"Do you know what the power of tellurium is? It awakens the brain’s inmost desires and its most cherished dreams. And these, I might add, are fully realized, deep, and long-lived dreams, not mere momentary impulses. All famous narcotic substances have always led us down the garden path, substituting our desires for the desires of the substance, our will for its will, and our idea of pleasure for its idea of pleasure. [...] But tellurium ... divine tellurium doesn’t produce euphoria, spasms of pleasure, a high, or a banal rainbow trip. Tellurium gifts you with an entire world. A solid and plausible world, a living world.” (pp. 307-8)
There’s always a question about claiming authors from literary fiction—and especially authors in translation—as science fiction writers. On the one hand, there is sometimes an annoying snobbishness on the part of these authors (or, more often, mainstream critics), who insist that their work, be it ever so filled with future settings, outlandish technologies, or alternate history, isn’t “really” SF. And on the other hand, there is an increasingly embarrassing tendency on the part of genre readers and critics to perceive such prevaricating as nothing but snobbishness, rather than—as it often is—an honest attempt to engage with both a specific author’s work and the boundaries of the genre.
In the case of Vladimir Sorokin, whose novels feature everything from zombies to aliens to genetic engineering, there is some evidence for the snobbishness theory. Critics have described Sorokin as a satirist, a metaphysician, a provocateur (to be clear, these are all accurate, if perhaps limited, descriptions), and many reviews downplay or even dismiss the idea that his newly translated novel Telluria (2013, English translation by Max Lawton), which takes place around the end of the twenty-first century, could possibly be science fiction.
I would say the issue is less one of snobbishness, however, than of insufficient genre reading protocols. When I call Telluria science fiction—and it is, to my mind, one of the finest and most exhilarating works of science fiction published this year—it is not simply because it deploys tropes that will put anglophone readers in mind of such stalwarts of the genre as Keith Roberts’s Pavane (1968) or Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence (2014-2022). It is because the novel is clearly interested in genre itself, in how the project of worldbuilding affects the world.
To begin with, Telluria’s interest in this question is signalled by its determination to mix subgenres, tropes, and settings at every given opportunity. The opening chapter features two dwarves (or, as they’re referred to here, littluns) named Goran and Zoran. In the grips of revolutionary fervor, they have engaged two giants (biguns) to cast brass knuckles for them, part of a store of weapons they intend to use to fuel a proletarian uprising. The chapter also features handheld AI devices, known as smartypants, and knights.
It’s a deliberate hodgepodge of genre elements that leaves the reader scrambling for purchase. Nor is that feeling quick to abate. Goran and Zoran, and their revolutionary scheme, will not appear again (though they will be referenced by other characters). Instead, subsequent chapters will veer off into other corners of the novel’s world, shifting style and voice. Over the course of fifty mostly quite short chapters, Telluria will present the reader with social realism, bedroom farce, epistolary exchanges, plays and screenplays, political pamphlets, poetry, picaresques, war and action stories, historical drama, and more.
Sorokin, who was born in the Soviet Union and has spent his career prodding at the frailties and foibles of it and its successor nation, has concentrated much of his later work on an elaborate, ongoing act of worldbuilding. Telluria is part of a loose sequence of novels that imagines a post-post-Soviet future which Sorokin calls the New Middle Ages. In this world, not only has the Russian Federation fractured into substates and ethnic enclaves, but the knock-on geopolitical effects of this collapse include a religious war in Europe—in which Taliban forces at first conquer, and are then pushed back from, countries as far as Germany and Spain—new crusades, and a return to feudalism.
As seen in Telluria, this is a world that has both advanced and regressed technologically. Handheld AIs are available, but are prohibitively expensive, and many people live without any access to technology. Gas and electricity are also expensive, and most people power vehicles with biofuel made from potatoes, or ride horses, which can be genetically engineered to grow to tremendous sizes. Genetic engineering has also produced dwarves, giants, centaurs, and sentient animals such as talking dogs and donkey-headed people. So once again, we see a fusion of genre elements, of science fiction and fantasy, of futurism and historicity, which makes the novel both hard to parse and exciting to read.
In this instalment in the sequence, the discovery of an archaeological site in China reveals the properties of the pure form of the element tellurium. This material, administered through the hammering of nails comprised of it directly into the skull (a procedure that is sometimes fatal), causes “a persistent euphoric state and a feeling of time’s disappearance” (p. 183). A breakaway province in one of the post-Soviet nations secedes and renames itself Telluria, dedicating its economy to the proliferation of tellurium throughout the world.
The drug novel is a familiar form in science fiction, from Brave New World (1932) to Fahrenheit 451 (1953). But whereas such stories tend to envision drugs or other addictive activities as a means of narcotizing or distracting the populace, in Telluria the drug is usually the province of the elites. For most ordinary people, it is too expensive to acquire, and the services of the professional who can administer it safely (known as a “carpenter") are restricted.
It’s interesting, in fact, how far into the novel Sorokin gets before showing us the actual effects of a tellurium trance. Many chapters have nothing to do with tellurium at all, and are merely glimpses of different corners of this new, fragmented world. An aristocrat on a hunting excursion languidly blames the collapse of the Russian empire on the Jews while rhapsodizing about the cultural and linguistic purity of his newly feudalized princedom. A despondent factory worker tells the tale of how she began a relationship with a fellow worker, only to learn that he had a family out of town. In one of the book’s most memorable chapters, a sentient penis in the harem of an aristocratic woman (whose residents have names like “Fatty,” “Shorty,” and “Crooked") runs afoul of his mistress, and must carry out an escape before being banished to a sperm bank, a place where there is only “Hellish work with no artistry to it” (p. 78).
When tellurium does appear, it is often glimpsed from a distance, its effects mysterious and quasi-magical. In a chapter that is composed like a fairy tale, a peasant family uses an unexpected windfall to purchase a smartypants, which becomes the family’s infallible guide to good fortune, as well as the young daughter Varka’s best friend. When the smartypants is stolen, Varka sets out on a quest to retrieve it. On her journey, she meets a dwarf who, after receiving a gift of food from her, directs her to the home of some nearby giants where the smartypants can be found, and instructs her on how to retrieve it without their knowledge. But the dwarf has this information only because he’s in the grips of a tellurium trance.
Another chapter is a cod-historical melodrama in which a renowned carpenter, Magnus the Hasty, is summoned, along with several others of his order, to a meeting of the new Knights Templar, to participate in their rituals at the outset of a new crusade. Set in the candlelit chambers of a medieval castle, this chapter has a weighty (but perhaps also slyly needling) tone, as its self-serious characters contemplate each other and the gravity of their task.
"Welcome, Magnus the Hasty,” the fair-haired, light-bearded Aris squeezed Magnus’s hand forcefully. “Rome still remembers the ringing of your titanium hammer."
"Greetings and joyful be, Aris the Wedged,” Magnus squeezed the carpenter’s hand in response. “Your glory precedes you. From Prague to Vienna, you’ve paved a broad tellurium road."
"I offer my heartfelt greetings and highest respect to Magnus the Hasty,” the short, stocky, shaven-headed Theodor walked over and offered his sinewy hand to Magnus. “Your mastery becomes more consummate from year to year."
"Only so as to match yours, Theodor of Constance. The heads of the nails beaten in by you are blinding to me.” (p. 127)
Much of the pleasure of reading Telluria comes from its breadth of genres and styles. You never know, when you start a new chapter, what you’re going to get. Sorokin and Lawton’s translation both are pitch-perfect, capturing a peasant’s despair, an aristocrat’s boredom, a revolutionary’s fevered determination, a mercenary’s mingled fear and excitement. The world of Telluria is a fractured one—along geographical, political, philosophical, and class lines—and yet through the kaleidoscopic, polyphonic view it gives us of this world, the novel gradually and insistently converges on its conclusion.
We get our first glimpse of this conclusion in an early chapter, in which a reporter interviews attendees at a victory parade in Cologne, following its liberation from Taliban conquest. He has the following exchange with one of the heroes of the battle, the leader of a troop of Amazon warriors:
"It’s an honor for the carnival that heroes like Sabina Girgich and her warrior friends are participating in it! Are you happy today, Sabina?"
"I’m happy that evil was defeated and that the black tower with the All-Seeing Eye collapsed. We knocked it down!"
Her Amazon companions let forth a war cry.
"Wonderful! The Sauron of the Taliban has been defeated and the people rejoice!” (p. 27)
Tolkien fans are sadly accustomed to seeing his simplistic fantasy geopolitics imposed on more complex real-world conflicts—and especially those that can be cast as struggles between some amorphous idea of “The West” and the invading dark-skinned hordes. (See, for example, the embrace of Tolkienian iconography by Italian fascists.) So it’s easy to dismiss this exchange as jingoistic, racist myth-making. But the further one reads into Telluria, the clearer it becomes that this imposition of a fictional reading on reality is not one person’s delusion, but something far more literal.
The elites in the novel—whether viewed from afar by subjects to whom they are little more than an abstraction, or seen in intimate moments in the corridors of power—represent a wide range of political opinion and power. They are partisans fighting revolutionary wars, philosophers getting bogged down in squabbles over ideological purity, or autocrats with total power over not only their citizens’ material circumstances but the way in which they see the world. They are radicals and reactionaries. What unites them, in all their far-flung, vastly different circumstances and worldviews, is having dreamt a new world and brought it to fruition. And what made that dream possible, the novel eventually concludes, is tellurium. The drug that takes you to another, fully-formed world, and leaves you with the conviction of being able to make it a reality.
Science fiction and revolutionary politics have always had a certain overlap. The act of imagining a new world, new forms of government and new social organizations, is an inherently SFnal one. The Soviets in the early parts of the twentieth century had a particular fondness for science fiction, with its vision of a technologized future liberating the masses from drudgery and the rule of the elites. Theodor Herzl’s formative Zionist tract, Altneuland (1902), which imagines the future Jewish state as a socialist utopia (while conveniently ignoring the Palestinian inhabitants of the region), is often described as a work of science fiction. One novel I found myself thinking of while reading Telluria was Kim Stanley Robinson’s The Ministry for the Future (2020), which also delivers short, multifaceted snippets of an ongoing project to transform the world—in its case, away from climate catastrophe. And Ursula K. Le Guin is often credited with describing the act of imagining a post-capitalistic world as both revolutionary and SFnal.
Telluria literalizes this connection through its titular drug. And yet in the world of the novel, this is rarely a good thing. The dreams that have been allowed to overwrite its reality are often regressive, megalomaniacal, even phantasmagorical. We see this, of course, in reality as well. What is the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine but an attempt to write on the fabric of reality a fantasy of the resurgence of the Russian empire?
Near the end of the novel, a gay German couple—one of them the descendant of Russian emigres—visit the USSR, the “Ultra-Stalinist Soviet Socialist Republic,” which is perhaps the epitome of the novel’s myriad fantasies come to life:
The story of this state was a cool bit of exotica in and of itself: immediately after the collapse of Post-Soviet Russia and the emergence of a dozen-and-a-half new countries upon its expanse, three Moscovian Stalinist oligarchs bought up an empty tract of land measuring one hundred and twenty-six square kilometers from Barabin and the Uralian Democratic Republic. Prosperous followers of the mustached leader poured onto this island of Stalinist dreams. The path was closed to poor Stalinists. The new state proclaimed its existence rather quickly, fencing itself off from the surrounding post-imperial world with a formidable electric fence and machine gun nests. The construction of a Stalinist paradise in this specially chosen country proceeded at the Hollywood version of a Stakhanovite tempo and, six short years later, the country opened its doors to tourists. (pp. 316-17)
This new USSR represents a doubling-down on the novel’s core concept, selling a fantasy within a world that has already been shattered by fantasies. As the couple’s guide explains, most of the population of the USSR works service jobs, greeting and seeing to the tourists who flock to its kitschified recreation of the past. The climax of the tour is a tellurium experience, but unlike almost all tourists before them, the couple almost instantly die.
It’s a blunt instrument, but it sits well with the onslaught of genre tropes employed by Sorokin throughout the novel. Together, they force us to ask whether there is such a thing as too much future. The novel ends on a consoling note—a single man making a simple life for himself out of the building blocks of reality. But it still leaves us wondering whether we, too, are at the mercy of those who dream a new world.