Entry updated 24 July 2023. Tagged: International.
Any account of Ukrainian Fantastika must distinguish between works written in Ukraine and works written in Ukrainian, a Venn diagram of contending linguistic and political forces. These include a sub-genre of "emigre" fiction, written in Germany, France, Canada and the United States up until the 1960s, works written in what is now the geographic territory of Ukraine, but was once part of Poland, and in more recent times, works written in Russian by authors born in territorial Ukraine, some of whom now claim allegiance to breakaway republics such as Donetsk and Luhansk. There is also a small but significant body of modern works by authors of Ukrainian extraction, such as Chuck Palahniuk (whom see); the bilingual publications of the Absurdist Yuriy Tarnawsky, including Like Blood in Water (2007); and Orest Stelmach, an American writer whose The Boy from Reactor #4 (2013) in his Nadia Tesla series deals with the aftermath of the Chernobyl disaster.
Science fiction in the Ukrainian language has faced two major restrictions, severely curtailing the local development of the genre. One was the Ems Ukase of 1876, a tsarist law that forbade the publication of books in Ukrainian, thereby forcing local pre-revolutionary authors to write and publish in Russian. The other was the influence of the Soviet-era censor, substantially limiting the available topics and tone. In the case, for example, of Volodymyr Vynnychenko's best-selling Soniashna mashyna ["The Solar Machine"] (1928), the novel was only permitted to be released with the approval of the Ukrainian commissar of education, and subsequently banned in 1930 when the authorities tardily realized that its future history made no mention of the existence of the Soviet Union. Parsed by some critics as the "Ukrainian H G Wells", Vynnychenko had been actively involved in Ukraine's struggle for independence, even briefly becoming the head of state for a few months in 1918, before being declared an Enemy of the People by the Soviet authorities in 1921. Soniashna mashyna's appearance under the imprimatur of a Ukrainian press was hence rather unexpected; a temporary thaw in Vynnychenko's pariah status. Anticipating that he would only find a publisher in Germany, Vynnychenko's setting and characters were largely German. His experience would not be the last, for a creative culture in which the very language used was often a political act in itself; he, and many other Ukrainian authors in the early twentieth century, seemed to derive much of their inspiration not from the pioneers commonly known in Anglophone sf, but from Kurd Laßwitz, whose Auf zwei Planeten (1897; cut 1948; cut again 1969; trans Hans J Rudnick, much cut, as Two Planets 1971) was unavailable in English for many years, but translated into Russian as early as 1903.
Lesia Ukrainka's article "Utopiia v beletrystytsy" ["Utopia in Belle Lettres"] (1906 Nova hromade) pointed to the increasing drift of Utopian writing away from idealized "islands" and towards future settings with a Technological focus. In doing so, she outlined, in the words of historian Walter Smyrniw, a "bold and demanding challenge" to subsequent authors, subjecting utopian thought to incisive criticism regarding the nature of what would later be defined as science fiction. In terms of the Ukrainian language, the continued influence of publishing restrictions in the early twentieth century led to a flourishing of literature outside Ukraine, particularly in Canada, where presses served a thriving Ukrainian immigrant community. Zhyteli Marsa ["The Inhabitants of Mars"] (1911) by Volodymyr Gerynovych was soon reprinted in 1914 in Winnipeg, while Koly ziishlo sontse: opovidannia z 2000 roku ["When the Sun Rose: A Tale from the Year 2000"] (1918; trans by the author as When the Sun Arose 1919) was first published in Toronto. Its author, Pavlo Krat (aka Paul Crath), was a socialist who drew heavily on the writings of Edward Bellamy, some of which had been republished in Ukrainian translation in Canada. The protagonist, Peter Ivanchuk, is frozen in 1919 and reanimated in the year 2000 before embarking on a world tour with his new wife, the grand-daughter of his 1919 sweetheart. Krat's Utopia rejected many elements of Bellamy's focus on Technology, imagining a future Vancouver dispersed away from an urban centre towards a ruralized land-use of orchards and parklands.
In Krat's future, skyscrapers are banished from the world, while New York and London endure only as museums (see Ruins and Futurity). Instead, Krat's genre speculations involved smaller-scale Inventions transforming daily life at an individual level, and a streamlined emphasis on logistics, in order to ensure that resources and materials can be swiftly sent to where they are needed. In this, he seemed to be inspired by H G Wells in When the Sleeper Wakes (1899), although Krat opposed much of Wells' imagined direction for future Religions, withering in favour of a socialist agnosticism. Krat's self-penned translation of his own work made several crucial redactions, adding a framing device in the year 2060, and adding a note that the narrator is shortly about to leave for Mars.
Published in Lviv, then part of Poland, Za syly sontsia ["By the Power of the Sun"] (written 1918; 1925) by Mykola Chaikovskyi imagined Ukraine as a pioneer in solar power, not only in terms of speculation regarding the nature of such technology (see Power Sources), but the likelihood that foreign spies would attempt to steal the secrets of photovoltaic "black glass."
The above authors, however, were relatively unknown in their native country for many years, where instead Iurii Smolych was widely regarded in the Soviet era as the "father" of Ukrainian science fiction. Set in the 1940s, his Ostannii Eizhevud ["The Last A.J. Wood"] (1926) posits a global confrontation between capitalism and communism, culminating in the collapse of the United States of America to a revolution organized by local communists. He followed this early work, which was unpopular with the authorities for its promotion of a "world revolution" policy that the USSR had recently repudiated, with his trilogy Prekrasni katastrofy ["Marvellous Catastrophes"], beginning with Hospodarstvo doktora Halvanesku ["Doctor Halvanesku's Enterprise"] (1929). The story is an exposé, by a plucky Soviet lady journalist, of the titular doctor's Robot company, which is eventually revealed as a sham operation that substitutes Cybernetics for mechanical creation, turning unfortunate human victims into high-tech Zombies.
Similarly employing Robotics in an extended metaphor for capitalism, Idut robotari ["The Robotariat Is Coming"] (1931; exp 1936; vt Zalizny bunt ["The Iron Riot"] 1967) by Volodymyr Vladko imagines an America where "iron monsters" are prohibitively expensive, and hence only used by managers as strike breakers to control the human labour force. Inevitably, unions realize that the "robotariat" can be reprogrammed, with Soviet help, to fight on the side of the workers, leading to a revolution in the United States. The novel was adapted for cinema as Loss of Feeling (1935; vt Gibel Sensatsii; vt Loss of Sensation; vt Jim Ripple's Robot; vt Jim Ripl's Robot). Adhering closely to the requirements of literature in the service of the Soviet state, the Russian-born Vladko was one of the authors whose works received high praise from the establishment, often pushing their forerunner to the shadows – compare, in a fashion to Ye Yonglie in China. His Arhonavty Vsesvitu ["Argonauts of the Universe"] (1935), for example, was hailed as Ukraine's first novel on the subject of Space Flight, in which Soviet heroes voyage to Venus and return with the wonder-metal "ultragold". It was, however, published some years after Myroslav Kapii's Kraina blakytnykh orkhidei ["The Land of Blue Orchids"] (1932), a story edged out of official historiography for being inconveniently written in western Ukraine, then under Polish rule, by a Catholic author lacking the necessary genuflections to Soviet utopia. His space vessel The Queen of Virginia, in fact, is scandalously funded by American capital, and launches from the United States.
In the immediate post-war period, Ukrainian sf was split again into rival factions. A number of emigres published Ukrainian stories from within the Displaced Person (DP) camps in Germany and Austria, including Volodymyr Hai, whose Mandrivka v bezvist ["A Journey into the Unknown"] (1947) imagined a group of Ukrainian slave labourers, sentenced to death by the Nazis for trying to escape. They are offered a last-minute commutation of their sentence if they agree to form the crew of Germany's first manned mission to Mars, although their vessel crashlands in what is ultimately revealed as the Sahara desert, where the characters decide to remain in exile rather than return to their Soviet homeland. Writing in a Parisian Ukrainian-language newspaper under the pseudonym Leonid Poltava, Leonid Iensen serialized another emigre novel, Chy ziide zavtra sontse ["Will the Sun Rise Tomorrow"] (1950 Ukrainets-Chas; fixup 1955), which would eventually be published, in Ukrainian, in Germany. A globe-trotting Technothriller in which various parties attempt to gain control of a radioactive wonder-Element, it juggles both enthusiasm and apprehension for the impact of Nuclear Energy. Emigrating from the DP camps to the United States, Liudmyla Kovalenko published her sole sf novel, Rik 2245: Roman-utopia ["The Year 2245: A Utopian Novel"] (1957 chap), from her new home in New Jersey. It imagined a Soviet aircrew, dispatched to initiate World War Three by dropping an atomic bomb on America, but crashlanding and freezing in the Arctic. Unfrozen 300 years later (see Sleeper Awakes), they are confronted with a Feminism-inspired utopia in which a "Great Revolt of Mothers" has created a world state devoid of war. Most of the airmen eventually adjust to their new home, but one, pointedly named Ivan, remains an unapologetic Soviet, and annoys his hosts so much that he is eventually challenged to a series of duels.
In Ukraine itself, the genre remained trammeled within the requirements of Soviet-era "science fiction with close aims", in which Scientists and Technology are put to use in the service of the state. Notable examples include Mykola Trubliaini's Hybynni shliakh ["Underground Highway"] (1948), which posits an Underground transport tunnel from Moscow to Vladivostock. Torzhestvo zhyttia ["Triumph of Life"] (1952) by Mykola Dashkiev, narrates the career of a scientist from teenage wartime runaway to Soviet hero, in which a Nazi bacteriological Weapons project is successfully repurposed to create a cure for cancer. A certain cynicism about the relentless science focus might be discerned in Oles Berdnyk's Strila chasu: Fantastychnyi roman ["The Arrow of Time: A Fantasy novel"] (1960), a First Contact story in which Scientists aboard a Faster-Than-Light vessel make a number of revolutionary discoveries and inventions, only to return to a far-future Solar System where the Sun is a white dwarf, and the Earth itself has been moved to another galaxy.
The prospects of Aliens was a relatively late development in Ukrainian sf. Vasyl Berezhnyi flirted with the idea in U zoriani svity ["Into the World of Stars"] (1956), in which human explorers do not discover alien life per se, but do stumble across the relics of a Forerunner civilization on the Moon. In his later Holuba planeta ["A Light-Blue Planet"] (1961), Mars is revealed as a bastion of imperialists and oligarchs, whose overtures for peaceful communication are disbelieved by Earth's collective-Communist government. Berezhnyi subsequently populated his novels and short stories with a rich menagerie of aliens as metaphors for numerous issues and ideals of the human condition (compare to Ni Kuang). Following the approval of Cybernetics as a reasonable topic for discussion by the Soviet censor, the author Oleksandr Teslenko embarked on a prolonged series of stories set in a Future History which sees Earth turned into a museum-planet, while the definition of "humanity" is broadened to incorporate natural-born humans, test-tube humans, robots (kibery), and cyborgs (biokibery). Beginning with the stories in Dozvolte narodytysia ["Allow Me to be Born"] (1979 coll), Teslenko explores the various ethical considerations of artificially created life-forms, in a fashion analogous to similar considerations in the Robot stories of Isaac Asimov. A similar body of work, again eschewing Anglophone terminology in favour of neologisms, can be found in the syhom ["synthetic Homo sapiens"] stories of Ihor Rosokhovatskyi, beginning with "Smertni i bezsmertni" ["Mortals and Immortals"] (venue unknown 1960).
Oles Berdnyk, one of the most prominent authors of Ukrainian sf, suffered political persecution in the 1970s, ousted from the national writers' union for his subversive commentary and religious allusions, and was subsequently imprisoned. He only re-emerged, with an understandably cynical attitude, a decade later, with a new series of post-prison works pointedly satirizing the humourless and monolithic Soviet authorities. Some of the short stories, circulated in samizdat form during his fall from grace, appeared in print in Labirynt Minotaura ["Labyrinth of the Minotaur"] (1990 coll). In particular, Kamerton Dazhboha ["The Tuning Fork of Dazhboh"] (1996) depicts a Changewar and Godgame in which Soviet time-travellers find themselves in an Alternate History in which Trotskyism reigns supreme in the Soviet Union, Lenin has fled to China, and World War Two ended with atomic bombings in Europe. They subsequently leap back in to the distant past, to an ancient Ukraine that turns out to have been the true setting for what is remembered in our world as Homer's Trojan War. His distillation of the Matter of Ukraine into ancient and resurgent enmities would prove to be unfortunately prophetic.
A stub article such as this can only scratch the surface of a rich and polysemic tradition of fantastika in Ukraine, and by Ukrainians. This latter category includes the fantasies of Maryna and Serhiy Dyachenko, whose Russian-language novels beginning with Privatnik ["The Gate-Keeper"] (1994) found a readership and critical praise throughout the Russian Federation, and in English, where they have sometimes been mis-described as "Russian" novelists. Max Frei (pseudonym of Svetlana Martynchik), is also widely regarded as a "Russian" writer, in a confusion aided by the fact that books such as her Chyzhak (1996; trans Polly Gannon as The Stranger 2009) are translated from Russian, rather than the Ukrainian of her original passport. Volodymyr Arenev (pseudonym of Volodymyr Puziy) writes in both Russian and Ukrainian, using his pseudonym for works post-dating his Russian fantasy novel Otchayaniye drakonov ["Dragons' Despair"] (2000).
In a presentiment of the issues facing Ukraine in the twenty-first century, Oleksandr Irvanets's novel Rivni/Rovno (2002) allegorized the country in the form of a divided city, the name of which was pronounced differently depending on what side of the river someone was. In doing so, he spoke to underlying tensions in his homeland, between a Ukrainian-speaking west, and a largely Russian-speaking east, including Crimea, which was only transferred to Ukrainian administration under the Soviet Union in 1954, and "Novorossiya", the south and east of what is now Ukraine, which was formerly the "wild fields" of the former Crimean Khanate, conquered by the Tsar's armies in 1764. Agitation for the redrawing of Novorossiya as a territory separate from Ukraine had been part of public discourse since at least 1990, when it briefly flourished in the formation of modern Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. The forces at work, particularly as manifest in Ukraine's 2005 "Orange" Revolution, would be repurposed by Andriy Valentynov as a conflict between "Russian chauvinists, Ukrainian nationalists and American globalists," as imagined in his dystopian novel Omega (2005). A different form of dystopia was imagined in Oleh Shynkarenko's Kaharlyk (2013; trans Stephen Komarnycky 2019), originally serialized on Facebook as 100-word dispatches from an alternate reality or Parallel World, inspired by the contemporary Maidan political protests that led to the 2014 "Revolution of Dignity".
A second movement for a breakaway Novorossiya, with a notional flag suspiciously similar to that of the Confederate States of America, came again in 2014, after the Russian annexation of Crimea. It shadows can be seen, once more, in the would-be secessionist republics proclaimed amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022, but also within a surprisingly large body of Russian-language fiction written by inhabitants of those areas, which in some sense, is also part of the sf of Ukraine. Fedor Berezin, for example, is both the author of the Future War novel Voyna 2010: Ukrainskiy front ["War 2010: The Ukrainian Front"] (2009), and also, from 2018, a politician on the People's Council of the Donetsk People's Republic, a state created through the actualization of the war he had predicted. Both Gleb Bobrov in Epokha Mertvorozhdennykh ["Age of the Stillborn"] (2007 fixup), and Georgiy Savitsky in Pole boya – Ukraina ["Battlefield Ukraine"] (2014), imagined a Ukraine that had become the site for a proxy war between Russian- and NATO-backed militias. Such stories are part of the history of "Ukrainian" sf only for as long as their authors or publishers would be willing or able to identify as Ukrainian, a matter of some contention in the troubled 2020s. [JonC]
- Walter Smyrniw. Ukrainian Science Fiction: Historical and Thematic Perspectives (Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2013) [nonfiction: pb/]
- Mikhail Suslov and Per-Arne Bodin, editors. The Post-Soviet Politics of Utopia: Language, Fiction and Fantasy in Modern Russia (London: I B Tauris, 2020) [nonfiction: hb/]
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