Ivan Yefremov (1907--1972) was by original profession a paleontologist. His first stories, on the life of explorers, were published in 1944. Andromeda -- in Russian-language editions The Andromeda Nebula -- is his best-known science fiction novel. Not coincidentally, it was written in 1956, the year of the first sputnik (Soviet artificial earth satellite).

This third English-language printing contains an introduction written shortly before the author's death. Here Yefremov explains how he came to write sci-fi and the purposes he thinks sci-fi should serve. For him sci-fi is not a light-hearted genre in which the fantasy is given free rein, but a serious medium for exploring new scientific ideas and their social implications. Its task is also to portray the communist future of mankind. (In this piece "communism" has the same meaning as in Soviet ideology: it refers to the future culmination of social development, NOT the historical forms of the Soviet system, which are called "socialism.")

Indeed, Andromeda is set in a society -- let's call it Yefremia for convenience -- in which communism is already a mature society, several centuries old. Poverty, greed, and heavy toil are things of the distant past; "knowledge and creative labor have freed Earth from hunger, overpopulation, infectious diseases, and harmful animals" (p. 181). A greatly reduced population is concentrated in a temperate zone, mainly around the Mediterranean Sea, between the intensely forested and cultivated (by automation) tropics and the newly wild prairie. An atmosphere is being created on Mars to prepare that planet too for human settlement. Space expeditions penetrate ever further into the galaxy, and the first contacts with extraterrestrial civilizations have been established. Yefremia fuses Marx' vision of earthly communism with Tsiolkovsky's vision of mankind's cosmic destiny. (1)

What of the people who inhabit this utopia? The Yefremians have a great deal of freedom: they travel at will, choose new professions, seek love relationships, initiate projects. At the same time, they are highly socially conscious and self-disciplined, even mildly ascetic. They derive satisfaction mainly from creative work in the arts and sciences and the full development of their intellectual and emotional capacities.

Coercion has not disappeared totally, as there is a small minority of egoistic throwbacks ("bulls"): they may be banished to the Island of Oblivion, or should they conspire to disrupt society eliminated by the "destroyer battalions." (I suppose something like the KGB is still needed to spot "bulls" and pre-empt their conspiracies, though this is nowhere spelt out.)

Yefremia was very much in tune with the spirit of the Khrushchev era, with its naive faith in rapid Soviet-led progress in two closely connected dimensions: scientific progress, symbolized by the new space program; and social progress -- "Our children will live under communism," promised Nikita Sergeyevich. Khrushchev's successors had no such faith and shifted the focus of official ideology from communism, relegated to an indefinitely distant future, to "actually existing socialism" (i.e. the Soviet status quo). In his 1972 introduction, Yefremov admits that many people no longer believe in a communist future. He still believes because the sole alternative is the self-destruction of mankind. The logic here goes as follows: Yes, A is highly implausible, but if not A then B, and B is simply too awful to contemplate, therefore A is inevitable.

How are decisions taken in Yefremia? One of the advantages of the fictional method of presenting utopias is that you never have to explain EXACTLY how they work. But we learn that leadership is shared among a number of councils: the Economic Council, the Astronautical Council, the Health Council, and so on. These councils are advised by an array of scientific institutions, my own favorites being the Academy of the Bounds of Knowledge and the Academy of Sorrow and Joy.

The various councils cooperate on an equal basis: none is supposed to be subordinate to another. Yet the Economic Council does occupy a crucial niche, if only because "nothing big can be undertaken" unless it allocates the necessary resources. It is indeed "the planet's central brain." And there is also the Control of Honor and Justice, "the guardian of every person on the planet," the ultimate judicial authority. (2) Parallels with really existing socialism readily come to mind. However distant the future ostensibly being portrayed, many of the author's assumptions reflect the society in which he really lives. Of course, the one is supposed to be the precursor of the other.

While I have nothing against communism as such, I wouldn't want to live in Yefremia. There is too much tension and heroism for my taste; life is too strenuous -- physically, intellectually, emotionally. I prefer the gentler utopian visions of William Morris' "News from Nowhere" and Ursula LeGuin's The Dispossessed (in which an anarcho-communist society has been set up on the moon Anarres). Surely, once mankind gets past the unavoidable turmoil of class struggle, war and revolution and reaches mature communism it is entitled at long last to a bit of relaxation? After all, it was Marx' son-in-law Paul Lafargue who published a pamphlet entitled The Right To Be Lazy. Those of us who prefer the simple life can, it is true, go fishing on the Island of Oblivion, but in so doing we expose ourselves to abuse at the hands of the "bulls." Why can't we have an island of our own?

But Yefremov's workaholic ("strugglaholic" -- how's that for a neologism?) heroes and heroines have a grand excuse for not letting themselves relax: that cosmic destiny of mankind! The abundance of high-tech low-population communism is drained away by the exorbitant resource demands of ambitious cosmic projects. "We are going to ask mankind to curtail consumption for the year 809 of the Great Circle Era," says the president of the Astronautical Council (p. 330). Now where have we heard this before? No more enemies on earth, at least not to speak of? Never mind, let's go and fight mysterious beings in outer space. The struggle continues! Without end in sight. Space plays the same socially and esthetically conservative role in Yefremov's communism as did the arms race in actually existing socialism.


(1) Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857--1935). See pp. 258-281 in Russkii kosmizm [Russian Cosmism] (Moscow: Pedagogika-Press, 1993).

(2) Actually there are two Controls of Honor and Justice, one for the northern hemisphere and one for the southern. Each has 11 members. Cases concerning the whole planet are heard in joint session.


Ivan Yefremov, Andromeda: A Space-Age Tale (Moscow: Progress Publishers, 1980). Translated by George Hanna. The book can be read on-line here or with multicolored illustrations here.