Russian Spring, Normand Spinrad

Bantam Spectra, 1991, 567 pages, C$27.50 hc, ISBN 0-553-07586-1

Read this:

“The United States… had let the dollar drop like a stone against the ECU in order to try to devaluate its enormous external debt, was reinvesting its capital and excess military capacity in Latin America… and loud voices in the American Congress and elsewhere had started clamoring for debt renunciation and even expropriation of Common European holdings in the States, none of which exactly assured Americans a warm welcome in the metropoles of Common Europe. Besides which, with the dollar so far down against the ECU and all the currency restrictions on American tourists…” [p.86]

Replace ECU with Euro and Latin America with Middle East, and the above sure reads like a news headline, doesn’t it? Then how about the fact that it was written sometime in 1990-1991?

Norman Spinrad may have had guessed a number of details wrong, but the future described in his 1991 family epic Russian Spring is a great deal more familiar today than anyone would have guessed at the time. In this novel, America turns its back on the world and on civilian high technology, invades most of Latin America, blocks its borders and indulges in xenophobia. Meanwhile, Europe -led by a post-communistic Russia- takes the lead in space technology and personal freedom.

As I said; creepy foreshadowing, isn’t it? Spinrad may not have been aiming for much more than a contrarian reversal of roles, but our reality has a way of being even stranger than we can imagine. It’s not a perfect one-to-one correspondence but it’s close enough to be unnerving. (In Russian Spring, the ex-Soviet republics haven’t yet seceded in independent countries, a fact that plays heavily in its conclusion –even though it also features Ukrainian election heavily influenced by Americans!)

The real protagonist of Russian Spring is Jerry Reed, an engineer courted by Europe to lead an ambitious aerospace project. There’s one catch, though; America won’t stand for his defection and demands Reed’s passport, stranding him outside the US. Things are resolved, somewhat, by the arrival of a Russian girl, Sonya Gargarin, who is in a position to make a complex deal to allow them both to stay in Paris.

But that’s not the end of the story. Russian Spring evolves over thirty years, as tensions rise and fall between Europe, America, Russia and the rest of the world. Four main characters over three decades barely qualify for the title of “family epic”, but Spinrad’s novel has an ambitious sweep that has the feel of a big big story. Jerry Reed’s dream is to get into space, but at what cost?

There are many thing to love and admire about Russian Spring, but perhaps the best is the combination of political complexity with good old-fashioned SF spirit. The post-cold-war balance of powers and forces between old allies and enemies is skillfully developed through characters with a lot to lose from even the slightest power shifts. Readers of political fiction ought to find something worthwhile in this novel, especially today.

But at the same time, you have thank Spinrad for using SF’s traditional fixation on space exploration as a way to bring all of humanity together and rise above petty squabbles. This is high-grade techno-optimism and Russian Spring, fourteen years later, offers a suitable prism through which we can see a way out of this crazy “war of terrorism”.

I have my own reservations about the book (the rise of a character named Wolwowitz -of all names!- is dicey, and so is the way two gratuitous accidents precipitate the entire conclusion), but there’s a lot more good than bad in this unexpected, largely forgotten gem. Read it today, because it’s never been more relevant. Still not convinced? Read this:

“President Carson… is a schmuck. If it talks like a schmuck, runs the country like a schmuck, and surrounds itself with other schmucks, it probably is a schmuck, even if it wasn’t cruising this poor screwed-up country for another international bruising like the biggest schmuck of all.” [P.397].

Hmmm.

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