Sunday, October 30, 2011

Review: Russian Spring, by Norman Spinrad

New York: Bantam, 1991, pp. 567.

Twenty years ago science fiction legend Norman Spinrad published Russian Spring, a saga of space exploration during the twenty-first century. While envisioned as a story of the future, it now reads like an alternate history, premised as it is in a timeline unfolding from a turn of events quite different to our own--the success of Gorbachev's reforms at achieving their goal of a reformed Communism, rather than finishing off the Soviet economy and precipitating the country's collapse. Focusing on economic prosperity inside a Common Europe being extended all the way to Vladivostok, the Soviet Union does not wholly disarm, but it is no longer competing militarily with the West.

However, the U.S. remains mired in Cold War-style militarism, a policy epitomized by its vast investment in the "Battlestar America" space shield which gives it a genuine strategic superiority over every other country on Earth, and continued military interventions in Latin America intended to preserve its hemispheric hegemony--while its economy rots (except for the bloated military-industrial complex), and the Federal government grows more repressive. Its behavior is jingoistic, deluded, predatory to the point that it expropriates the assets of the European nations to which it owes an increasingly staggering debt, then turns around and annexes Mexican territory to recoup its own loans to that country, actions applauded by the "jingo gringo" portion of the American electorate--bigoted, self-righteous and clinging to a warped version of history.

On the other side of the world, the post-Gorbachev Soviet Union is functional, relatively prosperous and comparatively free, but no utopia. Personal connections and badges of political conformity matter less than they used to, but the want of them continues to stifle many a life. Additionally, the relaxation of central control has unleashed the specter of nationalism inside the country, not least on the part of the Russian "Bears" who are the Soviet counterparts to American jingo gringos.

The collision between the jingo gringos and bears culminates in an old-fashioned, new-fashioned superpower nuclear crisis, instigated by a Ukrainian secessionist movement directed by U.S. neoconservatives. This makes America's, and the world's, last, best hope a left-wing history professor from Berkeley named, of all things, Nat Wolfowitz (a choice of surname that has since become staggering in its irony), who launches an exceedingly implausible political career.

The tale is structured as an old-fashioned family epic. It begins with a four year-old Jerry Reed watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon, and catches up with him after the turn of the century, as an American aerospace engineer who has come to the attention of the European Space Agency. Their headhunting him is made problematic by the political context Spinrad imagines. The U.S. at this point increasingly views Europe as a rival, and new laws reflecting both neo-mercantilist economics and an increasingly intrusive security state make it difficult for Americans with Reed's skills and knowledge to go abroad. For him to accept the ESA offer is not a simple change of employment, but something more like a Cold War-style defection.

Nonetheless, the ESA can offer Jerry something the United States cannot: a chance to work on a new space vehicle that will be the next step in the development and exploration of space (the American space program, by this point, being overwhelmingly military in its focus). While the Europeans wine and dine him in Paris, he also meets and falls in love with a young Russian woman working for a Soviet trading company in the West, Sonya Gagarin. Ultimately he decides to take the ESA offer, marries Gagarin, and begins a family with her, which the book tracks through the rest of the narrative, with their son Robert (who identifies with his father's American nationality) going to the United States and becoming a journalist, and their daughter Franja (who identifies with her mother's nationality, but her father's dream of space) going to the Soviet Union and joining its space program as a pilot of the hypersonic craft revolutionizing long-distance air travel, and laying the foundations for more intensive space travel as well.

Just as the Reed family plays important roles in the story's unfolding events, the politics going on above their heads interfere with their careers and personal lives. Jerry's warm welcome in Europe does not last forever, the defecting American engineer soon enough finding himself an outsider in his own organization amid a rising wave of anti-Americanism on the continent, and his personal campaign for a next-generation space vehicle capable of supporting longer-ranged space missions. He becomes especially bitter about the role the Soviets play in the bureaucratic politics standing in his way, alienating him from his daughter Franja (who finds her own ambitions complicated by her family background), which is all the more ironic given that, while the U.S.'s concern with space is military, and Europe's is primarily commercial (the Europeans focusing on upmarket retirement homes in orbit), it is the Russians who are seriously pursuing Jerry's dream of space exploration and development, building a permanent station on the moon and sending manned missions to Mars. Meanwhile Robert's decision to study in an increasingly closed United States cuts him off from his family back in Europe. The end of Jerry's marriage to Sonya completes their apparent dissolution.

Certainly the Reed family's situation (American father, Russian mother, two French-born children who are at once all and none of these things) comes off as very obviously engineered to convey the "big picture" of these events. Additionally, that big picture indisputably differs enormously from how the 1990s and 2000s have unfolded. Nonetheless, the development of the Reeds' story is logical, as is that of the global context, Spinrad's conception of the larger history--the wild card of Nat Wolfowitz's political trajectory aside--solidly grounded in the possibilities of the world's situation as they appeared circa 1990, one result of which is its prescience at a number of points, from the revival of centrifugal nationalisms in the Soviet Union, to the worsening balance of payments problems of the United States. And Spinrad for the most part achieves the difficult feat of reconciling the demands of these intertwined tales. Certainly his characters and their dilemmas are compelling, the book not just readable but consistently engaging throughout its considerable length (I found myself breezing through my hardback copy's densely packed 567 pages) all the way up to its culmination in tragedy and transcendence.

As one who had always thought of Spinrad (best known for '60s and '70s-era classics like Bug Jack Barron and The Iron Dream) as a "New Wave" science fiction star, I was struck by the fact that here he was presenting those most "Golden Age" of science fiction themes--space travel (treated here with all the attention to the "how" of it one might expect from a much more technology-oriented writer) and the future of humanity--in a celebratory, soaring, optimistic, romantic way, the "future with a Capital F" most definitely arriving (if a bit behind schedule). Spinrad once called William Gibson's Neuromancer a "New Wave hard science fiction novel." Russian Spring, a very different book, can be described in exactly the same way, and in the most favorable sense of those words.

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