Monday, January 25, 2010

Something Old

(I'm trying to ramp up the first draft of a new novel right now. So in lieu of a post on e-books, which I haven't had the time to finish, here's a brief note on a Soviet-era SF novel, originally published in F&SF.)

´╗┐Sannikov Land by Vladimir Obruchev, 1926.

If you like lost world novels, I guarantee that this obscure Russian classic will press all your buttons. There are encounters with prehistoric megafauna, beautiful and willing savage women, war between stone-age tribes, weird shamanistic rites, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions, and a boy's own enthusiasm for bagging big game. It's true that the characters are indistinguishably wooden mouthpieces for the author's opinions and the plot is pure pulp, but those faults are redeemed by the novel's rigorous scientific sensibility.

Obruchev was a geologist and academician, high in the former USSR's scientific hierarchy (amongst other things he had a mineral, a mountain, and a crater on the Moon named after him). His descriptions of the harsh beauty of the Russian Arctic Circle, and of the privations experienced by his explorers, are crammed with telling detail; given the abundance of frozen mammoths in Siberia, one suspects that he may have been drawing on experience when recommending roast mammoth trunk as a particular delicacy. There are lyrical infodumps about geology and prehistoric fauna; the lost land, nestled in a vast Arctic volcano, is drawn with evocative vermisilitude.

Sannikov Land has been long out-of-print -- the edition I have is an English translation published in 1955 by the Foreign Languages Publishing Association of Moscow -- and as one of a series of 'Soviet Literature for Young People', it was a small part of the former USSR's Cold War arsenal. When it was published, it was probably illegal, or at least ever-so slightly dangerous, to own it in the USA, so it may be hard to find. But believe me, the search will be worthwhile. I'm off to look for Obruchev's other scientific romance, Plutonia. It's a hollow-earth story, and I can't wait to read it.*

*I eventually tracked down a copy owned by China Mieville. He hadn't read Sannikov Land, so we made an equitable trade.


Blogger PeteY said...

It sounds great. I love Soviet SF, having been a fan of Lem for decades. One that I found and liked, also decades ago, but fewer, is Self Discovery, by Vladimir Savchenko. This is the only SF novel I ever found which referred to perceptrons (see Minsky & Papert... I studied Cognitive Science). If you like, we can swap those.

I would really like to get hold of the Strugatsky brothers' work too. Obviously I've got Roadside Picnic, and less obviously, the Time Wanderers, but I'm damned if I can find anything else.

January 25, 2010 10:39 pm  
Blogger PeteY said...

BTW the Strugatskys came up recently in the news. It seems the well-hyped film Avatar has some similarities to the Noon series, by them, and some Russians were quite upset about alleged plagiarism.

January 25, 2010 10:43 pm  
Blogger George Berger said...

Hi Pete---There's some (or: lots of) Strugatsky available online. I recently bought Hard To Be A God , my first copy of which was lost during one of my moves. But do be careful. The price of that book at abe UK was too high for me (and, I'm sure, many others), so I went to German sites and found it there at a very reasonable price. I think I bought it from abe de. It was in Anglic. Perhaps the demand in Germany for an English-Language SF book was less than that in the Anglophone world. I don't really know.

January 26, 2010 7:22 am  
Blogger PeteY said...

Thanks for the tip, George. You may well be right about demand - why should Germans buy English translations of Russian books, when they could get German ones?

Similarly, I often find the best pickings of s/h books are outside London, in small towns. I fear in London, there's a baying horde of fans that scour the shops mercilessly.

There are some bad translations of Arkady & Boris here, but I doubt if they're legal.

January 26, 2010 3:22 pm  
Blogger Paul McAuley said...

If anyone can recommend good English translations of Lem, I'd be very grateful.

Nobody seems to have published anything by the Strugatskys, in English, since the early 1980s, so that's a great tip, George.

January 27, 2010 8:41 pm  
Anonymous Sergey said...

Thank you for your review, Paul!
Very old fashioned and good Soviet SF novel.
It was filmed (not much impressive) back in the 70s.
Probably this link would be useful for those who'd like to find English translations of the Strugatsky brothers:
I think their best works are from the 60-70s.
Here in Russia readers are in better position - because there are many translations of Anglo-American SF and in the same time we are having all Soviet and Russian SF (and of course full Lem is translated).

January 27, 2010 9:10 pm  
Blogger George Berger said...

Thanks Paul and Pete. Here's another tip. Let's call abe a 2nd order bookshop, since it amalgamates the 1st order ones, where the books are. Last year I heard of a 3rd order source, I used it once and was amazed and thankful. Amazed that I had almost instant knowledge of which 2nd and sometimes 1st order sources had what I wanted. Thankful for its efficiency and speed. I got an easily viewable list of sources all over the world, that I could restructure according to several criteria. Buying was quite simple. A friend in Amsterdam told me that it has never failed him. It seems to be little-known.

January 28, 2010 7:55 pm  

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