (1976), but this is balanced by ending with a routine socialist revolution.
The closest they came was Es ist nicht leicht ein Gott zu sein (1989), an adaptation of the Strugatsky brother’s Hard to be a God, which started production as the wall crumbled. The Earth has found an alien planet in an oppressive stage of development analogous to Marx’s version of the Dark Ages. But the violence and ignorance appalls one of the observers and goads him into trying to improve things, regardless of the rules.
Hard to be a God was one of the works set in the brother’s Noon Universe, where Earth has become a socialist utopia which observes—and sometimes helps—other less advanced worlds. But, as in Inhabited Island (and its 2009 movie adaptation), this “help” often means oppression and terror as they try to follow Marx’s dogmatic “scientific” history to utopia. The final, unfinished novel in the series would have revealed that the other major power in Inhabited Island was only outwardly oppressive: at its heart was a utopia much like the Noon Earth, made possible by those outer layers. Its rulers even argue that the Noon Universe could only exist as a literary fantasy!
By the end of the Eighties, with the Soviet Bloc already crumbling, darkness and absurdity crept into their science fiction films.
While there were a few tame bits of rebellion in films like The Witches’ Cave (1989), one also finds one of the blackest adaptations of Ray Bradbury ever made.
Instead of the bright, shiny, commercialized future we might expect from Ray’s short story, “The Veldt” is set in a crumbling future. The new suburban home loaded down with every imaginable modern convenience is instead a damp and crumbling mansion and the dead are rising from the grave and wandering around. The movie uses bits from several Bradbury stories—horror, fantasy, and mainstream—but sets them against an unprecedented Apocalyptic background.
On the other hand, End of Eternity (1987) is a remarkably faithful adaptation of Asimov’s book and a searing criticism of Communism.
In the nearly timeless realm of “Eternity” in the distant future, a group of Eternals travel through the timelines they control, trying to perfect the carefully edited histories they’ve established.
While they want to create perfect happiness for those living in time, they have done this at the expense of space exploration and other “unimportant” developments. They decide what’s best for everyone and prevent them from making any other choices. For all their benevolence, theirs is a deeply intrusive rule by remote and supposedly disinterested elites.
One suspects that Dr. Asimov wouldn’t have approved.
The only major change, though, is the dark and open-ended finale, which rejects Asimov’s happy ending, questions the motives of the rebels, and reveals that the elites are running things in the time before “Eternity.”
For the Soviet Union, it was the end of eternity as well. The monolithic Bloc fell apart, in chaos and confusion.
While science fiction did not cause the collapse, it was one of the few areas where the discontent beneath the surface could be safely expressed. To the ordinary Soviet citizen, sitting in a darkened theater or reading the latest Strugatsky brother’s novel, there was no question what was being criticized.
When it becomes impossible to speak the truth, people will always find ways to say what needs to be said.
And this was what writers and directors found in science fiction. They could hide behind fantastic worlds and imagined circumstances and then claim that it had nothing to do with the real world.
In a world which had long since lost faith in the Revolution, that was all it took.
(For more information on the films mentioned, see here.)
Mark Cole hates writing bios. Despite many efforts he has never written one he likes, perhaps because there are many other things he'd rather be writing. He writes from Warren, Pennsylvania, where he has managed to avoid writing about himself for both newspaper and magazine articles. His musings on Science Fiction have appeared in Clarkesworld and at IROSF.com, while his most recent story, "Let's Start from the Top..." appeared in Daily Science Fiction.