The Other Side of the Medal


A Dilemma

Efremov's ideas had piqued my curiosity. At first his thoughts and philosophies did not conform at all to what I had expected in view of my perspectives on the society in which he lived. But thoughts are doubly filtered by the mechanics of communication and then by preconditioned interpretations.

Some bits of Efremov's philosophy have come through in his scientific writings, although mostly somewhat masked. They rise nearer the surface in his fiction, but here there is a touch of missionary zeal. His letters and our long dialogues were more revealing, even though they were based on thoughts of the moment and contradictory from time to time.

What came out of all of this, especially our letters and the talks, was not at all a bold set of unified principles. Rather there was a sense of confusion and vacillation, which seems symptomatic of so much of modern intellectualism everywhere. Where are we going?" was the underlying theme, the basic dilemma — somewhat masked by his brusque Russianism, but never buried. Efremov reached far beyond the current troubles of his own country to those of the world and sometimes of other planets.

Most of us are, I believe, more narrowly concerned with today and tomorrow. When we in the United States in the 1960s, until very recently, talked casually about the Soviet Union, we rambled on about repression, anti-Semitism, Godlessness a Russian lust for war and conquest, the worldwide spread of communism and like matters. The pseudo-paranoia of the early 1950s gradually abated, but continued to lie in a shallow, eroding grave even in the 1980s. How do the Russians think and feel about the United States, its people, and its government? From my limited contacts, I would guess that there are as many ideas as there are groups of thinking people, and less consensus than here. But I have no business saying how the Russians feel about us and the world and about their own roles in life. I leave this to the experts whose business it is to know. Yet, it was in this general web of complex thought that Efremov had grown up and lived and, starting from it, I was able to gain a sense of the thinking of a small fragment of the intellectual whole, and particularly of Efremov.

As a science fiction writer, like most of his kind, Efremov was concerned with the future. Most of us think about and write about it more in the short term than the long, but he wrote about it, talked about it and worried about it as a long range continuum and repeatedly made contradictory judgments of what was to come. He was seriously concerned about, and voiced a moral responsibility to, future generations. He sensed doom. His deepest conviction, probably — "We better both be afraid of the Chinese." The cycles of Indian and Oriental philosophies plotted still another course, with danger at the peaks of swings and no assurances of safe passage. But the balance — on the razor's edge, the dialectical power of opposites — prom-ised a way out. "Which will it be?" was the unanswered question we revisited many times.

Ways to Go


To the science fiction writer, even though in the future the earth must go, perhaps in some sort of holocaust, life must go on elsewhere and, for intelligible story content, it must be in the hands of humans, or humanoids or their creations. Other planets and stars are havens; physical laws, often badly bent, are the constraints. Usually the baser side of humanity — avarice, wars, conquest, deceit and cruelty — persist.

Not so for Efremov. Although vigorous and physical, as a geologist in the field or a sailor on the sea, he was a most gentle man who abhorred violence. Gymnastics and ballet were his favorites, and contact sports offended him. He found most distasteful the physical singing of "Sachmo" (Louis Armstrong), his popping eyes and sweating. Humans, he was convinced, in their arts and sciences of the brain and spirit, have the capacities to master violence and aggressiveness by formulating societies in which motivations for such behaviors had no reason to exist. This is a constant theme of Efremov's science fiction, and it had wide appeal to his fellow Russians. I can't help but feel that this was mostly cast in a mold reminiscent of Dorothy's dream of the Land of Oz somewhere "Over the Rainbow." To Efremov, I found over and over, it was real, and it was his mission to tell it to the Russian people in whatever way he could. Yet, in 1969, when my wife Lila and I were spending a pleasant afternoon in his apartment on Gubkine Street near the University of Moscow, Thais, or Taya, Efremov's charming second wife, brought us a diagram. Efremov had constructed it based on prophecies of ancient Indian and Tibetan seers, and Thais had drawn it up especially for us (Figure 30). He explained it as follows.


The things are somewhat gloomy in this world, for the near future especially. This is a coincidence with the old Indian and Tibetan prophecies about minor and major peaks. I have drawn them graphically on a diagram. A down peak in 1972 [this was 1969], a real up peak in 1977, and a very big downfall with gigantic wars between 1998-2005 — age of the White Horseman of Maytreya. But I haven't a chance to reach this age, maybe you?


Unless this dangerous time could be passed somehow, our ancient civilization was ended. Earlier, in 1966, I had written with some misgivings about where we were headed.


We here (in Chicago) are in the midst of a very hot and humid summer, and, as they say, "the natives are restless." There is tension in the air. It's all part of growing up, but there is such a long way to go. The world is always somewhere in a state of revolution and this century is one of accelerating pace with so many adjustments that it is little wonder that Homo sapiens is having a hard time keeping up with the pace. It is as if the whole world is trying to drive some complex modern freeway road system that requires repetitive split-second decisions, moment after moment, in order not to crash, or at least to avoid going round and round on a butterfly.


Figure 30. The cycle of the years. Times of rise and decline of humanity to Armageddon, the Battle of Mora, at far right. The period of Agui Yuga lasted for 2160 years. From 1994 and the last Battle of the Serpent, time continues to Armageddon in 2005. Drawn by Thais Efremova from sketches by Efremov. This figure has been reproduced from difficult, informal copy, a gift from the Efremovs.


Efremov replied,


But I agree with you completely that in the second half of this century our species is not only having a hard time keeping up, as you say, but trying desperately to find his place in the new and not very palatable world which emerged around. I, at my own, having a sharp memory, can see clearly the way things are at the beginning of my career as a scientist and now. An awful difference. To begin, the scientist is no more a free searcher for knowledge, but only a highly qualified government worker as well conditioned as the others. We paleontologists enjoy some last freedom for the price of neglect and absence of "honour." But it shall not be for long. With the environmental dangers to our genes' pool and fast extinction of many plants and animals the interest in paleontology must revive by the end of the century, and people will make memory to all of us (if they only understood).


The thought that the values of history, and especially of life history from a naturalistic point of view, were being lost was a constant and severe irritant to Efremov. One more comment along these lines came in response to a simple complaint that I had made about a boy we had hired to keep our garden alive while we were in Russia in 1971 — and who didn't.

Efremov, in a letter on many matters, went on:


One more point. Disaster with your garden because of a "lousy" boy is a very abundant event now, and I guess throughout the world. The unreliability, laziness and naughtiness of "boys" and "girls" at every sort of jobs is characteristic of this very time.

I call this the 'immorality explosion' and it seems to me more dangerous than nuclear war. We can see through very old times that morality and honour (in the Russian sense of chest) are much more significant than swords, arrows and elephants, tanks and dive bombers. All destruction of empires, states and policies came through moral depravity. This is the only real cause of ruin in all history and therefore destroying is the only self-destructions we became aware of with nearly all diseases.

When all men accustomed to honest and hard work [have] passed away what sort of a future awaits mankind? Who can feed, clothe, cure and transport people? Dishonest, as they basically are now, how can they do scientific or medical investigation?

Generations conditioned to the honest way of life must be extinct during the next twenty years and then a greatest disaster in history will come of widespread technical monoculture, which basically now persists in all countries, even China, Indonesia and Africa.

Have you ever heard of the book by Alan Seymour 'The coming self-destruction of the U.S.A.?' It is issued in England in Pan's paperback, but I cannot afford it and don't know the author's meaning. Maybe you can see through it. Is it good or worthless warning?

But I must end this prognostication and wish you and Lila with all our heart from both of us good luck and health.

Your always and fond friend,

I. Efremov (Old Efraim)


This was written in 1969 and, to date, has been quite prophetic. Probably some of both his and mine is just 1960 to 1970 "generation gap" carping. At least to some extent, but by no means altogether. That his sense of youth and morality in the controlled Soviet society was cast so strongly, and that he saw the consequences as so disastrous, startled me. When I entered into all of this in the late 1950s I had thought that the regimentation in the Pioneers, common mandatory education and common language throughout the Soviet Union, collectives in the country and organized apartment complexes with local "commissar" supervision and meeting quarters, would have resulted differently. Not in a way I would have liked, but surely not as Efremov viewed it. An avowed communist in a broad sense, he saw the beginnings of Soviet immorality to have been in the Stalin purges which "killed off all of the intellectuals" and left a serious vacuum amidst the uneducated and unmotivated. Where, he so often asked, can the intelligent and devoted teachers come from?


The spiral of dialectical progress is reputed to be the way of history. Efremov talked of it and expressed a strong belief in it, but his attachment to linear cycles, seen in his love of prophecies, was at least emotionally strong. I didn't fully realize this at the time I sent him a copy of A Can tide for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., first published in 1959 and now in at least its 20th printing, but it touched base. Oddly, what was to me a basic theme of this brilliant science fiction novel, that of cycles, never seemed to impress him as much as I might have expected on the basis of what I later learned.

A Canticle . . . was cast in the 32nd century long after the earth had been devastated by a nuclear holocaust. The setting was a monastery in the desert of western North America where a young novice led the way to preserved fragments of documents from the 20th century with the name of Leibowitz distinguishable on them. An ecclesiastic search led to interpretation in context that preserved ancient formalistic Catholicism, and Leibowitz, an obscure technician of the past age, at length became the saint of the monastery. The main theme was the repeated realization of the tendency of man nearly to exterminate himself and then, reeling, to build once again on the scattered ashes toward a new and more proficient round of destruction by an ever more efficient technology.

Running through the desert scenes of desolation, despair and genetic upheaval, the rise of new technology and the persistence of ancient, formalized mythology, is the trail of an enigmatic, knowledgeable stranger. It was he who pointed out to the novice the way to the Leibowitz documents during his Lenten fast in the desert, and thereby stirred the life of the dark world. At that time the stranger was a gaunt traveler, a pilgrim, loins girded with dirty sackcloth. Later he was a hermit, the keeper of a strange goat. Somehow, the figure of "Saint Leibowitz" in the monastery reflects his gaunt, slyly grinning face. Searching, still not finding to the end, he emerges as Lazarus.

Finally, technology rises supreme again, as mobiles rush by the monastery and flying machines dominate the air. Armageddon, once again, is witnessed by the chosen few from the monastery as they leave with the ancient treasures, bound for the stars in a long-readied spaceship.


The visage of Lucifer mushroomed into the hideousness above the cloudbank rising slowly like some titan climbing to its feet after ages of imprisonment in the earth,

The wind came across the ocean, sweeping with it a pall of fine white ash. The ash fell into the sea and into the breakers. The breakers washed dead shrimp ashore with the driftwood. Then they washed up the whiting. The shark swam out of his deepest waters and brooded in the cold clear currents. He was very hungry that season. (From A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr., J.B. Lippincott Company, 1959).


Late in 1960, Efremov wrote me his initial reactions:


Thanks a lot for the books. Now all arrived safely, A Canticle and a heap of S.F. magazine. I have read the "Canticle" and enjoyed it very much. Very interesting and wise book and I see your point [I am not sure what my point was, probably about the repeated resurrection of man]. But for my taste it is somewhat without the "wine and colors of life" and narrow in views on nature — undoubtedly in the jewish pattern.


The whole Jewish matter — in Russia where he knew it firsthand, and elsewhere — was much on Efremov's mind and surfaced often. His was a mixture of admiration for ability, respect for "good Jews" and fear and dislike of "bad Jews," the rnoney changers. In his somewhat obscure days between 1915 and 1920 he had been in the Ukraine and had grown up among Jewish peoples. This he never mentioned to me except very indirectly in his remarks on Leibowitz. I asked him from time to time about what to me was the irrational suppression of Jews in the USSR. He rationalized it as follows. The Jewish youth being southern, mature more rapidly than the northern Russians. Many are extremely intelligent, but ruthless. If all top positions in government and science are not to be taken over by precocious Jews in Russia, which he deplored, it is and has been necessary to set up quotas, to deny freely competitive admissions to higher education, to positions in institutions, and to maintain a balance in political offices. Progressive malcontents and troublemakers inevitably resulted from this unfortunate set of circumstances. Were free emigration policies in force, there would be an exodus and a severe brain drain, which the country could not afford, particularly after Stalin. Only in an ideal communistic state would such problems vanish! I have paraphrased his thoughts, but these points came up many times, directly or as undertones such as his remarks on the "Jewish pattern" which must be searched out at best, if it exists at all, in A Canticle . . . , except by inference from the characters of Leibowitz and Lazarus.

Later, Efremov wrote more on A Canticle . . . :


Some new considerations about "Canticle" I think the general feelings of you and the author about the future are correct, but not on Christianity. Now this is an idea! Our future may be analogized with the early centuries of the Christian Era, with the correction that the general advance is greatly accelerated, when beautiful, wise and wide philosophy, art and opinions of the Antiquity have been completely revised by the new, more gloomy outlook. After this collapse the dark ages came inevitably. But what was the cause? Only one — the promise of equal and good life for weak people! Now if such weaklings' percentages are great, then inevitably these opinions must seize the whole world and the only solution is to confront them with similar doctrine, as Buddhism of that time. Now after the "Gay nineties" we all stay once again in front of quite similar circumstances. The new doctrine of promises of good life for every man in enormous masses of popula-tion shall inevitably seize the whole world and the necessity haven' t anything to do with such a force as in times many centuries past! It is only hope, I think and between us girls, I put myself a question: shall I see the Dark Ages II or die before? Lupum auribus tenere — an exceedingly good Latin proverb that means one doesn't know what to do in front of danger.

The 2nd Dark Ages, in the "Canticle" of course, was but one in a long, never ending succession for our species.


The content of this letter was a little vague and puzzling. In still another letter, also obscureand with pertinent passages too scattered to quote verbatim, Efremov strongly made a point, based on his experiences in the fist half century of Soviet Russia, that the formalistic aspects of religion could not survive a holocaust as suggested in A Cantice . . . although religious spirit might. Formal religion was, he averred, virtually destroyed by the Russian Civil War and duringthe Stalin regime. Thus, that a monastery and the fabric of Catholicism could have persisted through and after a holocaust, hedenied. I replied as follows:


On Leibowitz, I quite agree thalthis is unrealistic from your point of view. It does seem un likely that formalism and structure could survive the holocaust little changed. This didn't upset me in the story, for it seemed a simple vehicle for the underlying concept of the massive "will" of man to surge back after self-inflicted tragedy. It was contact with long-past reality (ourtoday) by direct comparison and continuity rather than by change and contrast. I do think the author likely was strongly influenced by the preservation of culture in the later parts of the Dark Ages through monasteries. Of course, his analogy does not admit a place for the preservation of other cultures existing during the time of rise of the institutions that later took over. If nothing else, I have found this took, like many others including yours, represents a projection, given some bask assumptions and patterns. There are many such, as you know betterthan I, and I don't expect that any of them will more than touch upon the actual course of events for the probabilities are inponderable.


That was pretty much the end of Canticle in our correspondence. Technological advance was a villain in Miller's work. Present at whatever level, it would become self-destructive. Efremov, as he often stated, felt that the basic danger lay in the "linear logic" and syllogistic approach of science, and the line between this and the technological villain, within the human vector, is very fine.

In the social area he felt that moral decay lay at the base of all declines, the failure of ethical standards to support the potential values of technology. The development of a pervasive "monoculture" kept bothering him; the problem of racial equivalence was an irritant. This was part of the cultural narrowness he found in the Canticle, necessary, I would think, to preserve a simple story line, but not a basic philosophical aspect of the main theme.

As a result of our correspondence, I had asked him a question upon his views on environment and its relationship to the spiritual differences of people. It turned out he felt strongly on this, and I received the following reply.


About your environmental problem, you have asked me personally if I have that very sort of slant that there is a real spiritual difference between intelligent men of different races. On low levels it is non-significant (more or less low difference) and visa-versa, more high-more real difference and misunderstanding. Therefore all demagogy and cry about equality (especially in managing and government) and it is the biggest mistake of our time. So I think affairs will be worsened every year because of childish minds that cannot understand that simple law, which so clearly understood our fathers: rights inevitably suppose the responsibility (no responsibility — no rights). The quantity of unresponsible men increased very rapidly together with the appalling demands of rights. And this hook is very dangerous for every government which came on the path of false liberty. But I hope to discuss the very important and significant matter with you in person.


This didn't happen, which was unfortunate, for his letter was not too clear. Further, it didn't really answer my query, but raised some other points, clearly those of an elitist, at least a necessary pose for more than mere survival in the Soviet Union. Are then cycles of freedom coordinated with cycles of loose morality, irresponsibility and holocaust? Is egalitarianism fatal? One Russian certainly felt this to be the case, and the disastrous peak of the cycle late in the 1990s, which is what he foresaw, would be the culmination, the new Dark Ages, hopefully followed and setting the stage for a resurgence in the style of the Canticle cycles.


Or Progressively Up?

One comes up with a bleak outlook through Efremov's eyes. Yet in view of his dialectical concept of progress it is hard to see the future as unalterably bleak. Once he remarked to me that if we could get by the 1990s safely, all would be well. Then, however, there is the mystique and dangers of his peaks in the cycles. The fact is, of course, that while it is the fashion to talk of doom, day-to-day living requires some sort of confidence

that doom is not real. Somehow or other, things will work out. The alternative is personal chaos. The latter was no part of E-fremov's makeup. He knew, as well or better than most of us, that the worst could happen. He knew his heart limited his life span and alternately seemed to hope he would and would not see the onset of the "Dark Ages." Like most of us, he either ignored the possibility of this unfortunate time, tried to do something about it, or, for the most part, didn't really think it would come.

His major science fantasy writings and novels carry quite a different flavor, a confidence that the dialectical approach to knowledge will emerge and be successful. We saw some of this in his science and the concept is central in his most ambitious work Jleзвие Бритвы or — The Razor's Edge. He notes in his explanatory introduction, as I have translated it, "The whole novel shows the special significance of knowledge of the psychological existence of man at present for the preparation of a scientific basis for education of people of a communist society." Three separate episodes, set in different places and with different characters each carry the same message.

The Razor's Edge (written without knowledge of Somerset Maugham's The Razor's Edge) is the thin line on which rests a delicate counterbalance of the arts and psychology and of science and technology. Psychology forms the spiritual link in the sense of Efremov's materialistic view of "spirit" as a human quality. Together, the balancing forces emerge in a dialectical spiral which, by inevitable progress, leads to an "ideal" society. It will, of course, be communistic. One or the other of the oppo-sites, alone, can lead only to disaster. Efremov wrote to bring the message to the Russian people. The printing of 300,000 copies, as he remarked to me in an earlier letter, was far too low to meet the demands, and the black market flourished. No more were printed. Why, I can only guess; most likely, this was the number planned and a number not to be changed.

During the Stalin era, so Efremov said, all psychic and psychological studies and records were eliminated, Now, so we are told, they have become a tool of repression. Khruschev opened the doors once again to this form of enquiry and, during the 1960s and 1970s, there seemed to be a flow of strange "validated" psychic phenomena from the Soviet Union: sightless sight, mind impressions and images on photoplates and so on. But these are not Efremov's sense of psychic, psychology and psychiatry — his are manifestations of the materialistic human spirit. Spirit, rather, is one end of a materialistic continuum, a consequence of internal organization which exists in its own right. It is akin to "soul" (psyche) of Aristotle. It is not, and cannot be, independent of body, but on the contrary is the whole process of living. Expressions in the arts on the one side and in science on the other must be linked by this spirit or soul for upward progress to occur. This seems to me to be the essence of the message in The Razor's Edge, clothed as it is in the fanciful and the travails of the characters in the several episodes portrayed.

Many of Efremov's more strictly science fiction and science fantasies were based on a realized communism, a society stable and functioning. The vision is appealing. Andromeda, alternately rendered The Nebula of Andromeda, was translated into 35 languages, including English. It is a rather crude space novel, full of heroic adventures, intrigue and "good guys" and "bad guys" even on earth, where the story is anchored. The Hour of the Bull, a late novel, pits an earth-born communistic society, happy and content, against an anachronistic, capitalistic society developed from a much earlier earth society and "lost" for eons across the "null" zone on a far distant planet. It is an intricate, and for anyone less than fully at home in Russian, a difficult novel. The nice, patriotic analogue of east and west today is cast far away in space and time, accessible only by fanciful, time warp techniques of the far future (if at all). Efremov also employed the "space warp" drive in his Cors Serpentis~The Heart of the Serpent. Amusingly, this fanciful story somehow got identified in the Bulletin of the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology as a serious study of reptiles. Such has been communication. In most novels, Efremov stayed with clumsy, time consuming time travel and electromagnetic transmission, limited by the speed of light. His "Great Circle" used in several stories was an inter-galactic web in which the nodes knew only that which had happened millennia earlier.

The ideal communistic societies were not without dialectical stress and strife — necessary, both to the philosophy and also to make a story. But no problems were too large to solve, even emergencies, by discussion and decisions of the appropriate Soviet in the framework of dialetical comprehensions.

At no time was I able to get from Efremov his own resolutions of his different points of view. Much like an evolutionary Jesuit, he seemed to package them under separate covers and did not try for synthesis. The closest he came was in The Razor's Edge, but here, for all the adventure, there is really none of his sense of imminent doom.

Writing, as I have noted earlier, was an escape for Efremov, escape into places where he could become the heroic figure in a romantic setting. He really did not want to go deeper. Early, it was pure adventure, geological expeditions and sea voyages. Soon, as early as 1945, it was stellar ships. Later, financial gain entered in and sometimes science was put aside for writing as his financial needs grew along with his illness and his disenchantment with the Paleontological Institute. Probably, the themes and development were not totally immune to this financial factor. I do know that he was most apprehensive about The Razor's Edge as a source of trouble, and was greatly relieved when it first appeared, uncensored, in segments in a periodical. It was not consciously made palatable. I feel that his "brave new world" was a hope, rather than a dialectical certainty. But too, it gave a mirror of hope to his readers, bogged deeply in the controlled bureaucracy. Away in space and time things could be said that were not possible in contemporary contexts. Science fiction writing during these decades was probably consistently the freest form of writing in the Soviet Union.

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