Mostly when we think of science fiction, we think of spaceships and robots and giant floating eyes. Now, don’t get me wrong, I like all these things, but they can be somewhat limiting. I prefer a broader understanding of science fiction as a genre that describes societies or phenomena that have a different understanding of science – or more expansively, of causality, or of epistemology, or of whatever other heuristic one can think of to explain the universe’s perplexingly continued existence – to our own. This different understanding can take the form of simple speculative fiction that asks, for example, what society would look like if everyone had a giant television in their front room and had to shout at it every morning, but it can also go backwards, and imagine understandings of science that are now generally discarded. The pinnacle of this genre is Thomas Pynchon’s Against the Day, in which Pynchon essentially tries to write speculative science fiction from the point of view of someone with a cutting-edge understanding of physics c. 1895-1910 and none of the hindsight afforded by the intervening century. In Laurus, the second novel from Eugene Vodolazkin, a professor of medieval Russian history (translated by Lisa C. Hayden), we have an even more radical example of the genre: science fiction from the point of view of a medieval Russian hermit, who, as you might imagine, doesn’t have an understanding of causality that we might now, with the benefit of six centuries of hindsight, consider all that well-informed.
Laurus is the story of a man largely called Arseny, but sometimes called other things, who is born in European Russia in the fifteenth century, becomes a healer, then becomes a holy fool who throws clods of mud at people in the hope of dislodging the demons, “small and large”, that cling to their backs, and then becomes a healer again. The science we see, therefore, is largely medical and occasionally demonic. There are a few asides, however, in which a ship’s captain explains some basic physics to his attentive audience, such as how, while it is impossible to sail around the world (because water becomes ice in the cold polar region and salt in the hot equatorial one), it is probable that one can sail into the heavens:
the captain told of water that bathed the atmosphere and cooled the luminaries. He had no doubt those waters were salted. In his view, he was talking about the most ordinary of seas, which, for certain reasons, was located over the heavenly firmament. Otherwise why is it, the captain asked, that people in England recently left church and discovered an anchor that had been lowered from the heavens on a rope? And after that they heard, from above, the voices of sailors who were attempting to raise the anchor and when some sailor finally descended on the anchor rope, he died just after reaching the earth, as if he had drowned in water.
The only lack of clarity here concerned whether the waters that lie over the firmament are joined to the waters in which we sail.
We must admire the captain’s knowledge, but, more importantly, we must admire his awareness of the limits of his knowledge, captured with some irony by the narrator’s voice: the “only lack of clarity”. Always we are so close to and so far from knowing how the world works; always we are so confident that we have good explanations for natural mysteries, like why anchors fall out of the sky in England so frequently, but always we are so wrong.
The worldview largely held in Laurus, then, attempts to explain things rationally. Characters observe phenomena that lie some distance beyond their understanding, but they try to make sense of them anyway. Usually they do so through an elaborate science of correspondence, underpinned by the faith that everything is just so because of the exertions of the Almighty. Arseny is taught this scheme by his grandfather Christofer, from whom he learns a lot about herbs. The plant “scarem that grows in low lands”, for example, can do a whole variety of things: “do carry it on your person ther, wher thou wish to ask for some money or bread; yf you ask a man, place it on the right side under your shirt, on the left yf you ask a woman; yf there are minstrels playing, toss that herb under their feet and they will fight”. Similarly, “Carrying turquoise on one’s person protects from murder because that stone has never been seen on a murdered person”. The novel seems to endorse this understanding, although the narration is always laced with a little irony: “Christofer placed purple loosestrife under Arseny’s pillow so he would fall asleep easily. Which is why Arseny fell asleep easily.”
something happens, and something else happens, and the two things seem to be linked, and so the one thing must have caused the other
Such medieval causalities are endorsed repeatedly throughout the novel, particularly because Arseny has essentially been endowed with the ability to perform miracles. A mayor is upset when Arseny, his guest, pours an expensive glass of wine on the floor. A holy man chastises the mayor: “How can it be, holy fool Foma asks the mayor, that you don’t understand why God’s servant Ustin emptied your wine to the northeast?” The reason, of course, is that there was a fire in Novgorod, and Arseny wanted to put it out, so he poured his wine on the floor. The mayor, a good empiricist, withholds his judgement until he has sent a rider to Novgorod to discern the truth; it turns out that there had indeed been a fire on the day in question in Novgorod, and it had mysteriously stopped around lunchtime, just as Arseny was pouring his wine on the ground. The mayor, to his credit, takes this news very humbly, and asks for Arseny’s forgiveness.
This example describes the novel’s essential understanding of causality: something happens, and something else happens, and the two things seem to be linked, and so the one thing must have caused the other. We have now largely moved on from such a simple understanding of correspondence in our science, but it is still a kind of common sense, and it lingers in other areas of human endeavour. In literature, for example, correspondence is always planned and is always meaningful, as Arseny discovers by reading a romance about Alexander the Great over and over again. Alexander, we are told, has had many great adventures:
After six days in the middle of the desert, Alexander’s troops encountered astonishing people with six arms and six legs each. Alexander killed many of them and took many alive. He wanted to bring them to the inhabited world but nobody knew what these people ate, so they all died. […] Later on, after walking another six days, Alexander saw a mountain to which a man was bound with iron chains. That man was a thousand sazhens in height and two hundred sazhens in width. Alexander was surprised when he saw him but dared not approach.
There is much internal correspondence here: Alexander and his men walk for six days in the desert, and then encounter people with six arms and six legs; then, after another six days of walking, they find a giant man. We are perhaps more surprised that the giant man they encounter is a thousand sazhens high and two hundred sazhens wide rather than a corresponding six by six than we are by his size, for miracles are in many ways unsurprising. Arseny considers the Alexander Romance to be as factual as the other books he reads, which are largely medical treatises and lists of herbs and their uses; there is no difference in terms of credibility between the fact that men with six arms and six legs might exist and the fact that giving someone a herb might help them sleep.
As Vodolazkin constantly reminds us, this understanding should inflect our own reading of Laurus. The novel emphasises its own strange textuality, making it impossible for the reader to forget that she is reading a novel: through the narrator’s fussy historical commentary (“He was convinced the rules of personal hygiene should be upheld, even in the Middle Ages”); through a linguistic register that veers enthusiastically between modern and technical (“your prognosis is favorable”), modern and vernacular (“Everyone in Rus’ knows that you’re not, like, you know, allowed to beat holy fools”), and Early Modern English (“Golde rubbed and taken internally cures those who speake unto themselves and ask questions of themselves and answere themselves and become downhearted”); through tenses that shift without warning between present and past, as if the narrator can’t quite figure out if these events are still happening; and through occasional interludes from the future, either as described by the mostly omniscient narrator or as experienced by a character called Ambrogio, who Arseny meets on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and who has visions of, for example, “a gale in the White Sea on October 1, 1865. The Solovetsky Monastery’s steamer Faith was sailing from Anzer Island to Big Solovetsky Island. It was carrying pilgrims from Verkhny Volochok.” These strategies emphasise that we are reading a text, much like Arseny reads the Alexander Romance, and that the text is historically contingent: it describes a medieval world that is largely fictional and long gone, and that is full of things that are not real, or are at least improbable.
no one sensible reads science fiction and thinks that it is describing things as they were
Vodolazkin reminds us not to read as credulously as Arseny; such credulity is always a risk of historical fiction, which can sometimes seem as if it wants to trick its reader into thinking that it shows how things actually were. This is why I prefer to think of Laurus as a kind of science fiction, because no one sensible reads science fiction and thinks that it is describing things as they were. And Vodolazkin reminds us not to read credulously in the broadest possible sense of reading: reading in the novel refers not just to reading manuscripts, fables, and recipes, but also to reading bodies, which is an important analogy for Arseny’s medical practice (“How could I not know when it is written all over every christened person’s face?”), and to reading time, history, life, and creation: reading is understood as the fundamental way of understanding exactly what is going on in the world. Ambrogio claims that “All history is, to a certain extent, a scroll in the Almighty’s hands. Some people (me, for example) are granted the opportunity to peek every now and then, to see what lies ahead. There is just one thing I do not know: if that scroll will suddenly be thrown away”, and he means this in I think an essentially literal way. Reading things is his form of epistemology, as was not uncommon in the period before the scientific revolution, when some people with a Christian bent of mind tended to think of nature as God’s second revelation, after the text of the Bible, that should be subject to the same kinds of interpretation. So Laurus is a work of science fiction about a society in which reading is the dominant episteme, but the novel displays a fierce awareness of all the problems and absurdities of relying on reading things, spotting correspondences, and inventing stories to explain them as a path to finding truth or understanding anything. We know this, of course, as modern readers, because, while we don’t tend to use our reading skills in most areas of knowledge, we have become very sophisticated readers of novels, capable of revelling in their falseness, but capable also of alerting ourselves to their correspondences, and inventing stories to explain them, just as I have done here, and, if the stories please us enough, believing in them, and thinking of them as a truth, for the time being, until we read a story that pleases us better.
Tim is a writer and dilettante who has just moved to California. Follow him on Twitter @tpakennett2