Visions of the Future – Conference Review

This post and the next feature reviews of recent sci-fi conferences attended by Snail on the Slope contributing member Eric R. Laursen (University of Utah) – namely, April’s Global Science Fiction Cinema conference in Iowa and July’s Science Fiction Research Association conference in Detroit. For pictures, useful links, and more, read on!

Visions of the Future: Global Science Fiction Cinema Conference was held in Iowa City at the U of Iowa April 12-14 (  Panel titles ranged in topic from “Empire and the State” to “Biopolitics and Bioethics” to “Cyborgs, Affect, and Sexuality.”  Scholars delivered papers (and tantalizing clips!) on films from cultures around the world, including Bollywood, North Korea, and of course Japanese Anime.


Two keynotes were delivered, one on April 12 by Katherine Hayles entitled “Theorizing the Global Influence of Digital Media through the Technogenetic Spiral.”  Hayles is the author of How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, which won the Rene Wellek Prize for the Best Book in Literary Theory for 1998-99, and Writing Machines, which won the Suzanne Langer Award for Outstanding Scholarship. Her latest book, How We Think: Digital Media and Contemporary Technogenesis, appeared in Spring 2012 from the University of Chicago Press.

On April 13 Thomas Lamarre delivered a second keynote entitled “Humans and Machines–Media Interface after the Cyborg.”  Thomas Lamarre is a James McGill Professor in East Asian Studies and Communications Studies at McGill University. He is the author of books dealing with the history of media, thought, and material culture, with projects ranging from the communication networks of 9th century Japan (Uncovering Heian Japan), to silent cinema and the global imaginary (Shadows on the Screen) and animation technologies (The Anime Machine: A Media Theory of Animation), the latter which won an Honorable Mention for the 2011 Katherine Singer Kovács Book Award.

Lamarre’s keynote was followed by a live taping of an NPR and PBS program WorldCanvass dedicated to science fiction.  Participants included Istvan Cicery Ronay, Jr., Rob Latham, film-maker Alex Rivera and six of the panelists presenting at the conference. You can listen to the broadcast here:

Each evening there was a screening of a science fiction film.  The first two nights participants viewed the Japanese film Ghost in the Shell II: Innocence (2004, & the German Transfer (2010,  On the final day of the conference, after the last panel participants viewed a showing of world science fiction shorts.  This was followed by a banquet, after which participants raced through a torrential Iowa rainstorm to see Sleep Dealer (2008), a Sundance movie that was filmed in the U.S. and Mexico, which was followed by a Q & A with the film’s director Alex Rivera (  The picture below is a still from Sleep Dealer taken from the conference program.

ImageOrganizers of the conference were Jennifer Feeley (Dept of Asian and Slavic Languages) and Sarah Ann Wells (Dept of Spanish), both faculty members at the University of Iowa.


Slavic Science Fiction via Bristol/Angola/Mali

Visiting the Arnolfini gallery in Bristol recently, I was intrigued to discover Superpower, an exhibition devoted to African science fiction (and there is more to the latter than District 9, although Neill Blomkamp, who directed that particular gem, was doubly represented by two micro-films playing on loop). The exhibition promised, to my companion‘s unceasing admiration, to ‘be reflexive of the ever-ubiquitous exhibition format of the regional or national showcase, foregrounding modes of representation rather than considering the artist as a regional representative’. That said, it was reassuring to discover that Slavic influences are also ever-ubiquitous. The wonderfully innovative Polish artist Paweł Althamer, who has previously taken this installation to Oxford, Brussels, and Brazil, is pictured exploring Mali with a small crew of faux-extraterrestrials from the Warsaw suburb of Bródno, all wearing Elvis-style gold lamé space suits. To quote the exhibition catalogue, Althamer and his companions travel the world ‘to create an alien encounter with new people and places. […] One of the classic allegories of science fiction – that of aliens invading the Western world who symbolize a fear of the ‘Other’ – is reversed, in this instance also playing with the oft-fabled beliefs of the Dogon in the extra-terrestrial’. In an interesting Fedorovian aside, Althamer called his travelling installation the ‘Common Task’ (Polish ‘Wspólna sprawa’; contrast Nikolai Fedorov’s ‘общее дело’). Althamer’s aesthetic and moral convictions, however, relate more to international fraternity than intergalactic resurrection. (You can watch an interview with the artist here.)


A second Slavic-themed installation was a series of photographs by Angolan artist Kiluanji Kia Henda, ostensibly logging a sun-landing exhibition called Icarus 13. Launched from and ultimately landed in Luanda, Angola with ‘a flight crew… composed of two astronauts and two beautiful air stewards, trained for one year before the launch in the desert of Namibia’, the diamond-and-steel, solar-powered craft sets off to gather samples from the surface of the sun. The tongue-in-cheek, mordantly detailed captions describe an impossibly utopian project that may remind readers of Engineer Los’s voyage to Mars in Aelita or the brief parabola of the Integral in Zamiatin’s We. To return to the catalogue: ‘Kia Henda’s project also suggests the melancholy in these monumental remains of a collective intervention into the future – the promise of a better world that Soviet states and post-colonial African nations shared, burned up like Icarus on a flightpath to the sun’.



Remember that Snail on the Slope always welcomes new ideas for blog posts, or guest blog posts on all relevant topics!

The new Strugatskii Brothers biography reviewed

Guest post by Kevin Reese

This is a “halfway mark” review of the recently published biography of the Strugatskii brothers by Dmitrii Volodikhin and Gennadii Prashkevich, part of the long-standing Zhizn’ zamechatel’nykh liudei series.  I purchased the book in December, but the publication date reads 2012.  For a few weeks, then, I was literally reading a book from the future.

I was about halfway done with the book when the semester started, and teaching obligations have prevented me from getting back to reading it properly.  This being said, I think that I have processed more than enough of the book to get a sense for its structure.

Before the semester began, I had gotten up to the section devoted to Ulitka na sklone.  It follows that the portion I have read deals with the early and middle periods of the Strugatskiis’ career, before an inability to get their works published became the norm.  In a note at the beginning of the book, Volodikhin and Prashkevich talk about the joy of coming across one of the Strugatskiis’ books during this later period:

“Но каким наслаждением было когда-то наткнуться в провинциальном лавке в Сибири, в Заполярье, на Дальнем Востоке на чудом попавшую книжку братьев Стругацких.  Что там, под переплетом?  Что нового они придумали?  Книжки в этих лавках часто лежали на одной полке с консервами, с сахаром, с чаем, с обычным макаронами.  А значит — были так же нужны, как эти продукты.” But what a pleasure it was at one time, in provincial store in Siberia, in the Arctic Circle, in the Far East, to stumble upon a Strugatskii book that had ended up there by some miracle.  What was there, beneath the cover?  What new thing had they thought up?  Books in these stores often stood the same shelf with preserves, with sugar, with tea, and with ordinary macaroni.  This means that they were just as necessary as these food products. (6)

The passage contains much of what is good and bad about this biography: while the authors bring to their task the passion of having grown up reading the Strugatskiis, their tendency to drift into writing a personal history of having been readers and contemporaries of the Strugatskiis is frequently indulged.  (The earlier Skalandis biography (2008) suffers from this tendency to an even greater degree.)

Another undercurrent of the book is analysis and interpretation of the Strugatskiis’ works, which are examined in chronological order.  As a reader, I would like to know as much about the Strugatskiis’ lives as possible, and it often seems that the authors are cutting the biographical sections short in order to insert their own literary opinions.  For example, their analysis of the various meanings contained in Ulitka na sklone covers pages 138-69, far too long, in my opinion, a departure from biography.

Despite a high incidence of digressions, though, the books is worth reading, and should be read by anyone with a strong interest in the Strugatskiis.  There is a great deal of interesting information about the circumstances surrounding the publication of each work.  To cite one very small example, there is an account of how Arkadii Natanovich was called to the office of Znanie—Sila just prior to the publication of “Spontannyi refleks” to correct an ending that the editors did not like.  There was a rush on the story because it was being sent to America as part of a sf exchange.  (It appeared in the May 1959 issue of Amazing Stories in a fairly poor translation.)  They decided to simply truncate the story, and the original ending appears to have been discarded.

There is a great deal of interesting material in terms of pure biography.  The family’s experience of the Blockade is given in more detail than I have seen elsewhere, as is the history of AN’s time in the military and the failure of his first marriage.  There are numerous excerpts from the correspondence between BN and Prashkevich.  One letter from BN is essentially a paean to stamp collecting, and the passion of his writing partially explains why this hobby has made more than one appearance in the Strugatskiis’ works, most notably in Vtoroe nashestvie marsian. Given that the Strugatskii would become science fiction writers, the space given to their respective interests in astronomy is of particular interest.  It is well known that BN did graduate work in astronomy and worked for many years at the Pulkovo observatory.  The materials gathered in this book make it clear that AN had a lifelong interest in the subject.  They include an excerpt from AN’s journal from 25 December 1941, in which he mentions the Blockade bread rations, and then immediately lays out his study plans in mathematics, and theoretical and spherical astronomy, naming the textbooks he will be using.

The book contains many pictures, many of which will be familiar to readers of the Skalandis biography, as well as those who have perused volume 11 of the 2000-2003 Stalker edition of the Strugatskiis’ collected works.

Kevin Reese, UNC Chapel Hill

A new study of Tarkovsky’s Stalker

Anyone teaching a class on Russian cinema, or otherwise interested in Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 classic Stalker, may rejoice at the publication of a new book on this enigmatic film by writer Geoff Dyer. By all accounts, Dyer’s 240-page study takes an irreverently reverential approach to Tarkovsky, combining intelligent analysis of Stalker with remarks on contemporary culture: ‘This, in other words, is much more than a useful guide to a classic film. It is also, in small doses, a memoir, a rumination on art and a philosophy of how to live well. Moreover, it is a running commentary on itself, and as such it poses a problem for the reviewer. Dyer is forever pre-empting criticism by flagging up the potential shortcomings of his project: wouldn’t he have been better off writing a book about tennis? Now and then, he draws attention to the patchiness of his own research: he only “skimmed” the Stanislaw Lem novel that Tarkovsky’s Solaris is based on and decided to avoid his final film The Sacrifice; an explanation he gives about a patricide in a recent film indebted to Tarkovsky is, he confesses, “one part Harold Bloom and one part ill-digested psychoanalysis”‘ (Killian Fox writing in The Observer). More reviews here from the Guardian and the Financial Times.


Soviet Science Fiction and Russian Film seminars at UCL SSEES

UK-based readers of this blog will be enthused to hear about a series of three seminars organized by Professor Julian Graffy and Dr Philip Cavendish at UCL SSEES under the auspices of the Russian Cinema Research Group, which holds regular seminars during termtime. In the current semester, on 5th March, Andrei Rogatchevski (Glasgow) will speak on ‘The Strugatskii Brothers’  Khromaia sud´ba and Arkadii Sirenko’s Iskushenie B’. Alistair Renfrew (Durham) will discuss the ‘Attack of the Soviet Bs: Corman, Cosmos, and the American Mainstream’ on March 12th. See here for more details of these and many other interesting SSEES seminars. (Confession: I gave the first seminar in this series, on Konstantin Lopushanskii’s apocalyptic films, on Feb 6th).

If you can’t wait until Andrei Rogatchevskii’s talk, Sirenko’s Iskushenie B (The Temptation of B) is available to watch on YouTube here. This film and a vast range of others are, additionally, available to watch in SSEES’s extensive Russian film library, by prior arrangement with university staff.


Another look at Metro 2033

With reference to our recent piece on Dmitry Glukhovsky’s online (later print) sci-fi novel, Metro 2033, here’s a link to a review of the same book by Russian Dinosaur. I’m not yet entirely convinced I need to read the sequel, Metro 2034, which can also be accessed online here.

There’s a brief but useful bio and bibliography (plus a moody photo) of Glukhovsky himself on the Academica Rossica website.


That Martian Stranded On Earth

A quick mention that two reviews of Toronto-based scholar Nikolai Krementsov’s fascinating biography of Aleksandr Bogdanov, A Martian Stranded On Earth: Alexander Bogdanov, Blood Transfusions, and Proletarian Science (University of Chicago Press, 2011) have now appeared in the UK press.’This slim volume is an example of genuinely interdisciplinary, readable, erudite science history,’ says Yvonne Howell, writing in the THE, on 29 September 2011. (Read more here). In the TLS (January 13, 2012), Muireann Maguire claims that Krementsov’s book is the first study ‘to place Bogdanov’s three personae – literary, personal, and scientific – vividly and accurately in context. If Bogdanov was martyred, he willingly sacrificed himself to the naive hubris of Soviet utopian science’. Read more here – if you can navigate the paywall.

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