contemporary SF in the Russian and Czech contexts

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8 min readMay 31, 2021


Today’s topic

We’ll discuss certain authors and works who are prominent in contemporary SF in the Russian and Czech contexts.

“Calling the Future: What Names in Russian and East European Science Fiction Reveal” Today at 4pm: this is a talk connected to an assignment for this course

A recording of the talk will be posted to CREECA’s website for those who can’t attend.

Start-of-class discussion

Reactions to the excerpts (Glukhovsky in the Russian context, Ajvaz in the Czech context) that we read?

of reality it is reality in itself, it is the action, the inhalation and exhalation, the ebb and flow of forces.” (MichalAjvaz)

It opened in 1935 with 13 stations. It now has over 200 stations and one of the longest metro tracks in the world. Some stations are very, very deep underground. It has an average daily ridership of around 7 million people (or at least it did prior to the pandemic).

It was built to be a triumph of Soviet ingenuity and science, so… it’s most definitely part of the Soviet project as a sci-fi project! It was an ambitious project, both technologically and artistically. It mobilized vast numbers of people: engineers, artists, builders. Other countries in the Soviet sphere of influence constructed similar metro projects in their capital cities.

Stations are intricately, artistically, and uniquely designed. Tourists in Moscow often visit the most beautiful stations. This also means they’re easily identifiable by design pattern.

The station’s name is an abbreviation for Exhibition of Achievements of the National Economy (Выставка достижений народного хозяйства). Construction on this site was begun around the same time as construction on the metro.

As the English translation indicates, it was an exhibition devoted to the power and prowess of the Soviet economy. The locus of action in the novella — the home-base metro station of the protagonist-is thus culturally and historically symbolic.

Other metro stations mentioned in the book are also symbolic. For example, the “Red line,” which is the locus of communist resurgence in the novel (and communism is associated with red). Note also the ring line, which in the novel is the locus of power for the so-called Hanza, short for Hanseatic League: the ring line allows them to trade with all other lines, so they became, like the Germanic Hanseatic League of yore, a rich and powerful trading entity.

Maps of the Moscow metro with locations of key lines/stations (VDNKh is north on Yellow)

He is a Russian journalist and author. He’s a hugely successful SF/F writer in first the Russian and then a world context, and his work has become transmedia (books, video games, and soon a film).

His main home is Moscow, but he travels frequently. He’s something of a polyglot: in addition to Russian, he speaks English, French, German, Armenian, and Hebrew (and some Spanish).

He has published other books besides those in the Metro series. These include: Dusk (2007), which he wrote chapter by chapter on his blog as online experimental fiction; Tales of the Motherland (2010), which is a collection of stories that satirize contemporary Russian realities; Future (2013), a dystopian novel that takes place in the 25 thcentury when people are immortal (and if they have a child, one of the parents must agree to give up that immortality); and Text (2017), his first non-SF/F book.

So what’s going on in this book? We’ve read the first chapter (at least) and already have an idea. The year is 2013, and a nuclear war has forced most of Moscow’s surviving population underground to the metro stations in search of refuge. This is, by the way, plausible: the Moscow metro was designed with this contingency in mind.

takes place a year after the events in the first book; it was published in Russia in 2009. Metro 2035 is the sequel to 2034, but it’s also a book written for the video game Metro: Last Light, and it was published in Russian in 2015.

There is also a strong mix of SF and F. The main premise is the former, but the rest of the plot is much closer to the latter.

Glukhovsky was strongly influenced by the works of the Strugatsky brothers-and also Tarkovsky’s Stalker. The atmosphere is “claustrophic” (people live, after all, in metro tunnels) and also there is tension, suspense, anticipation. This is rather like the Zone in Stalker, except with Glukhovsky you know that something will eventually happen… and it does. Glukhovsky intentionally borrows the term/concept “stalker” from the Strugatskys for one of the characters.

Does it live up to SF’s potential? Is there a cognitive aspect to the estrangement? Perhaps so, but I think it’s rather superficial or shallow. If you’ve read the book(s) and want to convince me otherwise in your final project, I’m certainly open to the dialogue.

The Metro 2033 franchise

One critic has written: “Bizarrely, one thing Metro 2033 doesn’t often feel like is a novel.” And indeed, the Metro series has spawned several video games. Metro 2033, released in 2010, was the first: it is played from a first-person perspective, players control Artyom, they encounter human and mutant enemies, they must wear a gas mask to explore the Earth’s surface. Metro: Last Light, released in 2013, was the second.

Has anyone played these and would you like to tell us about them? I don’t play video games, but I read that the second game has two alternate endings in Artyom’s final confrontation with the Dark Ones (let’s try not engage in spoilers, though, if some want to put this series on their summer reading-lists).

In short, the series has been-and continues to be-a sensation. In fact, there is a film being made now that has a tentative release date in 2022. Glukhovsky has said that he turned down film offers for years, but he finally found a company that would make the film the way he wants. In August 2019, he said: “Our ambitions turned out to be similar: to create a world-class blockbuster and stun even those who have read the trilogy and know it by heart.” So stay tuned!

He is a Czech/Russian novelist, poet, translator, and academic researcher. His writing is in the literary mainstream, and he has won major awards for it in the Czech context, including the Jaroslav Seifert Prize, the Czech Republic’s highest literary honor, in 2005.

Like Lem before him, his style is often compared to Borges’s, and he has been called a magical realist. Ajvaz himself denies this and sees himself more as an SF writer (and is a really big SF nerd). His books have been translated into English, French, Japanese, Italian, Croatian, Norwegian, Russian, and other languages.

He began publishing late in life (at the age of 40). Prior to that he worked various technical jobs: for example, as a night security guard at a parking lot and hotel handyman. It’s tough being an intellectual dissident under a repressive regime! His full-time day job is as a researcher in the Center for Theoretical Study, which is affiliated with Charles University and the Czech Academy of Sciences (“science” in the broad sense of knowledge, including knowledge emerging from humanistic disciplines).

His major novels include (with original Czech publication dates followed by English translations): The Other City (1993/2009); The Golden Age (2001/2010); Empty Streets (2004/2016); Voyage to the South (2008/English translation apparently in progress); Luxembourg

(2011/English translation apparently in progress); and Cities (2019/no English translation in progress yet).

It’s a great example of experimental prose in the Slavic SF/Fantasy tradition, but it’s also… not everyone’s cup of tea! It’s intellectual, theoretical, abstract, symbolic: this is not an SF/F adventure tale with well-developed characters! It is, however, an adventure tale in terms of the intellect and the imagination.

Critics have pointed out that Ajvaz is interested in story-telling, but not really in characterization. The dialogue is more like monologue: it’s flat and monotone. All Ajvaz’s characters “speak in about the same voice, and their personalities are generally one-dimensional. Ajvaz seems uninterested in motivations and psychological realism; unlike most of us, his characters exist primarily to tell their stories” (Jonathan Bolton).

This critic goes on, however, to emphasize that the stories are worth it:

“But oh, what stories! Imagine an underground cathedral lit solely by luminous fish swimming in glass statutes. Imagine wasps that buzz behind your bathroom mirror and sting you while you’re shaving. Imagine a species of white ants that scare off predators by condensing into the form of a tiger, whose eyes turn green and emit teardrops, which alone can cure an unfortunate sickness that keeps its victims asleep most of the time… Imagine an afterlife whose inhabitants argue about whether they are in heaven or in hell; imagine that the doodles in your tenth-grade math notes had infuriated the queen of a distant land, whose top spy lures you into her clutches with a floating puppet theatre.”

should also remind us of The Other City Metro 2033 in one respect: it estranges the everyday reality of a beloved capital city (in Ajvaz’s case, Prague). If you know Prague and read this book,

everyday places and experiences (like riding a tram) take on new symbolic meanings. One critic says that Ajvaz “breathes new life” into a Czech literary tradition of “Prague walkers”: “Visitors who have gotten their fill of the golems, witches, and Kafka caricatures that populate Prague’s postcard stands will find in Ajvaz a new mythical geography.”

This is the last formal class that I’ll be teaching, and so I’d like to wrap things up for this course in some way. I am, admittedly, never very good at summing up a course-sorry about that! But maybe a not so terrible way to do it is to look back on our course goals and see whether we’ve managed to meet them.

We’ve actually done these things, haven’t we?

I will add to this that I hope…

If you have any thoughts about the course, please don’t be shy. I’d love to hear from you, and not only in the course evaluations, which will be live soon.

We do have one more formal class (next Tuesday, 4–20), which features a guest speaker, Dr. Krzysztof Borowski (Polish Studies, UW-Madison). Dr. Borowski will talk to us about the Polish writer Andrzej Sapkowski, author of The Witcher series. Like Glukhovsky’s work in Russia, Sapkowski’s has spawned a transmedia empire. After that, we take some time to focus on our final projects, and our regular class time will be office hours for consultations on those projects. If you can, please try to email me in advance to let me know that you’ll be dropping in to talk about your project-and give me a hint of what we’ll be discussing so I be as prepared and helpful as possible.

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