A speculative novel, set in the shadow of Soviet totalitarianism with a sci-fi twist, poses the question of whether humanism is only a philosophy for the privileged and comfortable.
What does humanism offer us in dire circumstances?
It’s easy for us wealthy Westerners to make high-minded proclamations about how people should treat each other. However, you can make an argument that only in extremis can we tell whether an ideal is worth holding onto, or whether it’s just a luxury of the privileged.
Empathy, tolerance, fairness—are these indulgences that we can only afford when we have warm houses and full bellies? When the bottom falls out from under us and everyone is struggling just to survive another day, are these principles the first things we ought to discard? Or do they become more essential than ever?
Then Raise the Dead Man High, a sci-fi alt-history novel by my OnlySky colleague M.L. Clark, confronts this heavy question. It consists of three stories spanning three decades, all of them set in the Soviet Union in the mid-20th century. It’s a world like our own except for one speculative conceit: an invention that allows human beings to summon and speak with the spirits of the dead.
Once upon a time in the USSR
The first part takes place in 1929. It follows an “incorporeal engineer” named Valentina Volkova whose task is to interview and catalogue the dead, rating them for their loyalty and usefulness as propaganda. In her eyes, it’s a job like any other. But when she learns that one of her colleagues has committed suicide, she resolves to find out why. In the course of her investigation, she makes a discovery that draws the attention of the state’s secret police.
Part two is set in 1938 and follows Arseny Myasnikov, a policeman working for the state. He and his squad are tasked to ferret out disloyalty: Western agents, saboteurs, traitors, anyone who’s suspected of hoarding or can’t produce their state-mandated quotas. In the eyes of his superiors, this is essential. The Soviet project is so important, and its glorious future so certain, that any amount of bloodshed is a worthwhile price to pay.
In reality, their victims are chosen at random. When they pass a peasant on the side of the road, they scoop him up, arrest him and execute him for the sake of a quota. After all, it wouldn’t do for a secret policeman to report that he couldn’t find any criminals. That would suggest that he wasn’t looking hard enough, which would call his own loyalty into question. Myasnikov and his colleagues carry out their duties with cynical fatalism, knowing that the terror they sow is arbitrary, but also knowing they have no alternative.
All of this is standard for totalitarian states, but Clark’s novel adds a terrifying twist. Myasnikov and his squad are also experimenting with necromantic technology which allows them to imprison and interrogate suspects after death. The Soviet state sees this as a useful adjunct to all the other varieties of terror it’s capable of. This part might be the novel’s most nightmarish conceit, imagining a world where death isn’t an escape but only another phase of people’s subjection to an all-powerful state.
Part three moves on to 1947, in a Siberian prison camp. The technology has improved in the intervening years, and the dead have been enslaved and turned into a power source for the Soviet Union.
Raisa, a nurse who’s been imprisoned for years, has carved out a meager existence in this harsh place. She tends to the sick inmates, buries the dead, and commiserates with her fellow prisoners, even if they bicker and wound each other almost as much as they aid each other. She also helps the camp’s illiterate commander, reading his mail for him so he doesn’t have to admit that he can’t.
However, she’s learned a secret from another inmate, one that the Soviet state badly wants to conceal. Under the eyes of the prison guards, Raisa conceives of a plan. If she can pull it off without being caught, there’s a chance to free the dead from their eternal slavery—but to succeed, she may need the help she’s always spurned from others.
Dark, but not grimdark
As you can guess from the subject material, this is a dark book. The setting of Soviet totalitarianism strains those humanist ideals to the utmost. I’m an optimist by temperament, a hopepunk kind of guy, and this novel is not that. For the most part, it’s as bleak as a Siberian winter. The conclusion redeems it somewhat, adding a note of hope, but it’s not an uplifting story where the good guys are victorious and make everything right in the end.
On the other hand, darkness has its virtues. It’s a corrective to excessively rosy and simplistic visions, like a bracing splash of cold water. Taking a clear-eyed look at the utopian schemes of the past (because communism was a utopian scheme, at least initially), and seeing how many of them went so terribly wrong, is necessary education for anyone who dreams of a better world. It keeps us humble and counteracts the temptations of fanaticism.
Besides, I wouldn’t classify it as grimdark, that nihilistic genre that consists of cruel people doing cruel things to each other. That’s very much not what this story is about.
There are small sparks of humanity throughout Clark’s novel—people who love and care about each other, who try to help each other, who sacrifice for each other—even when those impulses are smothered by the greater darkness of the setting. Even in the worst times and places, human beings retain their capacity for good. That tenacious belief, like a string stretched to the brink of snapping, runs through the novel and lightens the otherwise unbearable bleakness. It’s the answer to the question I posed at the outset.
My only critique is that, other than the existence of technology to communicate with the dead, history in this world seems to have unfolded the same way as ours. That strained my disbelief a little.
I think of states like North Korea, where the long-dead Kim Il Sung is officially enthroned as the “eternal” president. Christopher Hitchens called it a “thanatocracy” for this reason. How would history have been different if dictators could rule from beyond the grave in truth and not just in ideology? Would it have been a worse world than ours—or a better one, if the victims of murder and genocide weren’t silenced forever?
Also, how would scientific proof of life after death be incorporated into the officially atheist Soviet state? How would the populace at large react to this knowledge? It seemed to me that it would either be covered up entirely, or become a much more prominent part of communist propaganda.
I’d also be interested to see how Western religion reacts to this discovery, especially since the afterlife is neither heaven nor hell. From what the dead say, it’s a formless void where they exist as disembodied minds. We get a hint in the form of speculation by a few Soviet citizens who hold (officially outlawed) Christian beliefs. They theorize that the dead are in limbo until Christ’s second coming, as some verses of the New Testament imply, and that humanity has found a way to tap into that realm.
It’s not the purpose of the book to delve into these questions, but I couldn’t help my own curiosity. Is it proof of a spiritual realm, a natural phenomenon, or something that humans themselves inadvertently created? I wish I could read a scientific paper written by someone in this world that studies this!