From VDNKh to Pobedy Park

I finished another of my Christmas books, the Russian sci-fi novel Metro 2033 by Dmitry Glukhovsky yesterday. For those not in the know – as I was not until Helen mentioned it in an email a few months back – it’s a post-apocalyptic story set among survivors of world war three inhabiting a rebuilt society (of sorts) in the Moscow Metro system.

The setting is fascinating. Each station (the inhabited ones anyway) is its own town with its own government, customs and specialities. Some stations have banded together to form wider alliances, such as the Hansa who regulate trade throughout the system via control of the Circle line, the Communists who have taken almost complete control of the Sokolnicheskaya line, the neo-nazi skinhead Fascists who control a major interchange, and the mysterious Polis beneath the heart of the dead city whose inhabitants are said to live almost as well as people did before the war. Bandits, mutants, gas pockets, seeping radiation and worse things make travel between stations difficult – traveling from one end of the system to the other can take weeks, in contrast to the couple of hours it took back in the days when the trains ran. The surface is uninhabitable, plagued by dangerous creatures and lingering radiation that makes going outside without protective gear a death sentence. And even with a gasmask and environment suit the surface can only be braved at night – after decades underground the survivors’ vision has become so sensitive that the sun would instantly blind them.

As is traditional for such settings the story is that of a quest. The main character, Artyom, must leave his home station of VDNKh – under seige by terrifying mutants from the surface known as ‘Dark Ones’ – and deliver a message to Polis in the hopes of saving not only his home, but the entire Metro. We follow him on his dangerous journey and get to see the Metro and its inhabitants through his eyes. It’s a damn good adventure story, so good in fact that it’s sold over 500,000 copies in Russia alone and spawned a franchise with a sequel, stories by other authors, and two computer games.

That’s the good stuff. The other stuff, well…

The prose is not great. With a few exceptions it’s slow, pedestrian and stilted. Dialogue between characters is awkward and in some places so forced that you could envisage it being read off an autocue. A random example…

He spoke totally without accent, his pronunciation was no different than Artyom’s or Sukhoi’s. That was very strange – hearing pure Russian speech from such an unusual being. Artyom couldn’t shed the feeling that this was some kind of farce and the narrow-eyed man was only moving his lips while the bearded guy or the man in the leather coat spoke from behind him.

‘I shot one of their officers,’ he admitted reluctantly.

‘Well, good for you! You’re just the kind we like! That’s what they deserve!’ the man with the high cheek bones said enthusiastically, and the big, dark skinned guy who was sitting at the front turned to Artyom and raised his eyebrows respectfully. Artyom thought that this guy must mispronounce words.

See what I mean?

Given the book’s great popularity in its native country I suspect that this is all down to a quick, by-the-numbers translation by someone familiar with English on an academic or business level but with limited exposure to the language in a literary or informal setting. Which is a real shame as the story deserves much better.

In addition to being dull and stilted the translation has other issues. The different stations are highly important to the plot, but their names are mostly left untranslated. This makes it hard to get your head around the Metro as every location is a random string of syllables, completely bereft of meaning. Coming up with an English name for each station would have gone a long way towards both mentally navigating the Metro and creating atmosphere. ‘Sparrow Hills’ for Vorobyovy Gory,  ‘Clear Ponds’ for Chistye Prudy, ‘Mir Avenue’ for Prospekt Mir. At the very least ‘skaya’ could have been cut off the end of the names and either rendered as ‘Station’ or left off entirely. Alekseyev and Oktyabr are easier to get to grips with than Alekseyevstraya and Oktyabrstraya for instance.

And while we’re on the subject of station names, the map provided in the book is horrible. A bunch of stations important to the plot aren’t even labeled! Try and find Sukharevskaya on it, I dare you! I had to resort to looking a map up on Wikipedia to figure out what the hell was going on half the time. In addition to not including vital information for understanding the text, it does include information that really should be left to the reader to discover by actually reading the text. For the sake of avoiding spoilers I won’t elaborate, but it would have added a real sense of exploration to the story if the map started out limited to just what Artyom knows and you have to fill it out mentally along with him as the plot progresses.

Oh, and ‘Artyom’. Couldn’t that have been rendered as ‘Artie’ in non-formal instances?

While reading the story I was often pulled out of the action by thinking about how I’d rewrite certain passages. In fact, I think I’ll have a go with the example from above…

He spoke without an accent, his pronunciation was no different to that of Artie’s or Uncle Sukhoi’s. It was strange, hearing pure, unadulterated Russian from such an unusual looking individual. Artie couldn’t shake the feeling that his rescuers were playing some kind of joke, and that the narrow-eyed man was moving his lips while the bearded man or the guy in the leather coat spoke instead.

‘I shot one of their officers,’ he admitted reluctantly.

‘Good for you!’ enthused the man with the high cheek bones. “That’s what they deserve. You’re the kind of guy we like!”. The big, dark skinned man at the front of the cart turned and raised his eyebrows in respect. ‘Surely’ thought Artie ‘This guy can’t speak proper Russian?’.

Now I’m not saying it’s Shakespeare, but I like to think it’s better than the 0fficial version.

Anyway, translation issues aside it’s a great book and well worth a read if you’re into post apocalyptic fiction. Check it out, and be sure to come back regularly for my chapter by chapter unauthorised re-translation!

(Just kidding 🙂 )


Airborne Aircraft Carriers are Cool!

There’s a point on Sunday afternoons when there’s really nothing to do and a certain special brand of ennui sets in. It’s too late in the day to start on anything, since you won’t have time to finish it before having to go to bed to be ready for work the next day, you’ve checked all of your regular web haunts as many times as you usefully can and it’s not prime time yet so there’s nothing on TV but kids’ show, motorsports and (for some insane reason) lawn bowls.

(Who watches lawn bowls?)

When faced with this of late I’ve been doing the only logical thing, and watching the kid’s shows.

There are two in particular that I’ve been enjoying, in a sort of world-weary, ironic, hipster fashion. Class of the Titans and Iron Man: Armoured Adventures.

Class of the Titans is your typical “band of random teenagers develop super powers, become best friends and have to learn how to use said powers to save the world” type thing. What makes it interesting though is its reliance on ancient Greek mythology. Each of the… uh… seven I think? Let’s say seven. Each of the seven characters is a descendent of an ancient Greek hero (Jason, Odysseus, Heracles, Achilles, Atalanta, Theseus and Narcissus – hey that is seven! ), and the big bad guy is a portmateau of the titan Cronus, the god Chronos and Roger Delgado.

The plots are fairly predictable but it’s fun to see what characters/creatures from the myths turn up, how accurate they are to said myths (often not very) and how Cronus works them into his evil schemes.

Iron Man: Armoured Adventures is a CGI series rendered to look something like traditional animation. This gives it a really weird look – it takes a while to get used to – and means the characters don’t have much in the facial expressions department. But it’s entertaining enough for twenty minutes.

It’s basically a reinterpretation of the whole Iron Man story, with a teenaged Tony Stark flying around in his suit saving the world in between attending classes and inventing things in his secret headquarters.  Comic relief is supplied by a hyperactive Pepper Potts who’s so annoying that several supervillains have been tempted to kill her just to shut her up and S.H.I.E.L.D threw her off their helicarrier.

And, that bring us to the real meat of this post. Helicarriers.

(Although before we talk about them, can I just say that the Iron Man theme is absolutely dreadful? “He’s a man on a mission, in armour of high-tech ammunition” High-tech ammunition!? What? His suit is made of bullets?!)

OK, helicarriers. “Helicarrier” is the term used in the Marvel comic setting for S.H.I.E.L.D’s big-ass flying base, more or less an aircraft carrier fitted with massive helicopter engines that keep it continually aloft. What interests me however is the appearance of similar vehicles throughout fiction. This isn’t going to be a definitive round up because I’m lazy, I’m just going to mention some that I’m aware of.

The earliest helicarrier has to be the Albatross from Jules Verne’s Robur-le-Conquérant (Robur the Conqueror also known as The Clipper of the Clouds). Published in 1886 it’s a sort of airborne sequel to 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea where a couple of lighter than air flight enthusiasts and their (unfortunately quite racistly depicted) servant are abducted by a mysterious, powerful and dangerously insane inventor who takes them around the world on his magnificent flying machine – the aforementioned Albatross.

The Albatross consists of a boatlike hull held aloft by dozens of helicopter blades on tall poles. While not a carrier (although I seem to recall it carries a few smaller craft for quick transport back and forth from the ground) it can be considered as the prototype for all helicarrier type craft to follow.

(It’s also made almost entirely from paper – if you want the details, track down the book).

The next helicarrier is Cloudbase from Gerry Anderson’s 1967-1968 supermarionation TV series Captain Scarlet. The series focused around an international security organisation by the name of Spectrum defending the earth against attack by the Mysterons, a race of Martians that could remotely recreate and control any destroyed person or object on Earth.

Spectrum operated from Cloudbase, a flying airfield virtually identical in concept to Marvel’s helicarrier. It’s possible that Gerry Anderson picked up the idea from Marvel as their carrier first appeared in 1965 – although it could just as easily be one of those ideas whose time had come (like chlorofom – go on, look it up!).

The final helicarrier I want to mention is the Valiant from the resurrected Dr Who. This U.N.I.T facility was built by the Master (under the guise of Harold Saxon) and used in his  scheme to take over the world in the 2 parter The Sound of Drums and Last of the Time Lords. It reappears in The Poison Sky and is reported destroyed in The Stolen Earth. The influence of Marvel’s helicarrier on the Valiant cannot reasonably be denied, although there are plenty of similarities to Cloudbase as well.

So yeah, helicarriers.

As a final note, flying aircraft carriers do not exclusively belong to the realms of fiction. Various militaries around the world have experimented with them, usually in the form of modified heavy bomber aircraft carrying small fighters in their holds. The main problem with such implementations is getting the fighters  back into the mother ship, which is the reason the concept has never really been adopted (apart from in the Japanese Kamikaze program where, for obvious reasons, getting the planes back wasn’t an issue).

An exception did exist for a while with airships. The US Navy operated a couple of airship carriers in the early 1930’s, the Akron and the Macon. Both were capable of carrying, launching and recovering four biplanes. Both ships were destroyed in storms and the Hindenburg disaster put paid to airships not long afterwards.

That’s it. Go and make your own entertainment! 😀

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