The fall of 1967. Late October, to be precise. Two months earlier at the NyCon in New York Robert Heinlein gets the Hugo award in the novel category from the hands of Harlan Ellison for The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, beating to it Samuel Delany with his Babel-17, and Daniel Keyes with Flowers for Algernon, among others. Alas, all those books will remain unreachable for the Bulgarian readers for another quarter of a century, so the young girl Pepa from Pazardzhik, a small town in central Bulgaria, gets another gift from her aunt Delche – the novel The Treasure of Planet Earth, by Zora Zagorska, as we learn from the inscription. Incidentally, this is the first Bulgarian science fiction novel, written by a woman, as far as my investigation of various bibliographic sources indicated – mostly, the wonderful Fantastic Bulgaria (Болгария Фантастическая) by Evgeny Haritonov (Евгений Харитонов). This is the same copy that a ended up buying when I was visiting a friend in that same town of Pazardzhik, in the Summer of 2012.
The 252-page hardcover is printed in 15100 copies (unthinkable print run for a modern day Bulgarian speculative fiction book!), and it appears in the young adult adventure series by the government run People’s Culture publishing house. This is the fifth book of the author who specializes in children’s adventure.
The story is basic, especially for a sophisticated modern reader: emissaries from a doomed alien civilization arrive to the Earth in a search for a better place to make a life, but they contact the wrong people, who hurt them trying to extort wealth and secrets. Eventually, the good earthlings save the extraterrestrials and help them to revitalize their civilization. The advanced alien technology opens the deep space to the humanity.
Stripped from the details, the story does sound familiar, Many modern day space operas have re-told it, or various aspects of it. The difference is that the novel of Zora Zagorska is highly ideological. As Evgeny Haritonov says, it is essentially a political pamphlet.
The devil is in the details, so let’s dive into them. The novel opens at an astronomical observatory in the Soviet Union, somewhere on the Pacific ocean coast, as we would find out later. The time frame is set by the cursory comment that an elderly professor is a veteran from the revolution and the civil war in the early 20-s. A young assistant brings to him the latest photographs of the sky which show a maneuvering object – an early version of somewhat similar plot element that we have seen recently in Neil Stephenson’s Anathem and Ken MacLeod’s Learning the World. The object appears to land, and the astronomers realize that its trajectory will take it into a foreign country, tellingly named Dollarland. The next chapter takes us to a lonely back road in that country where the formerly unemployed Jack Molnar walks to the bus station, to his new job, jealously looking at the passing cars. He wants to be rich and when the fate makes him the first human to meet the aliens, he tries to make the best of this sudden opportunity.
The story unfolds. The aliens eventually are discovered by the police and a prominent senator invites them to a party – a fund-rising event, as we would have said today. The mafia sees an opportunity here as well, kidnapping two of them. Their disappearance can’t remain unnoticed, and the senator is cornered – he wants to use them to gain political advantage, but his ties to the mafia prevent him from taking real steps to free the aliens. To remove them from the public eye he sends the remaining group on an excursion to a gold mine, but soon the relations between the extraterrestrials and their hosts deteriorate to the point that the police just tows the space ship away with its passengers locked inside. Eventually, the aliens escape to the ocean, saving a black man about to be hanged by Ku KluxKlan, and use their craft as an ordinary ship, just to run into a nuclear test which damages the vehicle.
Luckily, the ocean currents and the will of the author take them to the coast with the observatory, where their approach was were first detected. This is the opening of the second part of the novel. Two boys – a Russian and a Bulgarian (his dad is an architect constructing buildings in the area) discover the aliens and after a minor misunderstanding they are taken to the old astronomer who promptly established excellent relations with them. The aliens are offered medical help, technical assistance to repair their ship. Linguists soon make inroads into their language, any by the end of the novel the extraterrestrials speak very decent Russian.
We discover the story of the alien civilization. They created an advanced and progressive society, until a small tribe turned violent and used weapons of mass destruction to nearly destroy the planet that already suffered from shortage of water for natural reasons. A small band of survivors escaped to the mountains, and later to space where the nearly completed interstellar spaceship waited. They selected a few to go and search for either a new home or for help. Here the constant excitement of the aliens from seeing the abundance of water and from the lush life on the Earth is explained. The mutual understanding resembles somewhat the relation of the Federation member races in Star Trek. It is only mired by the reappearance of Jack Molnar who shows government issued papers claiming that the aliens are citizens of Dollarland, and tries to take them buck. But the atmosphere of the new place, the friendliness and the openness of the people have such an effect on him that he soon revises his loyalties. Jack goes back to Dollarland just to help free the remaining aliens from the mafia and to bring them to the Soviet Union, making great personal sacrifices.
The book ends on an optimistic note, in a communist version of the Jack McDevitt’s Academy series world – the space ship is repaired, and a second one is built so the extraterestreals can take to their home (it turns out to be a planet in the Alpha Centauri system) some people. The two groups form joint crews, instead of separating each into their own ship. The aliens make statements about building a proper commuist socienty, the humans make statemenst about concuering space. Everybody is happy.
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The trouble is, even stripped from the political rhetoric, this would not have made a good book, on too many levels: starting from the unbelievable cardboard characters, and ending with the poor and repetitive language. Unfortunately, the book feels like something written by a teenager. There are scientific errors, (Alpha Cen is not visible from Crimea). The novel feels like a missed opportunity, because excellent examples already existed in the Eastern European Science Fiction, both from social and scientific point of view – the first novels of Ivan Efremov had appeared a decade earlier, the first novels of the Strugatsky brothers were out five or so ears earlier. By 1967 the Bulgarian SF already has seen some excellent early works of Lyuben Dilov, Pavel Vezhinov, and Atanas V. Slavov, not to mention the novels and stories of Svetoslav Minkov from the 1920s.
Is there a reason to read this book, and perhaps, others like it? – I think so. Despite all its shortcomings, The Treasure is a curious glimpse into a different epoch, it is a historical document (rather than a work of art). I find particularly interesting the representation of the Dollarland’s life because the book is more a document of the perception that people in the East held of the Western lifestyle than anything else; or rather it is a document about the perception of the West that was cultivated in the East at that time. Unfortunately, the novel didn’t challenge me, neither emotionally with some characters that I could identify with, nor with some deep ideas that I would think over and over. As much as I was trying, I couldn’t find a deeper layer than the obvious one.
Later on, many women would leave strong marks in the Bulgarian speculative fiction. I wrote elsewhere about Miglena Nikolchina (sffportal.net), and others deserve to be mentioned: Vesela Lyutskanova, Elena Pavlova, Ani Ilieva, etc..
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Who is Zora Zagorska? We can learn a lot about her from the extensive afterword, written by Dimiter Dobrev. She was born on Apr 5, 1910, in Bitola, now in Macedonia, in the family of teachers. Her father studied in a Music School in Odessa, and was in Russia during the 1905 revolution. Reading between the lines we can guess that he joined the Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization upon his return, and later the communist party. He died after police torture. His daughter followed in his footsteps, entered a string of youth communist organizations, and after 1944 became a functionary in the Ministry of Education. She started to write as a child, but her first book appeared only in 1962. The biography hints that she was better known for many textbooks for future teachers than for her books.