Victor Pelevin’s Omon Ra

Omon RaRussian author Victor Pelevin’s first novel translated into English, Omon Ra, is an exuberant satire on Soviet Russia’s space exploration program. Omon Krivomazov – named by his policeman father after OMON, one of many special Soviet police forces charged with suppressing riots – narrates the novel, beginning with his childhood infatuation with flight and his gradual enrollment in military academy. When his acceptance into a special flight program is contingent on his express willingness to die in service of his country, the optimistic young Omon barely gives it a second thought, and thus begins his descent into cartoonish nightmare, where he is prepared for space travel by listening to poetry recitations, attending lectures on “the general theory of the moon” culled from Lenin’s teachings, and undergoing “reincarnation checks,” which involve being drugged to the point of hallucination and vigorously interrogated. Mitiok, Omon’s childhood friend and fellow space aspirant, is determined to have had inadequate past lives and is promptly shot. A blind, hectoring colonel and a dog twice decorated with the Order of Lenin round out the farce.

What ultimately is asked of Omon is evident almost from the novel’s beginning. Unable to keep up with the automation technology of the capitalists, the Soviet space program relies on human beings to sacrifice themselves at various stages of the shuttle’s ascent towards the moon. Colonel Urgachin’s explanation reads like a reductio ad absurdum of all collectivist thinking:

Nothing in history is like it is in the textbooks. Dialectics led to Marx’s teaching, which was intended for an advanced country but won its victory in the most backward one. We Communists had no time to prove the correctness of our ideas — the war cost us too much of our strength, we had to spend too long struggling against the remnants of the past and our enemies within the country. We just didn’t have the time to defeat the West technologically. But in the battle of ideas, you can’t stop for a second. The paradox . . . is that we support the truth with falsehood, because Marxism carries within itself an all-conquering truth, and the goal for which you will give your life is, in a formal sense, a deception. But the more consciously you perform your feat of heroism, the greater will be the degree of its truth.

So the plan, in brief, is to send a manned shuttle into space, with the crew sacrificing themselves like dominos until only Omon remains to land on the moon and plant a radio device, after which he is to use a pistol to end his own life and join his fellow martyrs.

Despite the well-trod territory, this is an effective satire, equal parts horrifying and hilarious.