Ideological Cosplay

The political/philosophical tract about Russia’s fate is a laboratory that develops so many of the components found in fiction. Samuel R. Delany provides a helpful framework for us when he chooses to define science fiction and fantasy not in terms of subject matter (robots or unicorns) but grammatical mood, on the very level of the sentence:  various flavors of science fiction are conditional/subjunctive (they tell of things that could happen but, have not, or things that could have happened, but did not), while fantasy is their grammatical opposite (it tells of things that could not happen, could  not have happened, and never will). [1] Ideological tracts erase the difference between the conditional and the indicative, passing political fantasy off as a faithful description of Russia’s past, present, and possible future. 

Fantasy and science fiction as alternative historical moods to the indicative of default realism helps us understand the project undertaken by Dmitri Bykov in his wonderfully perverse Zh.D. (Living Souls) (2006): in terms of technology and realia, the novel takes place either in the very near future or an indeterminately flexible present, but it is a present that appears to be a distorted version of our own: after all, since when is Russia a nation whose aboriginal population has receded from view while an age-old conflict between the Varangians and the Khazars turns to full-fledged war? In Living Souls, the world economy has been transformed by the discovery of a new fuel (“phlogiston,” apparently named after the mythical substance that 17th-century scientists believed caused combustion), and Russia is locked in a state of permanent warfare conducted by the aforementioned Varangians (Russians?) and Khazars (Jews) at the expense of the simple, unnamed natives,  whose villages welcome first one side, and then the other, and who sometimes move to the cities to be mistaken for a cognitively-impaired homeless population.

Closer examination shows that Living Souls is the present-day extrapolation of a centuries-long alternate history.  As a popular genre, alternate history usually poses the question, "What if a particular crucial historical turning point had been resolved in another fashion?" (hence the most popular subtype of alternate history, often boiled down to the two-word statement "Hitler wins").  Bykov's "what if" is ideological, or rather, a burlesque on ideology instead of a direct engagement with it:  what if the blood-and-soil rantings of extreme Russophile nationalists such as Grigorii Klimov, the Eurasianist ethnic fantasies of Lev Gumilev and Alexander Dugin, and Arthur Koestler's oddly radicalized, obsessive identification of European (Ashkenazi) Jewry with the vanished Khazars, were all not simply ideology (i.e., fantasy), but identifiable elements of factual history? 

Bykov does what fantasy authors have been doing for decades, if not centuries: he writes about the fantastic (what could not happen, or what could not have happened) as if it were the actual (what has happened, and what is happening right now). In so doing, Bykov exploits the tension that such fantasy fiction can provide: by taking ideological fictions at face value (describing them as if they were simply accepted reality), he naturalizes them and de-naturalizes them at the same time. The world of ZhD becomes plausible, to the extent that we live in for hundreds of pages without becoming hopelessly lost, but is so open to magic, prophecy, and the supernatural that the novel's conditional believability only reminds us of equal feats of verisimilitude: Dugin's, Klimov's, and Koestler's ideas become real, but only in the same way that Narnia becomes real, or Middle Earth proves internally consistent.  Living Souls inflates ideology as entertainment and thought experiment, but deflates it as a worldview, showing ideology to be just another internally consistent, well-wrought fantasy.  The implication is that Dugin may be fun to read, but implementing policies based on his writings is analogous to dressing up as Frodo or Gandalf and learning to speak Elvish. 

Next: Epic Fail: Forging a Russian Past



 [1] Delany, Samuel R.  “About 5,750 Words.”  The Jewel-Hinged Jaw: Notes on the Language of Science Fiction. Middletown, CT:  Wesleyan University Press, 2009.  11-12.