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Early Soviet Science Fiction and the Unevenness of Modernism: An Aerial View

In envisioning alternative futures—utopian, dystopian, cataclysmic—we historicize the present. Marxist critics like Fredric Jameson read science fiction as the new Lukácsian historical novel.[1] Others, turning to a further distant future, elaborate on the new perceptions of time and space offered in SF as visions that push toward cosmic and nonhuman scales.[2] As such, SF shares with the modernism of Virginia Woolf and James Joyce a similar interest in defamiliarization, in the limits or failure of representation, and in deconstructing the illusion of realism through cognitive estrangement. Science fiction and modernism, critics claim, intersect not simply in a few high literary works like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) or the Strugatsky Brothers’ Roadside Picnic (1972) but at the more fundamental level of science fiction “itself as a modernist practice” invested in the novum, in making it new.[3]

Yet what exactly does this theory of “science fictional modernism” entail? If rarely read cult classics can now be reclaimed as rebellious examples of a bad modernism “at its baddest,” how far does that extend our understanding of modernism?[4] While critics readily trace the cognitive and aesthetic experimentalism in popular SF and high modernist works back to the scientific and technological breakthroughs of the twentieth century, the conveniently universal term “technology” also assumes a Eurocentric and diffusionist paradigm, whereby modernity (and modernism) are at once the privilege and the curse of the West, a condition to be eventually caught up by more “backward” countries. Scholars of global modernisms have rejected this view, arguing instead for a wide range of peripheral modernities that are not derivative but constitutive of metropolitan modernity.[5] The machine-obsessed futurists in Italy and Russia, for example, attest to what Harsha Ram calls a “double paradox”: “the temporal paradox of a radical modernity arising within ‘backwardness,’ and the spatial paradox of the core status suddenly claimed by two of the key semi-peripheral states of Europe.”[6] The confidence with which Italian and Russian futurists addressed their militant claims to the literary center of Paris counters Franco Moretti’s and Pascale Casanova’s arguments that world literature is dominated by a centripetal impulse.

This essay likewise rejects the world system models of world literature by highlighting the conjunctions between science fiction in interwar Britain and the Soviet Union. Such conjunctions have been typically framed in terms of the genealogy of the dystopian novel, introducing Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We (1924) as the source text for George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1947), mediating between Wells’s early scientific romance and what would become the model for twentieth-century dystopian imagination.[7] My goal is to challenge such readings of a unidirectional metropolitan influence, to illustrate instead a different set of connections between Soviet and British SF modernist texts. Of course, to claim direct influence beyond the Wells-Zamyatin-Orwell trio recalls the famous unsolved (and unsolvable) literary mystery of whether Huxley’s Brave New World was, as Orwell claimed, “derived from We.”[8] Yet as we shall see, the assemblages of SF motif reveal a comparable undertaking in both British and Soviet traditions: to grapple with the paradoxes of modernity in its combined and uneven development.

What connects Soviet and British SF modernism, I argue, is not simply the Orwellian nightmare vision of totalitarianism coupled with technocracy, but the new perspectives and visions opened up by new technologies as they were adopted and imagined in the peripheries of the world system. Centering on aviation technology and its cultural impact on western Europe and the early USSR, I discuss how the aeronautical perspective in particular helped construct a new sense of history in early Soviet SF that in turn shaped the works of British writers like Olaf Stapledon and Wells in the 1930s.[9] Zamyatin himself, who recognized the modernist aspects of Wells’s nauchnaia fantastika (scientific fantasy) long before they were rediscovered by new modernist critics today, often compares the Wellsian SF aesthetics to that of an airplane. What makes Wells’s works revolutionary, he writes, is their “headlong, airplane flight of plot,” where “everything whizzes by—facts, events, and ideas,” which captures precisely the rhythm and speed of modern life and the airplane: “daring what until now has been permitted only to angels, is . . . the symbol of revolution taking place in man.”[10]

Taking up this “air-mindedness” of Wellsian SF, early Soviet writers adapted the genre to give shape to the new historical consciousness in the wake of the October Revolution.[11] The fantastical spaceflights featured in early Soviet SF offer impressive aerial views of strange planets, now read as symbolic maps of historical progress or decadence. Alexei Tolstoi’s Aelita: The Decline of Mars (1921), for example, restages Russia’s revolutionary history by setting a (failed) proletarian uprising against the backdrop of Martian wastelands and ruins, metaphors of the corrupt, feudal rule of the Czar-like High Priest on the red planet. In turn, Yakov Protazanov’s 1924 film adaptation of the novel reverses the audience’s gaze, directing it from Tolstoi’s barren Martian landscape to a montage of aerial views of Moscow and Petrograd through the telescopic apparatus of the Martian princess Aelita, implicitly celebrating the new Soviet state’s military prowess and busy urban life. For Andrei Platonov, utopia-building requires simultaneously the future-oriented exploration of outer space and the retrospective excavation of the past. His short story trilogy, “The Descendants of the Sun” (1922), depicts a future that belongs to engineers—some bent on missions to the moon, some inventing ways to harness new energies emitted from the sun, some taking trips beneath the Siberian tundra to recover a lost civilization that mastered advanced technologies millions of years before.[12] Unlike in prerevolutionary SF like Alexander Bogdanov’s Red Star (1908) and Engineer Menni (1911), utopia no longer lies in distant worlds and alternative futures, but much closer to home on Earth.

Roughly a decade later, this aerial historical perspective found its way to the new SF genre in interwar Britain: the future history, typified by Wells’s utopian novel The Shape of Things to Come (1933), where the airplane became both a motif of technological novelty and an experimental narrative point of view necessary for imagining alternative histories of the future. As critic Morgan Fritz points out, Wells’s “increasingly monomaniacal interest” in the World State is proportional to his experimentation with miniaturization as a literary strategy.[13] For Wells, who went to Soviet Russia in 1920 and would begin his third visit for a meeting with Stalin in 1933, not long after the publication of The Shape of Things to Come in the same year, the future resembles an urban planning model, with the narrator “withdrawing his perspective to a great distance [so that each] narrative becomes a series of tableaus and the outcome is determined by a set of hidden laws known only to Wells” (222). Likewise, Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930)—which constitutes what Phillip Wegner describes as “the first modernist moment of science fiction”—invites readers to contemplate 200 billion years of future human history through the eyes of an imaginary pilot overlooking “the broad features of the continent.”[14]

In Soviet culture, what for Wells and Stapledon were the hidden laws of history were already plainly inscribed in the landscape. In the Russian space operas mentioned above, the landscape was not only a historical allegory but also the physical embodiment of Russia’s combined and uneven development that, according to Leon Trotsky, laid the very foundation of revolution. For Trotsky, Russia’s unique socio-economic conditions—where a “barbarous nomadic economy functioned alongside the most modern, American-style factories”—is best summarized in the word prostranstvo, or (vast or stretched out) space (Palmer, Dictatorship of the Air, 99). Capitalist development under Tsarist rule had been uneven and haphazard, belatedly imposed from top-down, and largely a western import. Yet it was precisely this uneven and combined development that pushed Russia toward a “permanent revolution” in which workers and peasants took up a continuous role in the revolutionary struggles towards a socialist state. Backwardness, Trotsky argues, therefore has its “privileges”: “Under the whip of external necessity, their backward culture is compelled to make leaps.”[15] It was backwardness that paradoxically allowed Russia to take its revolutionary leap into the most advanced political form.[16]

Progress, or the lack thereof, was thus as much a geographical as a socio-economic problem. For Trotsky, prostranstvo was “the greatest ally and the most terrible adversary” of the Soviet state (Palmer, Dictatorship of the Air, 99). On the one hand, it guaranteed the success of the Red Army in the Civil War, especially when the relative isolation of urban centers made it impossible for anti-Bolshevik forces to take control by besieging the strategic points. On the other hand, this unevenness remained an intractable problem for the fledgling Soviet state on its slow progress to modernization. To forge a “union” (smychka) between urban centers and villages became the new nation’s foremost concern.[17] This urgent need to overcome prostranstvo can be seen in Lenin’s dream of the general electrification of “all Russia,” but also in Vladimir Tatlin’s plans to broadcast radio messages from the top of his Monument to the Third International, and in the futurist “agit-trains” outfitted with posters, loudspeakers, and film equipment to spread propaganda in remote districts.

Neither electricity, nor the radio, nor the locomotive inspired as much unbounded faith in overcoming prostranstvo as the airplane, however. The airplane in Russia was not simply a symbol of modernity but itself the practical means to reach that modernity (Palmer, Dictatorship of the Air, 7). Trotsky called aviation “the instrument of the future.”[18] Unrestrained by the need for extensive infrastructures such as motor roads and railroads, an airplane could cover vast territories at hitherto impossible speed, promising to connect pockets of advanced developments (the cities) with the rest of the country still mired in superstition, technological underdevelopment, and economic hardship. Aviation, in other words, makes a prime example of “the privileges of backwardness.” At the end of the Twelfth Party Congress in 1923, Trotsky called for a Red Air Fleet, arguing that the relative immaturity of aviation technology throughout the world constituted a decisive advantage for Russia, which lagged behind in other areas.

Much of the early Soviet SF was written against the background of a nationwide campaign for aeronautical programs, the center of the USSR’s modernization project. Zamyatin’s We, for example, satirizes this official discourse of overcoming prostranstvo. Its beginning with the futuristic One State’s announcement of its civilizing mission recalls the flurry of propaganda posters and “air fiction,” elaborate “agit-flight” demonstrations, and “aria-corners” that replaced the traditional “holy corners” in Russian peasants’ homes between the 1920s and 1940s. The project of One State’s interplanetary rocket, the Integral, “to subjugate the unknown beings on other planets, who may still be living in the primitive condition of freedom, to the beneficent yoke of reason” echoes the state-directed propaganda promoting the Bolshevik regime’s determination to bring peasants out of the “darkness” (khmara) of rural isolation, superstition, and ignorance of modern technologies.[19] As the rocket hovers “in mid-air . . . about a kilometer from the earth,” however, the narrator sees a more extensive longue durée of history (202). The panoramic view of the planet offered by the rocket’s elevated position reveals a hidden geography of combined development not unlike that of the USSR itself. Prostranstvo, the novel shows, turns out to be a condition internal to the ultramodern One State itself: its “savage” past has not been overcome, but rather lies beyond the Green Wall separating the city from the country, where a multitude of primitive tribes roam the steppes and among the ruins of previous civilizations (202). The temporal linear form of historical progress turns out to be a three-dimensional plane where multiple temporalities coexist and interact.

Scholars today will of course be familiar with this totalizing vision that, commanded from above, allows the whole (of a nation, of a culture, of history itself) to be comprehended in one fell swoop.[20] Implicated in the history of empire, fascism, total war, and modern surveillance, such a vista captured the imagination of modernist figures from F. T. Marinetti and Le Corbusier to Guillaume Apollinaire and Woolf. But an elevated viewpoint did not always reinforce the viewer’s privileged optical knowledge or position of power. On the contrary, a more complex cognitive and psychological process is at work here. Historians of aerial images show that the invention of vertical aerial photography in 1909 (the precursor to satellite images today) seriously disrupted the ways in which an area could be surveyed, measured, or governed.[21] Often, with its radical abstraction, foreshortening, and elimination of human figures, the vertical aerial photograph was simply illegible. One had to be retaught how to see: during World War I, RAF pilots were given manuals and “air packets” that categorized the landscape” into “Cubist,” “Futurist,” “Industrial,” and other patterns, to orient themselves on the front (Kaplan, Aerial Aftermaths, 170–72).

For the Soviet artist, the confusion, discomfort, but also elation in early aviation encapsulated the heady experience of the revolution. The rocket, as the radical extension of the airplane, had functioned in Russia as a metaphor for emancipation since the nineteenth century, “extending liberation (into space) and pushing utopian speculations beyond reality (into fantasy).”[22] In We, for example, the vision offered by the climatic rocket launch into space is one of both exhilaration and confusion:

Dull explosion—jolt—aft, a green-and-white mountain of water goes berserk—deck, soft and spongy, vanishes beneath the feet—and everything below, all of life, forever. . . . Then—a momentary curtain of cotton wadding clouds—through it—and the sun was shining in a blue sky. Seconds, minutes, miles—and the blue was quickly becoming firm and suffused with darkness, the stars were emerging like drops of cold silver sweat.

And here it was—the anxious, unbearably bright, black, starry, sunny night. It was how it might be if you suddenly went deaf. You can still see the trumpets blaring, but you only see them; the trumpets are mute. There’s only silence. That’s how the sun was—mute.[23]

As the earth races away, disorientation, vertigo, and synesthesia overwhelm the protagonist D-503 and his fellow scientists. Descriptions break off; flying becomes falling; day turns into night. Rather than the magisterial adventurism that characterizes, say, Marinetti’s or Le Corbusier’s praise for aviation, here is a moment of confusion and helplessness. Perspective, the horizon, human scale, and other pictorial references simply vanish. The sublime immensity of the landscape cannot be comprehended or surmounted by the viewing subject.

This scene in We recalls the avant-garde artist Kazimir Malevich’s suprematist constructions. Deeply influenced by mechanized flight and its potential for art, Malevich describes the path to abstract art as an airplane’s ascent: “the familiar recedes further and further into the background,” he writes in Non-Objective World: The Manifestation of Suprematism (1926). The contours of the objective fade more and more . . . until finally the world—everything we loved and by which we have lived—becomes lost to sight.”[24] Malevich’s prerevolutionary works like Airplane Flying (fig. 1), geometric blocks of colors floating against the white canvas, call to mind not only the WWI flight manuals and air packets, but also Zamyatin’s praise for the “headlong, airplane flight of plot” in Wells’s early scientific romance, “where everything whizzes by—faces, events, ideas” (The Soviet Heretic, 271).

 Airplane Flying, 1915
Figure 1. Kazimir Malevich, Suprematist Composition: Airplane Flying, 1915 (dated on reverse 1914), oil on canvas, 22 7/8 x 19 in. (58.1 x 48.3 cm). Digital image. © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY.

It is significant, therefore, that in We the rocket never manages to break off from the Earth’s orbit and venture into outer space. Once the Integral returns to the atmosphere, D-503 struggles to translate the abstract forms he sees back into features of a traditional landscape: “Amber, green, blue: the autumn woods, meadows, a lake” (Zamyatin, We, 202). The complacent visual experience one gets from hovering above Earth prefigures the ending, where D-503 subjugates himself to the state’s phantasectomy, removing his imagination and, by extension, the possibility for revolution.

For comparison we may now turn to Last and First Men, in which Stapledon’s narrator describes the longue durée of human development as an endlessly vast landscape viewed from the vantage point of an airplane. As the narrative progresses, human existence dwindles into a mere spot in the “doubtless extremely inaccurate” cosmic timescales that are appended at the beginning of each section of the novel (fig. 2) (Stapledon, Last and First Men, 320). Flying up and down across this prostranstvo of history on a cosmic scale, Last and First Men moves back and forth between the abstract and the figural, between what Zamyatin and Malevich characterize as revolutionary art and the conventional realist mode of historiography. The aeronautical metaphor promises a stable narrative perspective in compensation for what would be a deeply disorientating reading experience. Yet this future history offers no teleology, no dialectical reason, no resolution. While the narrative beginning from 1930 to year “200 billion” remains on the whole chronological and linear, it is a line that turns out to be truncated and arabesque, brutally thrown off course by one planetary disaster after another. The narrative does not offer a structure to “girdle” the incredible expanse of space and time (5). Rather, it is a narrative device that sets it free—delving into episodes that turn out to have little historical significance, where human agents are affirmed on their own terms rather than for their capacity to salvage civilizations. With Last and First Men, a new aesthetic of SF and historical consciousness emerges, one that takes contingency and multiple temporalities as the norm.

Diagram by Olaf Stapledon, Time Scales 1, 4, & 5. Reproduced from Last and First Men
Figure 2. Olaf Stapledon, Time Scales 1, 4, & 5. Reproduced from Last and First Men, New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1935. Public domain.

To speak of a science-fictional modernist aesthetics, then, requires us to make detours into the early Soviet Union and its 1920s SF culture. As both Soviet and British SF modernist writers envisioned a radically different future, they found the present world already defamiliarized under a new logic of history based on the Bolsheviks’ reinterpretation of revolution and historical progress. If aerial images encode abstract shapes as traces of the past, in the “air-minded” works of Zamyatin, Malevich, Stapledon, and others, one leaps across historical temporality itself. Such a comparative reading of British and Soviet SF points to a reciprocity between metropolitan and peripheral modernist cultures that cannot be registered merely through the study of literary influence. To take into account this new revolutionary aesthetics, we will need a model of literary history that looks beyond the coterie of writers, and toward the symbiosis between aesthetic and political cultures on a transnational scale.


[1] See Fredric Jameson, Archaeologies of the Future (New York: Verso 2005); and Phillip Wegner, “Jameson’s Modernisms; Or, the Desire Called Utopia,” Diacritics 37, no. 4 (2007): 2–20.

[2] See, for example, Mark McGurl, “The Postmodern Comedy,” Critical Inquiry 38, no. 3 (2012): 533–53; and Wai Chee Dimmock, “Low Epic,” Critical Inquiry 39, no. 3 (2013): 614–31.

[3] Wegner, “Jameson’s Modernisms,” 7.

[4] Charles M. Tung, “Baddest Modernism: The Scales and Lines of Inhuman Time,” Modernism/modernity 23, no. 3 (2016): 518. See also Douglas Mao and Rebecca L. Walkowitz, eds., Bad Modernisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006).

[5] See, for example, Harsha Ram, “The Scale of Global Modernism: Imperial, National, Regional, Local,” PMLA 131, no. 5 (2016): 1372–85, and Susan Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2018).

[6] Harsha Ram, “Futurist Geographies: Uneven Modernities and the Struggle for Aesthetic Autonomy: Paris, Italy, Russia, 1909–1914,” in The Oxford Handbook of Global Modernisms (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 313–40, 314.

[7] See, for example, Mark Hillegas, The Future as Nightmare: H. G. Wells and the Anti-Utopians (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1967).

[8] George Orwell, “Review of We by E. I. Zamyatin,” Tribune, January 4, 1946, in The Collected Essays, Journalism, and Letters of George Orwell, ed. Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus (London: Penguin, 1970), 4: 95.

[9] Paul March-Russell and Anindita Banerjee have also discussed the significance of the airplane in SF and modernism, especially in relation to the Russian avant-garde. See Paul March-Russell, Modernism and Science Fiction (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015) and “Science fiction, Modernism, and the Avant-Garde,” in The Cambridge History of Science Fiction, ed. Gerry Canavan and Eric Carl Link (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 132; as well as Anindita Banerjee, We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2012). For an overview of the studies of Russian SF, see Anindita Banerjee, ed., Russian Science Fiction Literature and Cinema: A Critical Reader (Boston, MA: Academic Studies Press, 2018).

[10] Yevgeny Zamyatin, The Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin, ed. and trans. Mirra Ginsburg (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1970), 271, 285.

[11] The term “air-mindedness” is taken from Scott W. Palmer’s Dictatorship of the Air: Aviation Culture and the Fate of Modern Russia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). By “air-mindedness,” Palmer means that a “particular set of cultural traditions, symbols, and markers[,] combined with existing political culture and social institutions, constitute[s] a given nation’s response to the airplane” (2).

[12] Andrei Platonov, “From The Sun, The Moon, and the Ether Channel,” trans. Elliott Urday and A. L., in Worlds Apart: An Anthology of Russian Fantasy and Science Fiction, ed. Alexander Levitsky (New York: Overlook Duckworth, 2007).

[13] Morgan Fritz, “Miniaturization and Cosmopolitan Future History in the Fiction of H. G. Wells,” Science Fiction Studies 37, no. 2 (July 2010): 210–29, 212.

[14] Olaf Stapledon, Last and First Men (New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, 1935), 4. See also Wegner, “Jameson’s Modernism,” 9.

[15] Leon Trotsky, The History of Russian Revolution, trans. Max Eastman (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2008), 5.

[16] Trotsky first developed the idea of the permanent revolution in his remarks on the 1905 Revolution, Results and Prospects. With the experience of 1917, the next stage of the world revolution was expected no longer in advanced capitalist societies, but rather in underdeveloped, colonial, and semicolonial nations like China and India. See Leon Trotsky, The Permanent Revolution and Results and Prospects, trans. John G. Wright (London: New Park Publication, 1962).

[17] See James W. Heizen, Inventing a Soviet Countryside: State Power and the Transformation of Rural Russia, 1917–1929 (Pittsburgh, PA: Pittsburgh University Press, 2004).

[18] Leon Trotsky, “Aviation, the Instrument of the Future,” in Palmer, Dictatorship of the Air. Available in the electronic book version:

[19] Yevgeny Zamyatin, We, trans. Mirra Ginsburg (New York: Avon Books, 1972), 1. For discussion of khmara, see Heizen, Inventing a Soviet Countryside, 171–84.

[20] For example, see Michel de Certeau’s famous chapter on the World Trade Center in The Practice of Everyday Life, trans. Steven Rendall (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984): 91–110; and, more recently, Paul Saint-Amour, Tense Future: Modernism, Total War, Encyclopedic Form (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[21] See for example Mark Dorrian, “The Aerial View: Notes for a Cultural History,” Strates: Matériaux pour la recherche en sciences sociales 13 (2007): 1–17; and Caren Kaplan, Aerial Aftermaths: Wartime from Above (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2018).

[22] Asif Siddiqi, The Red Rocket’s Glare: Spaceflight and the Russian Imagination, 1857–1957 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 78.

[23] Instead of Ginsburg’s translation cited elsewhere in this essay, I am using Clarence Brown’s translation here (New York: Penguin Books, 1993). To me, Brown’s more abstract word choice and his omission of articles in the English convey a more accurate sense of the disorientation described here (191–92; see also Ginsburg’s translation, 198–99).

[24] Kazimir Malevich, The Non-Objective World, trans. Howard Dearstyne (Chicago: Paul Theobald & Co., 1959), 68.