Thesis ID: CBB662718223

Evolution and Fantasy in the Stalinist Scientific Imagination (2023)


This dissertation argues that official narratives about human evolution contributed to the disappearance of science fiction (fantastika) during the Stalinist period and continued to constrain the genre following Stalin’s death. I examine how scientific controversies concerning biology, evolution, and materialism informed what kind of science could be depicted and how. Under Stalin, the human of the present day emerged as the singular endpoint of all evolutionary development. Following Stalin’s death, this teleological, anthropocentric metanarrative remained an impediment to revitalizing fantastika. I trace this development through readings of three authors, Alexander Beliaev, M. Il’in, and Ivan Efremov, whose creative outputs align with critical points in the development of the Stalinist scientific imaginary. Alexander Beliaev’s most famous novels, Professor Dowell’s Head (1925) and The Amphibian Man (1928), depict new technology waging a frightening but exciting assault on old ways of understanding the human. The break between scientific cultures of the 1920s and those of the Stalinist period can be seen in the harsh critical response that met Beliaev’s fiction upon its republication in the late 1930s. I focus on how scientific approaches to further “improving” the human form were relegated to the category of baseless fantasy. M. Il’in’s popular science books The Story of the Great Plan (1930) and Men and Mountains (1935), which chronicle the transformation of the natural world by the forces of Soviet industry, offer the clearest example of a literary device that I term “dialectical skazochnost’.” Using this device, authors narrativized the dialectical transformation of matter using metaphoric language, particularly anthropomorphism and personification, that was associated with the skazka. Non-living nature’s metaphoric transformation into human or animal forms enacted a metanarrative about the tendency of all matter to become more “rational” and human-like. Lastly, I look to the writing of Ivan Efremov to chart the reemergence of fantastika from under the policy of the “close aim,” a term for the unofficial interdiction against any fantastika that ventured beyond the immediate future. I draw on archival records of the Science Prose Section, a group within the Writers’ Union who met between 1945 and 1951 to discuss science writing, to better understand the policy of the close aim. I argue that Efremov was unable to fully break Stalinist-era creative barriers with his novel Andromeda Nebula (1957) because he remained committed to the Stalinist ideal of all evolution converging on contemporary humans.

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Authors & Contributors
Cohen, Claudine
Curtis, Garniss H.
Falk, Raphael
Fichman, Martin
Greenwood, John D.
Lazcano, Antonio
Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part C: Studies in History and Philosophy of Biological and Biomedical Sciences
History and Philosophy of the Life Sciences
Acta Philosophica
Biological Theory
Biology and Philosophy
Bulletin of Science, Technology & Society
Cambridge University Press
I. B. Tauris
University Press
University of California, San Diego
Controversies and disputes
Human evolution
Science and politics
Science fiction
Darwin, Charles Robert
Kant, Immanuel
Lysenko, Trofim Denisovich
Deleuze, Gilles
Linnaeus, Carolus
Lumsden, Charles J.
Time Periods
20th century
19th century
18th century
20th century, late
21st century
Soviet Union
United States

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