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Science

Back to the socialist future at Prague sci-fi exhibition

An exhibition currently running in Prague offers a rare chance to revisit science fiction from the communist era in Czechoslovakia, when the genre promised a wholly bright – and red – future.

This comic was one of many sci-fi items from 1948-1978

This comic was one of many sci-fi items from 1948-1978

"Planet Eden: The World of Tomorrow in Socialist Czechoslovakia 1948 to 1978" features magazines, books, films, posters, paintings and toys, offering a comprehensive overview of the science fiction produced in the country at that time.

In the 1950s in particular, the all-powerful Communist Party sought to impose its ideology on the population, pushing the promise that Utopia was on its way.

Such propaganda also infiltrated the burgeoning sci-fi genre, leading to bright visions of a post-capitalist world. By the same token, exploring the concept of dystopia, of a nightmare future full of fear and devoid of personal freedom, was out of the question for Czechoslovak writers.

Some of the artwork predicted chess-playing robots, albeit not in the form that turned out

Some of the artwork predicted chess-playing robots, albeit not in the form that turned out

"That was quite different from the vision of the future in Western sci-fi, where we can find many dark visions of the future," said Tomas Pospiszyl, Planet Eden's co-curator, in an interview with Deutsche Welle.

A Soviet bloc-wide vision

Many authors took inspiration from other Eastern Bloc writers, including the great Polish futurologist Stanislav Lem, and Russia's Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, whose novel "Roadside Picnic" provided the basis for Andrei Tarkovsky's classic movie Stalker.

"Unlike Western science fiction, which was more plot-oriented, Czech writers tended to be more oriented to ideas, and maybe moral issues," added Ivan Adamovic, another curator at the show. It was not until the 1960s that they devoted more attention to action and gripping plots, he noted.

Pospiszyl also pointed out the emphasis on the positive posed particular difficulties in creating plot lines.

Czech sci-fi was full of utopian space imagery

Czech sci-fi was full of utopian space imagery

"It was actually quite a problem for writers and artists of that time to even find dramatic situations," he said. "Because the future was supposed to be optimistic and great. They found a solution in ceding little pockets of capitalism that somehow travelled in time, or were rediscovered in the future."

Needless to say, the USSR had a strong influence on the sci-fi produced in one of its satellite states.

"Especially in the 1950s, many Czechoslovak illustrators were even afraid to develop their own images," Pospiszyl observed.

"Quite often they were recycling or using elements that they could find in Soviet magazines of that time. We can see one type of spaceship used all over, and the original source is Znanie Sila [Knowledge is Power] magazine."

Eventually a relative easing of political repression, combined with the grim reality of life under communism, did lead to a reduction in the party-line optimism previously seen in Czechoslovak sci-fi.

"It came in the second half of the 1960s, when people realised we would not reach communism within the 20th century," Adamovic said. "Also they noticed that technological progress will not solve everything, as they thought before."

Rockets and spaceships easily integrated into urban life

Rockets and spaceships easily integrated into urban life

Czech cosmonaut marks end of show

Running on a video screen at Planet Eden is looped footage of the chubby and balding Vladimir Remek arriving back on earth after taking part in the Russian Soyuz 28 mission in 1978, when he became the first, and only, Czech cosmonaut.

The year of the spaceflight made by Remek - who is today a Communist MEP - was chosen to bookend the exhibition for a reason, Adamovic also pointed out.

"It was a tragic image, which didn't fit the previous, optimistic visions of how the heroes of space would look," he said. "He was not anything like some kind of superhero in a spacesuit. He lived so long in the Soviet Union that he almost forgot how to speak Czech [laughs]. People laughed when they heard him speaking, in fact."

The exhibition runs at the Dox gallery in Prague until December 13, 2010.

Author: Ian Willoughby, Prague
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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