by Tendai Huchu
The Soviet mycologist Grigor Grigorovich Bogomolov was a rising star in the science fiction literary scene. His first novella, Glorious Red Mars of the Eternal Revolution, was met with lukewarm acclaim, selling several hundred copies, enough for his friends to compare him favourably to Grigorii Grebnev. By day, Bogomolov battled with hosts of dermatomycoses, his particular focus being (and he always blushed when asked) vulvovaginal candidiasis. His colleagues at the institute were proud to have a published author in their midst and understood when he came for work in the mornings, red-eyed and weary, that Bogomolov was burning the candle at both ends in the service of literature and science.
Bogomolov was stuck in a block, unable to follow up with a novel despite the heartfelt urging of his publisher who believed in his talent. It didn’t help when three years after the publication of Glorious Red Mars, the critic Stepanischeva wrote a scathing review in красный гигант, denouncing the novella as ‘a thinly disguised subversive work pandering to western capitalist ideology bent on the ruination of the glorious revolution’. In his review, Stepanischeva argued that Mars was famously depicted by H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds to be home to warmongering, marauding Martians who seek to destroy the earth. He wrote that Bogomolov surely could not have missed the irony that Mars is dead and desolate. The article ended with the chilling denouncement: ‘Bogomolov should know that the red of Mars can never be compared to the glorious red of the Hammer and Sickle, of the blood of patriots spilt during the Revolution of 1917 and more recently during the Great Patriotic War!’
The review sent chills down Bogomolov’s spine. Colleagues at work began to view him with suspicion, refusing to share the table with him in the canteen during lunch as though he carried an infectious contagion. His editor, Boris Kropotkin, telephoned him in blind panic, voice quivering down the line and insisted they had to do something. The красный гигант was an influential journal and if the author was compromised, so too was his publisher. Bogomolov pointed out the absurdity of the review’s central premise since the journal itself was named after a class of stars that have exhausted their core hydrogen and switched to thermonuclear fusion in the shell, i.e. Red Giant was emblematic of a dying star and therefore unconsciously carried a more subversive message than Glorious Red Mars.
‘Please, I beg you; put such thoughts out of your mind. красный гигант is very powerful, you can’t win,’ Kropotkin wailed down the telephone. ‘You must do something that will distance you from that damned novella!’
‘What can I do?’ said Bogomolov dejected.
‘Write a new story, a patriotic story denouncing the evils of western individualism,’ Kropotkin declared. ‘We will publish it in our own journal, New Horizons, next week.’
All week Bogomolov didn’t attend work. Instead he stayed in his cold garret feverishly writing his last masterpiece – nearly forgotten now, but a classic of the Soviet short story – The Autonomy Directive. The language was stilted and bland, but the story was ideologically sound. In The Autonomy Directive, an unnamed western nation (the reader is invited to see it as the United States of America) builds a great computer the size of the Great Pyramid of Giza with one objective, to solve the main contradiction of western society, that of the primacy of individual rights within a collective society. A pact was made that whatever solution the computer came up with would be enforced by law. For years the capital was tormented by the sound of the computer’s cranking gears, its churning magnetic tape and the whirr of hot air blasting out of its cooling vents. In the seventh year, the computer printed out its solution. The government was shocked, but bound to these instructions all the same. The story ends with the ominous view of whole cities built of skyscrapers of velvet lined titanium coffins in which the citizens were entombed, each forever separate from his fellow man.
Bogomolov collapsed when he finished the story, and had to be rescued by his landlady, the kindly Vera Pavlona. The Autonomy Directive was published in New Horizons the following week, and was well received by красный гигант and several other leading journals. Kropotkin ensured that any remaining copies of Glorious Red Mars of the Eternal Revolution were pulped now that crisis had been averted. He turned back to Bogomolov and asked if he would now write something else. This is what Bogomolov said to him:
‘I can never write again, for now I have laid myself in my own velvet lined coffin. You and Stepanischeva can nail it shut together.’
He died a bitter old man in 1992 without ever having written another word.
– Tendai Huchu is the author of The Hairdresser of Harare. His short fiction and nonfiction have appeared in The Manchester Review, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Gutter, AfroSF, Wasafiri, Warscapes, The Africa Report, The Zimbabwean, Kwani? and numerous other publications. In 2013 he received a Hawthornden Fellowship and a Sacatar Fellowship. He was shortlisted for the 2014 Caine Prize. His next novel will be The Maestro, The Magistrate, & The Mathematician.