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Ivan Turgenev’s and Leo Tolstoy’s distant relative, Tatyana Tolstaya had big shoes to fill given the high bar set by the Tolstoy literary family. Indeed, Tolstaya’s The Slynx lives up to the hype. Often regarded as one of the best post-apocalyptic fiction books from the former Soviet, this thriller uses post-nuclear war as the code for the anguish, despair, and disappointment that plagued Russians soon after the fall of the USSR.
The Slynx is one of the multiple award-winning novels and short stories – including On the Golden Porch, White Walls, and Aetherial Worlds: Stories – that put Tatyana Tolstaya on the world’s map of science fiction. It’s an outstandingly imagined debut novel that masterfully creates a perversely funny and scary post-nuclear war world.
The story kicks off in what was once Moscow, approximately 200 years after the nuclear blast that almost decimated the metropolis. It’s now a frozen wasteland filled with rubbles, trash, and whatnot. With nearly everyone killed by the blast, Fyodor-Kuzmichsk (the name for the city that was once Moscow) is currently inhabited by a blend of grotesque mutants and “normal” people.
Fyodor-Kuzmichsk, the new Moscow, is named after Kablukov, a rarely-seen tyrant and a misogynist egotist who has made everyone believe that he invented a spate of useful items. He has also earned the reputation for being the author of classic literature, of which he unashamedly plagiarized.
To make matters worse, the Golubchiks, a group of oppressed laborers are further impaired by a greedy mythical beast known to them as Slynx. The ravenous creature prowls the ruins in the dark outskirts of the leveled city.
The Slynx actually follows the story of a scribe named Benedikt, who enjoys a modest life, more decent compared to the Golubchiks, half-human mutants, and serfs who are unceremoniously oppressed and exploited for manual labor. In this post-apocalyptic world, destiny will soon lead Benedikt into the paths with Saniturians, a group of aggressive persecutors who can’t seem to tolerate freethinker. He’s also destined to confront the Slynix, the creature which haunts the dark boundaries of the ruined city.
As a scribe, Benedikt provides his services to the dictator unreservedly. That’s until he is introduced to the banned books written by the so-called “olderners” who don’t recognize the dictator’s divinity and ubiquitous talent. Their goal is to move the lower-caste beings towards freedom and enlightenment.
With encouragement from Kudeyar Kudeyarich, his father-in-law, and fueled by his unwavering love for Olenka, his fiancée, he is determined to push forward the quest for freedom and spread knowledge. At one point, Benedikt dreamt that he could fly. His desire to further knowledge makes him surrender his vestigial tail, which means the loss of his mutant status.
Not long, Benedikt became a core member of the revolution that was fighting to end the abusive reign of Fyodor Kuzmich. That makes The Slynx a reimagined dystopian fantasy-cum-post-apocalyptic fiction novel that’s more symbolic and less mythic. The ravenous creature is not a beast in and of itself but rather symbolizes the brutal beast in man.
The Slynx is an amazingly imaginative and dazzlingly ambiguous work of sci-fi. On the one hand, it gives a blow by blow account of a world in ruins and shambles, echoing the premise of most Russian literary works soon after the fall of the Soviet Union. On the other hand, it’s a scintillating portrayal of the inhumanity in humans. As such, it’s a work of art that pays homage to both human helplessness and the sovereignty of humanity.
Tolstaya manages to enrich the harsh realities of a post-apocalyptic world with a raft of outlandish details in the spirit of A Clockwork Orange, the futuristic classic by Anthony Burgess. In this respect, The Slynx sits somewhere in between Nabokov’s Pale Fire and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. The footnote indicates that this novel was put together between the late 1980s and early 2000s, which explains a lot about the context.
This spellbinding futuristic thriller brings forth a vision of the past, all while setting the future in which tomorrow is actually the present. It’s remarkable how the novel manages to be tragically comical, linguistically imaginative, and yet read like an ironic blast.
If you have a thing for post-Soviet Russian science fiction, you’ll be impressed by how Tolstaya couples an economy of prose reminiscent of Isaac Babel-style with a Chekhovian prowess for crafting rich, eclectic characters. To wrap it up, The Slynx is a deeply rewarding and complex masterpiece that deserves to be on any list of the best books to read right now.