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The Rim Worlds

... out on the Galactic Rim things are very iffy and if you fart really hard your're liable to blow yourself on to an Alternate Time Track.

A Bertram Chandler.

Philosophical Gas

Russia and The Writer

As I write this. Alexander Solzhenitsyn is very much in the news. Like most people I was greatly relieved to learn that the penalty for his ‘crimes’ was merely exile and not a return to the forced-labour camps or a sojourn in a psychiatric hospital. I am sure that all of us hope that his many true Mends in the Soviet Union are not made to suffer for their loyalty; a rather hopeless sort of hope. I admit, although some of them, Dr Sakharov especially, seem to be of such standing that even the KGB handles them with kid gloves.

May it stay that way.

Not so long ago my wife and I were discussing Russia. It was shortly after one of our masters, whose ship had been loading grain in a South Australian port, had told me about a cocktail party thrown in that port by the master of a Russian vessel, the guests being the local business community and the captains of the other grain ships.

My friend had managed to get his host by himself in a corner, and over several glasses of vodka, had compared notes. He discovered that in Russian vessels the sacred margins are maintained. In pay and in conditions there is a great gulf between the master and his officers. Also the master’s powers have not been steadily eroded over the years by industrial courts and the like, as they have been in this country and in other capitalist countries.

I said ‘As a shipmaster I’d be far better off in Russia - and as a writer I’d probably finish up in the salt mines!’

Mind you, politics can work against one in the Western World as well as on the other side of the Iron Curtain, although the worst that can happen to you is not selling. I am still amused by what happened to a story I wrote many years ago, called ‘Artifact’, It was about the first American Mars landing - all very much according to von Braun - and the discovery by the astronauts of what they at first think is a fair-dinkum Martian. The Martian turns out to be the offspring of two Russian cosmonauts. survivors (briefly) of an unpublicized Russian expedition to the Red Planet. The present regime in Russia has crumbled shortly after this expedition failed to return, and the new rulers have more important matters on their plate than astronautics.

Well, the story sold at once on the British market. It was a long time selling in the USA. According to my agent, the American editors just refused to entertain the idea that the wicked Russians could possibly be first on Mars. Then the first Sputnik was launched, with the consequent shakeup of American thinking. ‘Artifact’ was promptly purchased by Amazing (who, for some obscure reason, retitled it ‘The Last Citizen’).

I don’t know whether or not this story has ever been published In the USSR, but I have been surprised to learn how much of my work has been printed in that country - all of it, unluckily, before the recognition by Russia of the Bonn Convention. Before this recognition Western authors were paid for their work, of course, but the moneys earned had to be spent in the Soviet Union. There were, as a matter of fact, loopholes - as there are in all laws. One prominent British writer, whose works sold very well in Russia, discovered that, legally speaking. Indonesia was somehow part of the Russian currency empire. (It was in the days when Russia was playing Big Brother to our northern neighbours.) Once a year he and his wife would blow the accumulated royalties on a holiday in Bali.

It was fairly recently, however, when I learnt personally of the fear that is always at the back of the minds of everbody in Russia engaged in literary enterprises, no matter how minor. It was when my Russian Faithful Reader (I may have more than one, but he’s the only one who writes to me) asked me if I would give him permission to translate one of the stories in THE HARD WAY UP for his university magazine. He also asked which one I would recommend.

My choice was ‘The Tin Messiah’ (also published in Galaxy as ‘The Soul Machine’). You may recall the thing. In it the young Grimes, captain of the Survey Service’s courier ‘Adder’, has as a passenger a humanoid robot, a Mr Adam, who (or which) has been manufactured by the Federation for the sole purpose of stirring up revolt among the robots on a planet that happens to be in the Federation’s bad books. At one stage of the story Grimes wonders if the driver of the train which brought Lenin, in the famous sealed carriage, to the Finland station ever foresaw the consequences of merely taking a passenger from point A to point B. The question was raised very briefly, in just one short paragraph.

And it scared my penfriend. He said, frankly, that he didn’t like to think of the consequences to him if he used that story, even though in it I had said nothing at all unkind about the Little Red Father. He translated instead ‘With Good Intentions’, the first story in the collection.

Funnily enough I had that same story, ‘The Tin Messiah’, knocked back in this country. It was when Angus & Robertson were collecting the material for their third anthology of Australian science fiction. They turned down ‘The Tin Messiah’ and took instead ‘The Mountain Movers’.

Mention Lenin and you don’t sell in Russia. Mention Ayers Rock, and you sell in Australia. I think I prefer our way of doing things.
Originally Published in Philosophical Gas No: 27 - Mar 1974