Friday, April 9, 2021

Russian Science Fiction

The Fatal Eggs – Mikhail Bulgakov, tr. Hugh Alpin

This is an early novelette by the author of the famous novel The Master and Margarita. Bulgakov describes his main character Professor Persikov with a mix of respect and exasperation. Persikov is dedicated to his zoological and cytological research. But he is so disconnected from the real world that he doesn’t even read newspapers and his first wife left him for a travelling entertainer.

Persikov makes a stunning finding purely by chance. The Stalinist government muscles in, sending in a dumb thuggish yes-man to take over Persikov's research and equipment. Due to bureaucratic muddle and ignorant misuse of Persikov's discovery, catastrophe ensues. This is sophisticated science fiction, on the level of H.G. Wells and Doris Lessing (who wrote the introduction to this edition).

I suppose one impression would emphasize that this book is about how far the Bolshevik revolution went off the rails. Soviet critics branded Bulgakov as “a slanderer of Soviet reality.” But Bulgakov, I think, is not narrow. It wasn’t just in the Soviet Union that scientists have had to square the applications of their discoveries with their consciences– just ask J. Robert Oppenheimer. As for mindless economic interests and bureaucratic slowness exacerbating disaster, see Japan after the triple disaster of March 11, 2011. And as for luck, I think Bulgakov would assent to E.M. Forster’s observation, “There is much good luck in the world, but it is luck. We are none of us safe. We are children, playing or quarrelling on the line.”

Bulgakov was skeptical about the Revolution – why else would the ray that causes disaster be colored red? Just focusing on the politics, however, detracts from the art. Take, for example, the wonderful combination of the exuberant and the yucky in his luscious descriptions of snakes eating people.  It calls to mind that kind of sexy, kind of gross scene in The Master and Margarita where Margarita and Natasha are applying the rejuvenating cream. Also positively Gogolian are the grotesque scientists, reporters, cops, and frenzied mobs bent on murder.

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