Cancer Ward by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1968, Bodley Head)
One thing that’s regularly heard about Russian literature is that it’s dense. It becomes intimidating, knowing that if you pick up any such book you’re about to become enmeshed in a multigenerational saga about life and loss, or spend twenty pages examining the meaning of only having two, not three and not one, crusts of bread for your stew.
There is meaning here, ranging from the overt to the symbolic. Also, it is as bleak as one would expect from the stereotypes. Solzenitsyn, himself a survivor of a ward much like the one in the novel, provides a look at a group of hospitalized Russian men coping with their innate desire for life and their questions of life’s value in 1955. The author spends time examining those questions from the perspective of the different patients, slipping from character to character seamlessly but spending the bulk of the time focused on two: Oleg Kostoglatov, a former labor camp inmate; and Pavel Rusanov, a party official.
The comparison is carefully drawn between the cancer of the body and the cancer of a police state, indicating that one cannot have a little authoritarianism without risking it metastasizing into a death sentence for a healthy social structure. There are also casual discussions of political theory. Symbolism is sprinkled throughout.
The criticism is thoughtful, so much so that the book was banned in its native Soviet Union.
Despite all of this, it’s a (mostly) enjoyable novel. It does not plod, it doesn’t take fifty sentences to say one thing, and there is action as the characters deal with the trauma of their medical “treatments”. The biggest drawback for me is simple: the names. Russian names can be immense things, making the reader thankful when the text simply refers to “Oleg,” “Vega” and “Pavel”. Still, a minor quibble, certainly unnoticeable for anyone familiar with long names.
Gardner Dozois, remembered
Gardner Dozois passed away on May 27 at a Philadelphia hospital. He is being remembered in the science fiction community as an editor and an author. This is wholly appropriate, because he was one of the most influential editors the field has seen. That said, he deserves to be remembered for not just his contributions to the field, but the absence of his efforts.
I encountered Gardner a few times over the years. He was a genial man with a booming voice, often declaring in the midst of dealer rooms that he had subscriptions for Analog and Asimov’s for sale at his table and that he’d sign any issues people had… and that he’d sign anything Asimov wrote, too, because he was the editor and Asimov couldn’t anymore. (Being dead hampers one’s autographing skills.) He was often in the company of people like George R.R. Martin, Robert Silverberg and Joe Haldeman, joking and discussing matters of writing and the world at large.
He began his career as a slush pile reader. This is perhaps the most ignominious job in the publishing field. The person reads through unsolicited manuscripts, most by fledgling or incompetent writers, in the hope that they will find a diamond in the rough or at least something worth polishing and making viable for publication. He became associate editor of Asimov’s at the founding, and editor-in-chief in 1985. Simultaneously, he took the helm of editing The Year’s Best Science Fiction anthology series and continued producing it for decades. Along the way he published some excellent and even brilliant short fiction and a few novels.
…along the way. Because after 1985, his writing became virtually nonexistent. Until retiring from the editorship of Asimov’s in 2004, he spent his time at the editor’s desk, working on the magazine and the Best of and a number of other anthologies. He had stories to write, but he also felt a duty to help new authors learn the ropes and develop their skills.
Most legendary editors are remembered for things they added to a field; John W. Campbell Jr., for example, for demanding that “science” be present in science fiction or Anthony Boucher for demanding literary skill above simple storytelling in mysteries and fantasy work. Gardner Dozois should be remembered as a man who sacrificed his own writing career to help dozens of the most prominent science fiction authors to develop over the last three decades. He was a great editor, and a greater person. He’ll be missed.