Two SF Novels by Tolstoy


Aelita cover At the Sou’Wester Eastercon some years ago I bought two books from a stall manned by Russian fans. These books, published in the USSR (sic) by Raduga Publishers, Moscow, and printed in English, looked like interesting mementoes of the ‘Con’.
Both are by Alexei Tolstoy (1883-1945), a distant relative of the author of “War and Peace.” Alexei Tolstoy is one of the most widely read authors in Russia, highly regarded there both for his science fiction and for his epic historical works.
AELITA (1923), though not well known in the West, is a famous book in Russia and one of the Russian SF clubs is named after it. A movie version (still occasionally shown)) was made in 1924.
At the opening of the novel, in Petrograd c. 1920, Archibald Skiles sees an advertisment posted by the engineer M.S.Los, asking for volunteers to fly with him to Mars. Skiles interviews Los, and sees the experimental spacecraft, a complicated and hi-tech device by 1920’s standards. While Skiles is at the workshop, a volunteer, Red Army soldier Gusev, introduces himself. Gusev, unlike the other two, is no intellectual, but a restless, practical sort, who is quite ready to desert his wife for a new adventure. Los, a widower, is equally ready to go and face possible death.
Los’s experiments are funded by the Soviet State, so the launch is attended by a group of officials and newspaper reporters. The ship makes a swift passage to Mars and lands safely. Their speed has been such that their watches record a passage of 19 hours, though 24 days have passed on Earth.
Los and Gusev find that Mars has breathable air, and the immediate surroundings are a desert with cacti. They find signs of cultivation, and realise that they are walking in the bottom of a dry canal. They soon make contact with the inhabitants, who have flying machines, and are captured and brought to first a city, then an isolated house. During the flight they see mostly ruins and desolation. During their detention, Gusev talks of plunder and of annexing Mars to the Russian Federative Republic, while Los talks of gathering wisdom.
Soon they are introduced to a graceful young Martian female, Aelita. With some Martian technology resembling video she starts teaching them the language, and is subsequently able to narrate them some Martian history; a history of conflict, of invasion from Earth by Atlanteans.
A love affair between Los and Aelita develops. They learn that a faction of the High Council, led by Aelita’s father, means them no good. A revolution starts in the city, and Gusev, the man of action, escapes and joins in. Aelita’s father, Tuscoob, escapes into an underground labyrinth and launches a destructive counter-attack. Los and Gusev escape. In the final scene, Los is back on Earth, listening to Aelita’s voice calling to him by radio.


Garin page illustration
Garin pic. page
has a number of rather larger-than-life characters: glamorous femme fatale Zoya Montrose, Rolling, a rapacious American capitalist, and Garin, a mysterious engineer who soon displays ruthless tendencies. Following an unexplained murder of a man who turns out to be Garin’s double, Garin is pursued to Paris by Shelga, a Petrograd detective, and the nature of Garin’s activities and his deal with Rolling and his ultimate aim is gradually revealed. Garin, in fact, has invented a heat ray powered by chemicals which burn to produce intense heat. The rays are focussed by a ‘hyperboloid’ to destructive effect. (Any physicists among you may object that it should have been a paraboloid; according to the foreword Tolstoy was well aware of this and used the hyperboloid as a symbol of artistic exaggeration.)
Garin uses the ray ruthlessly first to aid Rolling’s capitalist schemes and then to further his own fascistic plan for world domination. Once he gains control of Rolling’s wealth he uses it to occupy a small Pacific island and drill down to the magma belt in search of gold. When the gold, in huge quantities, is recovered to the surface, Garin uses it to destroy the economy of the United States.
The novel starts in Petrograd and the scene shifts to Paris, Germany, a yacht at sea, the Soviet Far East and other locations. The story is accompanied by technical details and sketches which even today seem quite plausible by popular SF standards and must have seemed more so in 1925 when our knowledge of physics and the earth’s crust was less advanced. Tolstoy’s education was engineering-based.
The hardbacked edition of GARIN which I obtained has unusual full-page colour illustrations, most of which are rather good, being painted in a vigorous modern and in one case decidedly art-deco style. (Artist unknown).

In contrast to Zamyatin’s WE (1920), which most SF fans these days would find rather tough going, both Tolstoy’s novels, despite their age, are highly readable, full of tension and spectacle, with rather larger than life characters and the kind of technical details that these days would be labelled as cyberpunk.
Though written in the 1920’s, GARIN accurately foretold the rise of the likes of Hitler and Mussolini and the Japanese warlords. Reading this novel, one is reminded more than a little of Michael Moorcock’s ‘Byzantium’ novels in which the characters and the ambience are not too dissimilar.
As befits Soviet novels of the 1920’s they are written from a perspective which embraces socialism with enthusiasm and attacks capitalism and fascism. The socialist perspective is a novelty these days; but one should after all reflect that while socialism eventually failed in the East, capitalism has yet to show any success in improving the lot of ordinary Russians.
Unfortunately neither of these novels is currently in print in the UK. I have not been able to ascertain if Raduga are still operating in Russia.
Apparently GARIN was published in the USA as THE DEATH BOX and an out-of-print UK edition of AELITA exists. But anyone wanting to swap books with Eastern European fans might well enquire there.

AELITA, Raduga Publishers, 17 Zubovsky Boulevard, Moscow, CIS.,1991, ISBN 5-05-003454-X
ENGINEER GARIN AND HIS DEATH RAY, Raduga, 1987, ISBN 5-05-001176-0

Self Editing for Fiction Writers

Self editing for fiction writers cover Self Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne & Dave King, Morrow, 280pp.
Subtitled ‘How to edit yourself into print,’ this is a book written by two professional editors to help writers apply their editing techniques to the writer’s own work.
Chapters on dialogue, exposition, point of view, interior monologue and other techniques show you what a professional editor would work on to perfect your manuscript.
Each point is illustrated with examples, many drawn from the hundreds of books Browne and King have edited.
I found the book very useful for helping me grasp concepts that are not easy to pin down, and to see how my efforts could be improved.
Why edit? Any manuscript will benefit from editing. Nowadays publishing houses are unable to devote much effort to editing a book before publication, with the result that a strong manuscript will be published as-is, and a flawed manuscript with potential will be rejected.
Some writers pay a professional editor to look over their MS before they attempt to get it published, but this while worth doing is an expensive exercise. Better to have a go yourself before considering this route. Why pay for editing you can do yourself?

Backyard Astronomy

Lidl supermarket telescope
£70 telescope kit
I have an interest in amateur astronomy, which I have pursued on and off since childhood. Lots of others have felt the same, often inspired by popular TV programs. There is something about having a look for oneself that is hard to duplicate indoors.
On the other hand, many people dabble in amateur astronomy, then give it up almost at once. Why should this be? One reason is that what you can see from your backyard does not measure up to the amazing photos taken at major observatories or from space. Another is that a lot of the equipment sold to amateurs is neither of good quality nor particularly suitable. The sorry fact is that good quality astronomical equipment varies in cost between expensive and eye-wateringly expensive, and many telescopes or “starter scopes” are sold on the basis of cheapness. Starter-scope mountings, for instance, are almost always too wobbly.
Several of the desirable qualities of a telescope (performance, cost, size, ease of use) conflict with each other. So how are you, as a vaguely interested person, to navigate your way through this minefield? Possibly not by visiting a telescope store, where you will be confronted by telescopes of all shapes, sizes, designs and prices. Think about what you want the telescope to do, and how much you are prepared to spend. Less than £100? Same price as a new i-pad or smartphone? Same price as a used car? Any optical aid for looking at the night sky is a lot better than none, but with the cruder instruments you will soon run out of interesting objects to view.
How are you going to use it? Most likely, keep it indoors and haul it outside on a clear night. That imposes constraints on size and weight. How much time are you prepared to spend setting up the thing every time you use it? If the answer is “two minutes” you might be wasting your money on one of the more sophisticated mountings.
The mounting, you say? That’s another specialist, and potentially expensive subject, which I’ll return to later.
Where do you live? If like most of us, you live in a town, you can still discover many objects in the night sky, but you will be looking at small bright objects rather than extended dim ones, which has a bearing on your choice of telescope.
Of the designs commonly available the ‘refractor’ conforms most closely to the layman’s idea of what a telescope looks like. In small sizes (under 100mm aperture) these are the obvious choice, but as size increases they become expensive, then eye-wateringly expensive and too long and heavy to be carried. Then there is the Newtonian, which has a mirror at the bottom of the tube and an eyepiece at the top on one side. The prime advantage of these is that, size for size (aperture), these are the cheapest of all the designs, and less bulky and heavy than a refractor.
The ‘Maksutov’ is a modern design which uses both lenses and mirrors to form a very short telescope with an eyepiece at the back. Despite its looks, this like the refractor, is a ‘long focus’ telescope suitable for looking at small bright objects. The compact form makes it very convenient for keeping indoors and hauling out on a clear evening, or even transporting by car.
Be wary of the various ‘short focus’ designs, as these are more of a specialist scope for astrophotography or looking at wide starfields, and are more prone to optical problems than the ‘long focus’ designs.
Mountings – the ‘alt-azimuth’ mounting is one whose function the layman will at once understand, as it allows the telescope to be pointed up and down and from side to side. It is also quick to set up. The ‘equatorial’ is tilted over to align with the earth’s axis, so that to compensate for the earth’s rotation the telescope only needs to be moved on one axis, (an action which can be motorised). Once you have tried observing for yourself, the advantage will be obvious, and it is also essential for long-exposure photography.
Both varieties of mounting are now available with electronic assistance in the form of built-in computers and motors which allow you to find objects by selecting them from a list on the handset, typing in their co-ordinates, or even clicking on a list on your laptop. This is a great advance allowing you quickly to locate objects invisible to the naked eye. All models will track objects once found. You can even find planets in broad daylight. If you can afford such a system, why would you settle for less? Why put up with the frustration of being unable to find objects that are not bright and obvious? The downside is the increased setup time, and for computerised heavy-duty equatorial mounts, the cost.
If you can afford one, I would recommend a ‘Maksutov’ telescope on an alt-azimuth electronic computerised mounting as your starter scope. Examples are available for under £400, which might seem expensive compared with some of the scopes available. But in terms of “astronomical objects viewable per pound (or dollar) spent” it is better value than apparently cheaper telescope kits, and in this price range you will bypass much of the rubbish.
An expert’s view

Moving on
Once you have your first scope, what next? An 8 inch Newtonian on a EQ-5 mounting seems a popular purchase, judging by the numbers of new and used kits on offer. An 8″ Newtonian is a lot of telescope for the money and the EQ-5 mounting is a good rigid one. I would not recommend this as a first purchase lest you find that it’s too big to handle and after the first flush of enthusiasm has worn off you can’t find much to look at (without a costly computerised mounting). If you got the basic manual mount, a tracking motor is around £85 and a full computerising kit another £300. Pointed in the right direction, an 8″ should show more detail on planets and fainter deep-space objects than a smaller instrument. With a solid equatorial mounting, ventures into photography are a possibility.

The Vogler Memorandum

Book iconIn the 1970s, Christopher Vogler, who was familiar with Joseph Campbell’s seminal book “The Hero With a Thousand faces” believed that he saw Joseph Campbell’s ideas on story structure being put to work in the first of the Star Wars movies, and wrote a term paper on the subject.
Later, around 1985, he took time off work (when working as a story consultant in the movie industry), and spent a week with a friend going through movie videotapes and identifying the mythic elements that made these films successful. Vogler drafted a seven-page memorandum which he handed to story analyst friends and to Disney executives. Reaction was muted, but the memo spread around the industry, even being plagiarized so that Vogler had to assert his name as the original author. This resulted in Vogler being called and offered a new job.
The Memo is quoted in full here.
The memo grew into The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers by Christopher Vogler (2007) a popular screenwriting textbook.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Book icon The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) Joseph Campbell’s seminal book on comparative mythology discussed his theory of the archetypal hero’s journey found in many of the world’s mythologies. In other words, all myths are basically the same story.
In a well-known quote from the introduction to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell summarized the monomyth:
A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
As proposed by Campbell, the hero’s Journey has the following twelve stages:

  1. ) The ordinary World – the hero is introduced in his home setting.
  2. ) The Call to Adventure – the hero is confronted with a problem
  3. ) Refusal of the Call – the hero is reluctant
  4. ) Meeting with the Mentor – often these stories contain a wise older adviser
  5. ) Crossing the Threshold – the hero enters a new strange region
  6. ) Tests, Allies and Enemies – the hero is tested and finds friends (and enemies)
  7. ) Approach – the hero reaches a dangerous place
  8. ) The Ordeal – the hero faces a deadly situation. Often it looks as if he’s not going to survive.
  9. ) The Reward – having survived, the hero gets the elixir, magic sword, knowledge or whatever
  10. ) The Road Back – hero starts back, chased by vengeful forces, more incidents
  11. ) The Resurrection – hero emerges from the special world, maybe after another near-death experience
  12. ) Return with the Elixir – hero returns to his world with the elixir, magic sword, or knowledge.

According to Campbell, myths may not contain all these stages. The myths he drew on for his book include the stories of Osiris, Prometheus, the Buddha, Moses, and Jesus, although Campbell cites many other classic myths from many cultures which rely upon this basic structure.
The resemblance of the ‘hero’s Journey’ to a typical fantasy epic may be notable, but the contention is that the ideas are equally applicable to other kinds of story. Though if one is plotting another kind of story (e.g. a romance), most of the terms will need to be replaced by more appropriate equivalents.
In recent years, Campbell’s Hero’s Journey theories have become more widely disseminated, partly as a result of a well-known memo by Vogler which circulated in the movie industry, and have been studied by film-makers, TV script writers and others interested in telling stories. The popular movie ‘Star Wars’ for instance, was claimed to be influenced by Campbell, and an image from the film appeared on the cover of a reprint of the book.
Other commentators have produced their own variants of Campbell’s ideas, sometimes with differing numbers of stages, or dividing the story into Acts. Extended discussion