Russophone science fiction and utopias in the margins

ALEKSANTERI INSIGHT 6/2019. Instead of scientific speculations, unforeseen technologies, and extraterrestrial utopias, current Russian science fiction revolves around history and geopolitics.

In conservative times cultural genres commonly thought to epitomize progress and advancement, may take a different turn. This is the lesson learned from The Post-Soviet Politics of Utopia (I.B. Tauris, 2020), a recent volume on Russian fantasy and science fiction edited by Mikhail Suslov and Per-Arne Bodin. Current Russian scientific and fantasy literature, both utopian and dystopic, seems to lack the radical and transformative power seminal to science fiction. That is the power to offer alternative visions of existing social, cultural, and political hegemonies.

Instead of scientific speculations, unforeseen technologies, and extraterrestrial utopias, current Russian science fiction is notably earthbound and terrestrial, even territorial. The imaginative worlds of both science fiction bulk and intellektual’naia proza are constructed around questions of history, geopolitics, and Russia’s national and imperial identity. Mainstream Russian science fiction takes its readers “back to the future and forward to the past,” as the paradox of conservative utopianism is captured by Kåre Johan Mjør, my co-author of the afterword to the volume.

Science fiction without science

It is perplexing to note how scientific imagination has been sidelined in post-Soviet Russian fantasy literature, especially when viewed against the great legacy of Russian and Soviet science fiction. Its current reincarnation is science fiction without science. Scientific utopias and dystopias offer little more than a backdrop for identitarian and imperial anxieties.

This is curiously out of sync with the perception of technology-driven societies as highlighted by the 2019 Aleksanteri Conference “Technology, Culture, and Society in the Eurasian Space,” which brought together hundreds of researchers to discuss the impact of new technologies – that is products of scientific imagination – on Russia’s and Eurasia’s past, present and future. Scientific research, natural sciences and technological innovation are promoted in Russia just as they are in other countries. But in the Russophone world of fiction, transhuman technologies, cyborgs, artificial intelligence, environmental technologies, and posthuman ethical considerations do not occupy as central a place as they do in global, often Anglophone scifi industry, circulated and consumed by Russophone audiences as well.

The latest issue of the Finnish-language alternative newspaper Voima (9/2019) encourages readers to abandon dystopias, the predominant mode of global cultural production, and to envision ecological and economic utopias instead. The issue evolves around two concepts: environment and economy. It raises questions about the need for an alternative to capitalist expansion, which has brought us to the brink of ecological destruction.

In Russia, too, the place to look for transformative utopias appears to be in alternative cultural and practices and/or imperial peripheries. Sovsem drugie (Altogether others) is a Russian-language anthology of science fiction published in Bishkek in 2018. The transnational group of authors are Russian, Central-Asian, and American feminist, LGBT, and environmental activists. The novel by the Kyrgyz writer Syinat Sultanalieva is an intergalactic space voyage as well as a same-sex love story between a cyborg and the human narrator. In the story a postcolonial other writes back from an imperial periphery. And while this takes place, the author reinvigorates the imperial center’s literary tradition by regranting the Russian-language science fiction and fantasy literature its subversive power to imagine alternatives to existing social, political, and cultural hegemonies.

Download a printable pdf of Aleksanteri Insight 6/2019 here.

Sanna Turoma is senior research fellow at Aleksanteri Institute and  as of Jan 1, 2020 professor of Russian language and cultural studies at Tampere University, Finland.