Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Red Star Gazing and the Inevitability of Full Space Communism

Part One

Russian revolutionary interest in science fiction was inevitably bound up with the trajectory of the Russian revolution itself. The veteran Bolshevik and intermittent opponent of Lenin, Alexander Bogdanov, wrote a pioneering novel on space travel in 1908, in the aftermath of the famously incomplete revolutionary upheavals of 1905. Red Star relates the story of a Russian revolutionary who travels to Mars with an alien agent to learn about how the Martians organise their society along communist lines. In 1924, the movie Aelita, Queen of Mars flipped the script, relating the tale of a Russian Civil War veteran and an astronomer who travel to Mars to aid a revolutionary uprising. Clearly, much had happened in Russia to change the parameters of how science fiction might be imagined in the preceding years. Russians were no longer apprentices but masters and teachers of the revolutionary act. Nevertheless, both Red Star and Aelita emerged at moments in Russian history when revolutionary enthusiasm and optimism were on the wane. Was this a case of red-tinted telescopes turning away from the reality of reaction on terra firma and up to the stars, where a more comforting reality might be imagined?

Poster for Aelita in Russian (1924)
Aelita, Queen of Mars is particularly notable for Aleksandra Ekster’s striking constructivist set design. By the early 1920s, a combination of industrial devastation and political pressure had left constructivism somewhat marginalised in Soviet society. In the face of increasing state control of politics and culture, and the reversal of ‘war communism’, signalled by the introduction of the NEP (New Economic Policy), the utopian impulse that had envisioned the categories of art and architecture dissolving themselves and becoming part of everyday socialist life was in decline. By the time of the release of Aelita, the dystopian science fiction novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin had been banned, while Bogdanov had been arrested by the GPU (although he was released after 5 weeks). The cinematic achievement of Aelita, Queen of Mars was illustrative of the Soviet Union’s continued cultural vibrancy, and the inspirational impact of constructivism on Soviet film, but it also indicated the way in which constructivism was being shunted to the side-lines. Other big names of constructivism, including Aleksandr Rodchenko and the Stenberg brothers, would become involved in film poster and set design in the 1920s as opportunities for Soviet construction dried up.

Aelita, Queen of Mars also shows how, in the context of gerrymandered soviet elections, secret police crack-downs and the failure of the German revolution, communists had to look to the stars to imagine the realisation of their utopia. A similar impulse can be detected in Alexandra Kollontai’s hopeful yet escapist utopian fragment, Soon.

The Soviet sci-fi vision would become more influenced by dystopian imaginings of the horrors of chemical warfare in the following years. Whether the post-war ‘return to the future’ in the context of the space race represented a re-emergence of political sci-fi utopianism will be the subject of Part Two.

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