We Modern People by Anindita Banerjee

Yvonne Howell on modernity and early Russian science fiction

February 14, 2013

Time flies when you’re having fun. Albert Einstein himself agreed that when it comes to our everyday human perception, time seems to speed up when we are thoroughly engrossed in, say, early Russian science fiction’s “creative intervention in history”. For the author of We Modern People, time must move fast, because the excitement with which Anindita Banerjee puts together ideas about alternative models of modern space, modern time, modern power and modern people is palpable in the writing on every page of this well-proportioned book, which offers 162 pages of chiselled thinking and no padding. Why did the 20th-century genre of “scientific” (as distinct from utopian) fantasy emerge so strongly, so early, and so distinctly in a technologically backward empire at the margins of Europe? How did science fiction serve as the discursive form that allowed fin de siècle Russia to write its own culturally specific script for “becoming modern” - a script that sometimes engaged the Western narrative of progress, and sometimes moved far ahead of that narrative? After all, Russian science fiction articulated a “modernity” that still seems ahead of its time a century later, in so far as it already presupposes the appropriateness of science and technology for healing the duality between mind and body, and for animating the latent, holistic connection between all manifestations of matter, from molecules to rocks to plants to humans.

We postmodern people will appreciate the argument that Russian science fiction exposed and resisted the dehumanisation inherent in both capitalist modernity and its Bolshevik alternative. It served as a discursive place where the painful contradictions of a one-sided, mostly Western modernity could be reimagined to transcend geographical (East versus West), temporal (private versus public time) and ethical chasms. For instance, electricity was a source of intense media coverage, popular interest and fictional representation in Russia long after it had become the material driving force of modernity in the West, and long before it became an experiential reality in the new Soviet Union. Yet decades before Lenin’s iconic 1920 pronouncement that “Communism equals Soviet Power plus the electrification of the entire country” as he set the construction of power stations into motion, numerous works of science fiction had already shaped an understanding of electricity that was instrumental, metaphysical and socially conscious. In these stories, electricity does not just illuminate future buildings - it also illuminates the souls of future citizens, who use its power to transform both mundane and spiritual reality. Banerjee is a skilful guide, who can remind you precisely what “anodic” and “cathodic” poles actually do, even as she uses them metaphorically to show how the Russian national imagination was imbued with the notion that the alchemy of electricity would allow Soviet modernity to leapfrog over the present from backwards darkness into cosmic enlightenment.

We Modern People is not a romp through a well-ploughed field: on the contrary, it does the hard work of a path-breaking book. It reconsiders the role of science fiction, and literary representation in general, in shaping Russia’s “inimitable version” of modernity. In so doing, it inspires us to consider the potential of today’s literary genres to mediate between scientific advancement and the global cultures that must articulate the purpose of this advancement in constructing our collective future. In short, Banerjee’s book is a very, very smart one, and it is right on time.

We Modern People: Science Fiction and the Making of Russian Modernity

By Anindita Banerjee

Wesleyan University Press, 230pp, £64.50 and £21.50

ISBN 9780819573339 and 73346

Published 3 January 2013

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