On the Shelf: Russian Speculative Fiction

There I was, sitting outside, watching my oldest daughter show me how she can ride a bike without training wheels, feeling quite accomplished. I’d sent off about two dozen packages in the mail of handmade cloth masks and hand-knitted dishcloths that sported this year’s slogan. I then hand-sanitized up and headed to Target for my first mom-shopping in a little over four months, in order to stock up on some things for our upcoming move. I have a few more contracts to take care, but I was feeling pretty smug that I was on top of my to-do list… and then realized that it was officially Wednesday evening, and I’d forgotten to post the OTS blog. Oy.

So, I wandered over to the shelves and decided that it might be time to share my love of Russian speculative fiction literature with the world. First, I love Russian literature. I am not as learned as others, but I did once almost miss my bus stop because I was deeply enthralled in the pages of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Then, one evening, when I was on my second deployment, I wandered over to the MWR building to see what was playing on the big screen. They had a movie I hadn’t heard about, Night Watch, directed by Timur Bekmambetov–a Russian urban fantasy with fantastic, artistic subtitles. I sat, enthralled, and went back and watched it a few more times when I had the evening free. That movie was my intro to the world of Russian speculative fiction, a world I’m just beginning to explore. My Russian language skills are super basic and pretty rusty, but my goal is to get good enough to read books by Russian authors in the original language.

Anyway, I have a small selection, as most of the RSF books on my shelf are in the To-Be-Read section, but here are some fun ones to get you started.

Day Watch
Lukyanenko, Sergei. Day Watch, Trans. Andrew Bromfield, Hyperion Books, NY, 2006.

Night Watch (the movie I saw) was the first in this series. As of now, the book series concludes with Book 6, Sixth Watch, which I didn’t realize existed until I went to look up the link for Day Watch, and now I have another book on my TBR shelf. The movie trilogy ends with Day Watch, although there are rumors out there that Timur Bekmambetov will finish out the trilogy. (Universe, you listening?) Anyway… the premise of the books is that there are supernatural creatures who are divided into the forces of good, or Light, and evil, or Darkness, and they have a treaty that is enforced by members of the Night Watch (Light, because they’re keeping their eyes on the Dark) and the Day Watch (Darkness). There are vampires, magic-workers, shapeshifters, and all manner of beings struggling back and forth in the setting of modern-day Moscow. It is a setting and plot familiar to fans of urban or contemporary fantasy, but with a unique Russian flavor. I definitely recommend starting with Night Watch, and then hitting up Day Watch, as noted above, but the entire series is worth a good read (and the movies are terrific, too!)

Hard to Be a God
Strugatsky, Arkady and Strugatsky, Boris. Hard to Be a God, trans. Olena Bormashenko, Chicago Review Press, original copyright 1964, reprint 2014.

As I was flipping through this book, I realized it might be about time for a re-read. This is a book that is eminently entertaining and readable, and that has a depth that rewards repeat perusal. The book follows Rumata/Anton, who is sent from an ostensibly Communist utopian future to a dark, medieval society, there to observe while playing the part of an arrogant nobleman. That’s the surface of it. In addition to the plot and swashbuckling, this story takes on added context, being written during a time when certain art and writing could have significant negative consequences for the writer/artist operating in Soviet Russia. And yet, even under those circumstances, related in this edition with an afterword penned by Boris Strugatsky, there appears this work, which has outlasted the regime under which it was written. I highly recommend this, both for the excellent story, and for an appreciation of its place in the historical SF canon.

The Winter Men/Зимние Мужчины
Lewis, Brett & Leon, John Paul. The Winter Men, Wildstorm Productions, 2009.

Yeah, I cheated on this one. But what are going to do, call the blog police? Anyway, this is a graphic novel set in Moscow and Brooklyn, and a bunch of other places, with themes of what makes a superman, and what governments will do to… well… make a superman. It’s a violent, gritty comic, and I really enjoyed it, although I almost didn’t pick it up (the guy trying to sell it to me at a ComicCon was a condescending a-hole, who tried to explain modern Russia to me and looked blank when I mentioned Masha Gessen, so whatever…) The pace moves super fast, and I sometimes felt as if the authors were writing this as a plan to be adapted into a television show or movie instead of taking their time, but on the other hand, it’s a graphic novel, and the visuals tell a lot of the story. If you like stories about crime, corruption, loyalty, and government experiments to create super soldiers, this one should be on your list.

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