The Soviet STTOS Jr.

Mostly writing this to coherently sum up my thoughts.

For better or for worse, I was born in the Soviet Union. It’s an unfortunate reality that people don’t get to choose where they’re born. Maybe someone out there is working on fixing that. :)

In particular, Soviet fiction has influenced my own writing. My pet project in progress, a time travel thingy called Insight (it sucks, so I wouldn’t dare call it a novel), has throwbacks to Soviet science fiction of all timeframes, from We to Alice, Girl from the Future. Soviet SF from about the 1960s onwards, especially aimed at children, has an air of optimism about it; it has this spirit of benevolent exploration, broadening the horizons of knowledge, eternal moral values.

One of the unconscious influences — ones I didn’t realize until I rewatched a bit of it — was an old children’s movie dilogy that rubbed into my own childhood: Moscow — Cassiopeia. Of course, back then I was too young to realize its main fault: that it was a work of socialist realism, which was less about showing reality as it was and more about how it “should be”, from the perspective of Soviet ideology. Everyone, both child and adult, acts “too perfect”. The positive characters are ideological embodiments of qualities, not reading like real people, and the negative are likewise symbolic embodiments of flaws. The end result is that it ends up feeling wooden, unrealistic (and I don’t mean unrealistic in the sense that it has an FTL starship and an alien planet).

And the plot itself? Well, it’s nothing surprising to anyone who has seen any Star Trek series ever. Again, I only know that now. You don’t particularly expect a 1973 movie to be original by modern standards, so it follows the usual route: robot creations blah blah turned against their masters blah blah emotional suppression blah blah mind control rays blah blah blah. The resolution was narmy even by STTOS standards: the deus ex machina came in the form of an iron nail stuck in a power socket! Ah well, it’s for kids, you don’t expect them to appreciate clever writing, right?

Still, it has the kind of innocent charm in it that I like in Soviet movies in general, so it would be watchable for me now if not for one factor that utterly kills my enjoyment.

It’s this guy.


I hate him so much. He’s basically the antithesis of everything emphasized in Soviet SF.

He has no name, he is referred to by the unwieldy acronym “IOO” (in Russian, “one assigned to special responsibilities”) and he never directly interacts with any of the adults, only with the children. And with the audience, who are, again, assumed to be children.

The movie starts with him directly addressing the audience and claiming that the events of the movie really happened “next spring”. He speaks in a somewhat playful, pointedly polite, almost patronizing manner. And he fulfills the role of a deus ex machina, nudging the events to get the story going. He’s apparently omnipotent — he can teleport, even across planets, contact an FTL starship from an ordinary rotary phone, etc.

Who is he? An interdimensional bureaucrat?


Nah, that would be too generous an interpretation. (Incidentally, although I don’t exclude the possibility that Valve was influenced by the IOO, the chances of this are slim.) Although he drops hints that he works for some kind of superiors, he is human and benevolent in his emotions, very much unlike the G-Man, despite fulfilling a similar handy deus ex machina role. The IOO is Gandalf assembling the company together on an adventure — in this case, the space expedition.

Ahem! This movie is otherwise very serious. Imagine the most straight-faced moments in Star Trek without all the character-based humor, where every character is Picard and can do no wrong. Perhaps the IOO was an attempt at injecting humor? But I’m sorry, it’s supposed to be SF as in “science fiction”, not “space fantasy”. It’s not about space princesses, space emperors and space dashing swordsmen. A Gandalf figure, or even an Obi-Wan figure, is utterly out of place in a movie that spends about a fourth of its run spitting out relatively realistic scientific jargon.

Another version is that he’s an author stand-in. Based, of course, on the assumption that children are such morons that they can’t tell reality from fiction unless they’re constantly pointed out that it’s fiction (in this case by drawing attention to the IOO’s outlandish antics). Is it the same kind of logic that has prompted Soviet writers to constantly put fantastic elements in framing stories, for example, by making Ivan Vasilievich revealed to be a dream in the end? (Just in case, you know, the audience thinks time machines are actually possible?)

There is, however, a certain point at which the character appears too often, turning from a “necessary plot device” into an “author’s pet character”. The IOO not just gets the plot going, but he also appears several times later, randomly teleporting around, acting as a mysterious advisor living outside time, showing knowledge of the future, switching between acting playful and patronizing…

River Song

Why, hello, sweetie.

Like River Song, the IOO ultimately suffers from overexposure, to the point that he stops being that interesting quirky enigma and simply steals too much of the spotlight for himself. But the absolute nadir is the finale, in which, after the kids resolve the conflict on an alien planet, he simply teleports them back home. Just like that. Leaving the expensive starship behind.

Even if it’s not an “all just a dream” cop-out, it has the effect of saying: “Hah! You thought you were watching a space exploration story! But what you were actually watching was an imaginary fairy tale about space exploration! None of this was real!” And it cheapens the moral and emotional impact of the story.

In an interview to a Soviet newspaper back in those days, director Richard Viktorov had this to say about the concept of the IOO: “To make it easier for kids to understand the film, we have added a familiar archetype of the kind wizard.”

In other words, the director’s stance was that kids are morons and won’t understand a plot without an archetype that is completely inappropriate for the genre.

Goshdang it to heck.

The Self-Reinforcing Binary

The late 20th – early 21st century have been rich with various concepts beginning with “post-“. Postindustrial society, postmodernism, post-theism, postgenderism, posthumanism… The opinions on these, as well as the larger trends behind them all, are of course divided, but if anything, this only illustrates the point I’m trying to make.

I think that what happened is that as the barriers of communication fell down, as we learned more about different cultures and lifestyles, so did we realize that many social concepts formerly thought of as absolute and rigid actually weren’t. It will take another generation, or perhaps more than one, just to process this very idea to its fullest. We have come to realize that concepts and ideas, real or fictional, live in the historical and cultural context of their creators, and can only be fully understood in a relative rather than absolute way. No matter how many times literary critics say “death of the author”, you can’t abstract away from the fact that George Orwell had the political trends of early-to-mid-20th century in mind when he wrote 1984, or that J.R.R. Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs influenced the cosmology and tone of The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings.

Social ideas and norms are much the same way. Appeal to tradition, “it has always been that way”, is just about the worst argument you can make when defending an existing social custom, right next to “God decrees so”. Even if the God you believe in tells you that someone will go to Hell for the terrible, terrible moral crime of enjoying sex without the intent of procreation, it’s not your business to try and “save” them. Just act yourself the way your beliefs dictate. Hence the “post-“: not in the sense of rejection, but in the sense of outgrowing. A post-theistic society is not an atheistic society, but merely one that got over theism, a society where religion is a matter of personal choice rather than a shaping force in politics.

And yes, I realize that my own writing is influenced by my atheist bias, conscious and unconscious. While I cannot fully abstract from them, I can be made aware of them; let the unconscious become conscious.

So how does it all relate to the gender binary? Well, the way I see it, gender roles and religious dogmas have a lot in common — they are self-propagating memes. A good example to illustrate the problem is the origin of the Russian word for bear, “medved'”. It literally meant “honey eater” in Old Slavic and was originally created as a euphemism, because the real name of the animal was taboo. However, over time, this fact was forgotten and “medved'” became the only known name, and thus itself considered something to be avoided by superstitious hunters.

Religious fundamentalists take the words of their prophets and saints dropped here and there throughout their lives, often out of context, and declare them absolute, immutable truth. Proponents of the gender binary take emergent prejudices that shaped themselves due to a combination of circumstances, sometimes mind-bogglingly arbitrary, and declare them gospel. In any case, we are faced with codification, with social expectations and taboos shaped by minutae.

It’s like if a fictional character had their complexity stripped away and become defined by a single trait based on something they vaguely did in that one episode. Oh wait.

What originally prompted this post was a paragraph I saw while reading Andrew Rilstone commentary on some common themes and tropes in fiction, namely, the points made by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (itself subjected to gospelization: while Campbell himself was only writing about common themes in a distinct kind of stories, some of his followers went so far as to claim that the structure he pointed out was inherent in every story ever written). After a series of posts making logical arguments, the latest of which contrasted stories where the hero returned home with a boon from the travels with stories where the hero reached their destination and stayed there, when I kept going “Yes, yes, that’s exactly it!”, I suddenly stumbled upon this non sequitur.

When I did literary theory at college, it was a truism that stories in which someone set forth to achieve something – stories which rushed headlong to a dramatic conclusion – were Male (and therefore bad). Stories which reached no final conclusion, which described a state of being, which cycled back to the beginning and achieved multiple climaxes were Female (and therefore good). The cleverer students, the ones with berets, went so far as to claim that the whole idea of stories – in fact the whole idea of writing in sentences — was dangerously “phallocentric”. But one does take the point that boys’ stories like Moby Dick have beginnings, middles and ends in a way that girls’ stories like Middlemarch really don’t. The soap opera, which is all middle, is the female narrative form par excellence. You would search in vein for a monomyth in Coronation Street.

For a minute, I just blinked at the text in silence, trying to make any sense out of it. Wikipedia defines a truism as “a claim that is so obvious or self-evident as to be hardly worth mentioning, except as a reminder or as a rhetorical or literary device”. In other words, the author took this piece of essentialist drivel for granted so much that he assumed everyone else shared it.

Which made me think: what, exactly, causes people to assign concepts to genders in such an utterly arbitrary fashion? The answer, I believe, lies in the pervasive, all-encompassing nature of the gender binary. The human society, we are taught from infancy, consists of men and women. We know – some of us, anyway – that it’s merely an approximation in the same sense that Newtonian physics are an approximation of relativistic physics and the real world, one that is valid for most everyday uses but fails when we broaden the horizons of our knowledge. But the idea is tempting. After all, ideas, as Christopher Nolan helpfully points out, are the most persistent kind of infection known to humanity.

And as such, when we encounter a new kind of idea (in this case, a binary), it is tempting to explain it in the concept of another binary we know, even if the analogy makes no sense. The actual mapping is often hard to explain rationally. Ancient paganists knew about the day/night binary and their corresponding celestial bodies. As such, in many mythologies over the world, the gods or personifications of the Sun and the Moon are of different genders, but it varies which is which. On one hand, we have Helios and Selene, Apollo and Artemis; on the other, Sól and Máni, who no doubt inflienced Tolkien’s Arien and Tilion.

Sometimes, it’s not random. The earliest known examples of gender roles in prehistoric tribes, and such basic dichotomies as hard/soft, strong/weak, big/small, outward/inward, are probably influenced by real physical differences. From there, it kept fracturing, expanding since then. Perhaps many concepts declared “masculine” or “feminine” were not assigned randomly, but based on associations with existing concepts already sorted into the binary. The gender binary was not static, but, as pointed out, a fractal with internalized sexism (for example, while science itself is considered a “masculine” career, there are individual sciences perceived as predominantly masculine or feminine, etc.; even feminism itself could have contributed to such perceptions, if the “hairy-legged man-hater” stereotype is any indication). And not just a static fractal, but an ever-expanding, path-dependent chain of associations that solidified over time; what might first have been a helpful rhetorical device became unquestionable taboo.

What can be done to break this pattern? Feminism contributes to the reverse process of conflation, of removing gender association stigma from logically unrelated concepts. But a true breakdown of the binary, I believe, will only happen when people en masse change their fundamental patterns of thought, and cast off or at least become aware of implicit assumptions underlying their arguments and actions. It is in the nature of the human mind to think in opposites, but the process of exposing the context can move the mental opposites from socially harmful areas and place more focus on, say, personal beliefs, ethics, and political ideologies – ideas that people choose to accept instead of being assigned to them by virtue of birth. And then, perhaps, we can outgrow the labeling of just about everything as masculine or feminine; in other words, walk into a post-binary world.