New York Review Books, £12.99, 694pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
Ice Trilogy, By Vladimir Sorokin, trans. Jamey Gambrell
Friday 08 April 2011
Let's begin with the reality – or as close as we can come to it. On 30 June 1908, a meteoroid – or small comet – exploded in mid-air 10 kilometres or so above the forests of Siberia. At ground level, the impact was later calculated to have equalled the force of around 1000 Hiroshima A-bombs. It felled an area of trees about 2,200 square kilometres in extent. Scientific study of the "Tunguska event" began with the first Soviet expedition in 1927.
This biggest of big bangs has also echoed through 65 years of speculative fiction. In 1946, engineer Alexander Kazantsev's story "The Explosion" first posited the air-burst hypothesis. Since then the impact has featured in SF novels by the score, from Stanislav Lem to Jacek Dukaj. Doctor Who, Star Trek and 2000AD have all spun alien-visitation yarns from the incident.
Rival explanations surface in Thomas Pynchon's Against the Day. But nothing in this long aftermath has ever matched the ambition, bravado, invention and sheer stratospheric silliness of Vladimir Sorokin's Ice Trilogy. This tripartite extravaganza pummels the reader with super-dense chunks of satire, fantasy, parody, history and paranoid pseudo-theory. It barrels across a fictional galaxy that stretches from Pynchon to 2000AD and stops at all (space) stations in between. I don't know the Russian for "kitchen sink", but Sorokin certainly chucks it in.
Born in 1955, Sorokin trained as an engineer. He began publishing underground samizdat fiction at the fag-end of the Soviet era, and worked as an artist and designer. After the fall of the USSR, he emerged as a wild outrider in that cavalry-charge of post-Soviet authors back towards the lands of surrealism, fantasy and satire long deemed off-limits. He won major prizes, recruited a keen fan-base and, notoriously, in 2002 fell foul of a pornography prosecution at the behest of a pro-Putin youth movement which (I'm told) roughly translates as "Going Forward Together". Since the offending scene in the accused, but later acquitted, novel, Blue Lard, features a clone of Stalin sodomising a clone of Khrushchev, perhaps we should not be too surprised.
Sorokin completed the three novels of the Ice Trilogy in 2008. Now, thanks to a translation by Jamey Gambrell that heroically endeavours to capture its myriad voices, from watercolour lyricism to purest pulp, we can enjoy it in all its gaudy glory. Think William S Burroughs, and Michel Houellebecq, and Will Self, all whizzed into this delirious post-Soviet SF mash-up. I found some sections absolutely exquisite, some unexpectedly moving, some intellectually exhilarating - and plenty just grotesque and absurd, as Sorokin no doubt planned.
The myth he weaves around the Tunguska meteoroid becomes tangled (skip to pages 398-400 for a crib) but has affinities with common SF motifs. Angelic light-bearing rays, 23,000 of them, created the universe. Earth, thanks to the selfish, warring "meat machines" that evolved there, proved their "great mistake" – an "ugly, cancerous tumour" that violated cosmic harmony. Yet this vile swamp captured the 23,000 pure rays and incarnated them as humans. The 1908 meteoroid contained a chunk of sacred ice with the power to locate members of this blessed brotherhood – all blond and blue-eyed - and bring them together in a "Great Last Circle". That instant, the erroneous Earth will disappear. Peace will return to the cosmos.
So the action chronicles the various campaigns, from the 1920s to 2005, of the angelic brotherhood to seek out their kin and re-unite them. Perfect impersonators of meat-machine ways, they employ a sort of magic-ice hammer. When pounded on the chest of a fellow-angel, it releases blissful feelings of content and so awakens the victim to their special status. For the initiates, once enlightened, "the absolute majority of people on this earth are walking dead". Their only role is to serve the flaxen-haired elite and so hasten the longed-for apocalypse.
Even casual readers will recognise this sinister master-race as an SF tribe at least as ancient as the Eloi of HG Wells's The Time Machine. "I think that it's connected to Fascism in some way," the Swedish rebel Bjorn rather redundantly says to the Russian-Jewish New Yorker Olga, his partner in a last-ditch human fightback in China. And to Bolshevism, capitalism, market consumerism, and every New Age doctrine from the Scientologists to - in particular - the Raëlians. Whichever mass delusion and communal idiocy you most detest, Sorokin invests his ice cult with elements of it. One poor kid in Vienna is even lured by the ice people under the guise of joining a Robert Plant Fan Club. Stairway to heaven? More like the quickest road to hell.
So far, so (mostly) familiar. Ice Trilogy becomes extraordinary when Sorokin drives this old dystopian banger off the fantasy highway and into the darkest places of the Russian – and European – 20th century. In one bravura set-piece after another, he not only re-visits key tragedies of modern times, but mimics – or re-voices – the literary styles that partner them.
In the first volume, Bro, we begin in Chekhov territory, with Snegirev the son of a sugar-beet baron in Ukraine. His studies in post-revolution Moscow introduce a Bulgakov note of satirical romance. Then comes the fateful expedition to Siberia. After his initiation as "Bro", a misanthropic, monotonous scorn for the petty "meat machines" coincides with – and seems to echo – the shrivelling of Soviet discourse under Stalin. Members of the brotherhood despise culture. Libraries figure as warehouses for "packets of paper" that induce a "silent madness".
The middle volume, Ice, begins in the 1990s with an outlandish parody not so much of Russian life in the heyday of Yeltsin and the oligarchs as the West's cartoon representation of it. Pole-dancing hookers, psychotic-genius gangsters, anti-Semitic skinhead thugs, swarthy super-cruel heavies – all do their sensational stuff in full-on Tarantino mode, as the Ice Corporation seamlessly adjusts to capitalist ways. Lapin, a kid who goes under the ice hammer, has "FUCK OFF FOREVER!" on his door and, inside, posters of "The Matrix, Lara Croft naked with two pistols, Marilyn Manson as Christ on the cross". You get the picture.
Then, in one of Sorokin's trademark lurches, we switch back to a noble Vasily Grossman-esque wartime drama. The back-story touchingly unfolds of a senior sister of the ice, Khram, who began as Varvara, a Ukrainian peasant girl. Just as we start to admire the way that Sorokin has braided his fantasia into an intimate and credible account of persecution and survival in both Hitler's and Stalin's camps, he segues back into laboured comic testimonials to the "Ice Health Improvement System". In the final part, 23,000, these wilful collisions grow more extreme.
Bjorn and Olga hatch revolt in a subterranean processing plant for dog's carcasses in Guangzhou. The ice elite rounds up some odd final stragglers among the 23,000 angels. As we learn via Olga, after 9/11 "everything had somehow cracked, collapsed". Yet somehow this deliberate fictional train-wreck never loses its gobsmacking audacity, or skimps on suspense.
A Spielberg-style finale leaves us frozen in the postmodern fix. The trilogy dramatises the twilight of our gods – from communism to consumerism - and the loss of our illusions. Yet the mission to resurrect harmony and unity appears as ice-hearted insanity. What is to be be done? as someone in Russia once asked. That question will have to wait. For now meat-machine readers on this "mistake of the universe" can admire, argue with – and, maybe, fling across the room – this spaced-out epic from the days of the comet.
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