Re-reading Surkov’s Sci-Fi

Image: Russian Min. of Defense

During a week that saw America’s top intelligence officials appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee to shed light on Russia’s apparent role in influencing the recent US election, viewers of the hearing could be forgiven for thinking they had stumbled upon a dystopian rendering of reality in which Moscow’s intelligence operatives pump a noxious cyber-cocktail into America’s electoral foundation in order to erode faith in its democratic process.

One of the profoundly important but difficult questions to answer remains unanswered: Was such clandestine influence of an American presidential election an act of war? Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said, essentially, it wasn’t his call to make. His questioner, Sen. John McCain, has said he believes it was.

Escape the confines of the Dirksen Senate Office building and consider an unusual perspective, that of the science fiction written by Vladislav Surkov. Surkov is a key Kremlin advisor known as the “Grey Cardinal”, and who was sanctioned by the United States after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Crimea. A recent Politico article “Putin’s Long Game” even highlighted the importance of “Without a Sky” in the context of Russia’s foreign gambits for strategic and economic gain; it also underscores the importance of looking widely for narrative context regarding national actors. Adm. James Stravridis (ret.) made such an appeal regarding Russian literature in 2015.

“Without a Sky” (see a translated version here) received ample attention in 2014 when it was published. In the story, the narrator’s town was decimated when he was 6 years old by the previous generation’s war, World War V, largely waged in a patch of sky above that saw an apocalyptic showdown of autonomous weapons, whose destruction rained death upon the human inhabitants below.

“We remember how, from the four corners of our sky, the four great armadas swooped down. These were not roaring, screeching and howling airborne apparatus of the old kind, as we had become used to seeing in the video-archives. For the first time, the newest, absolutely silent technology was employed, with some kind of invisible systems of complete noise reduction,” Surkov writes.

Unable to shelter in a nearby city, the townspeople dug bunkers underground. There, the narrator suffers a brain injury and becomes “two dimensional” in his worldview, along with a cohort of similar aged children. They go on to found the “Society” of like-minded people.

When it was first released, some critics batted it down as a serious way to consider Russia’s strategic ambitions abroad. Others like Peter Pomerantsev in the London Review of Books honed in on its importance, particularly as it related to Russian operations in Crimea: “Though it might be a disservice to Surkov the writer (he has his moments) to see his story as merely another piece of sly propaganda, he is always quietly massaging in the underlying mindset that makes the Kremlin’s war effort possible.”

Though much attention is paid to Surkov’s exposition of a “non-linear war” paradigm, one of the most important passages from the story in understanding how Russia’s influence and cyber operations fit into its strategy toward Europe and the US is this one: “We founded the Society and prepared a revolt of the simple, two-dimensionals against the complex and sly, against those who do not answer ‘yes’ or ‘no,’ who do not say ‘white’ or ‘black,’ who know some third word, many, many third words, empty, deceptive, confusing the way, obscuring the truth. In these shadows and spider webs, in these false complexities, hide and multiply all the villainies of the world.”

Science fiction delivers few certainties and, by design, often leads to more questions – sometimes the unpopular ones that need to be confronted because they have no easy answers. In the case of a Senate hearing and a clear question about what exactly is an act of war in the 21st Century, Surkov’s science fiction story is perhaps most valuable because it reveals that there is not supposed to be an answer at all.

Read the translated version of the story here.