The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson

The Vanishing Futurist by Charlotte Hobson

• Paperback: 320 pages
• Publisher: Faber & Faber; Main edition (2 Mar. 2017)
• ISBN-10: 9780571234875
• ISBN-13: 978-0571234875

Reviewed by Anthony C Green

thevanishingfuturistThe Vanishing Futurist is a novel that I stumbled upon by accident whilst browsing in Liverpool’s excellent News from Nowhere left-wing bookshop. It is set in Russia in the period immediately prior to, during, and after the revolution of 1917.
The story is told from the perspective of Gerty Freely, a young English governess who works for a wealthy Moscow family. It is told in the past tense, from an unspecified point in the future, although it is clear that it is a point at which the Soviet Union is still in existence. References to a Soviet film of The Vanishing Futurist being made in the nineteen fifties, and other snippets of information, make it appear as though we are dealing with real, historical events. The appearance of real-life individuals such as the great Constructivist architect, designer, and artist Vladimir Tatlin and early Soviet Commissar for Education Anatoly Lunacharsky add to this sense of realism.

As the revolutionary upheavals of 1917 intensify, the Kobolev family by whom Gerty is employed, decide to leave Moscow, for the warmer and safer climate of the Crimea. Finding it more and more difficult to support herself through the teaching of English, and also partly out of ideological commitment, Freely ends up becoming a member of the Institute for Revolutionary Transformation (IRT), a small community which is established in order to practice a radical form of collectivist living, where all goods, including clothes, are held in common. The Communities increasingly meagre supplies of food are all shared equally, all work is collectively undertaken without distinctions of gender, and all diversions from the inner and outer struggle to reinvent oneself as the perfect Socialist Man/Woman are either frowned upon or banned outright.
Sex is regarded as one such diversion, though the proscription on physical relationships between commune members is tested early in the novel when Gerty falls in love with an avant-garde artist, scientist, and fellow IRT member Nikita Slavkin.

It is Slavkin who is the hero of the novel, and the Futurist referred to in its title. He brings his sexual relationship with Gerty to an end not long after it had begun, although his claim that he has done so for ideological reasons is strongly undermined when he quickly becomes physically involved with Sonya, another female member of the commune.

Life in the IRT mirrors developments in the world outside as the young Soviet Worker’s State battles for survival against the combined forces of Imperialist intervention, internal counter-revolution, and endemic poverty and backwardness which has been worsened by the wasteful brutalities of the First World War. Thus, as the original revolutionary spirit of experimentation in art comes up against the austere and harsh requirements of War Communism, a split emerges within the commune itself, between the radical followers of Slavkin on one side, and those who side with Fyodor, an IRT member who stresses the importance of discipline and efficiency as the key to the building of socialism. The original radical impulse of the IRT is further weakened when the leadership of the local Soviet decrees that in order to help cope with the acute housing shortage in Moscow it must open its doors to people who do not necessarily share the ideological fervour of its founders.

This aspect of the novel can be read as an analogy for the way that the revolutionary spirit of Russia’s small but class conscious industrial working class was severely diluted by an influx of more politically and culturally backward elements from the countryside, who were needed to replace workers who had joined the newly established Red Army in order to fight the White Counter-Revolutionaries and imperialist interventionists. This struggle also mirrors the tensions within Russia between on the one side the Slavic/conservative/traditionalist elements and the Westernised/ liberal/modernisers, a tension that dates back to at least the 19h century and is still unresolved within today’s Russian Federation.

It is on two of Slavkin’s radical inventions that the novel hinges. The first is called the PropMash, an abbreviation of Propaganda Machine, which is a form of sensory overload capsule that, by bombarding people with sights, sounds and smells designed to promote socialism, can supposedly rapidly break down individualistic conditioning and raise political consciousness to the required level of the new revolutionary man or woman.

The PropMash has mixed results, and Slavkin’s attention is soon diverted to an intense study of the newly emerging theories of Quantum Physics. These studies lead him to adopt what has become known as the Many Worlds/Multi-verse interpretation of quantum reality, essentially the idea that every decision we make creates a new universe; that an infinite number of parallel universes therefore exist, and that within this plurality of worlds everything that can possibly happen has happened, is happening, or will happen. Although seemingly straight out of a Philip K Dick novel this scientific theory, first postulated by the American Physicist Hugh Everett in the late nineteen fifties, has now become almost mainstream.

Slavkin’s logical deduction from the Many Worlds’ theory is that although Communism, the highest and final form of socialism and thus of human development, may not be possible here and now in the conditions of the backward and impoverished Russia of 1918, there must exist an infinite number of alternate universes where Full Communism has already been achieved. This revelation leads him to invent the Socialisation Capsule, which is essentially a vehicle for the transportation of individuals, beginning with Slavkin himself, from the harsh reality of his own material existence into a dimension where one of these utopian, communist parallel realities exists.

Slavkin’s public questioning of the possibility of achieving communism in present-day Russia quickly brings him to the attention of the local Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB. When he disappears from the experimental laboratory where he has been taken, a disappearance that apparently occurs after the facilities’ housekeeper had heard his new device whirling into action, the central mystery of the novel is posed: has Slavkin actually disappeared into one of the alternate communist futures that he believes must exist or, more prosaically, have his radical scientific theorising and experimentation led him to pay the ultimate price under the increasingly harsh excesses of Soviet Communism? It’s a question that Gerty, who has by now found that her brief physical relationship with Slavkin has left her pregnant with his child, sets out to discover the answer to.

I was not entirely satisfied by the ending to the book, but that may be no more than saying that, as a writer myself I would have chosen to conclude it differently. That aside, I thought The Vanishing Futurist was excellent. it is part Historical Fiction, part Science Fiction, and it deals with big questions, about how we should live, about our capacity to imagine different, better worlds, about high ideals, and how such ideals often come into conflict with the material practicalities of brute survival.

If that makes it sound as though it might be hard going, it isn’t. Its light and easy to read style make it a novel that is accessible to all reasonably intelligent readers. I would, however, add the caveat that although prior knowledge is not essential to the enjoyment of the book, the readers who will get the most from it are those with some background understanding of the main events and themes of the Russian Revolution, and perhaps also of the artistic movements that came to prominence and flowered briefly during this period of history, movements such as Futurism and Constructivism. The writer has clearly done her own homework in these areas, and her novel is highly recommended.

Anthony C Green is a social care worker, novelist, Trade Unionist, and political activist living in Liverpool. His latest novel Special, based on his experiences as a social care worker, is now available:

1 Comment »

  1. Great review Tony. I find myself – as ever – emotionally drawn to the counter-revolutionaries (and White Russians) without knowing too much about this period. I recall watching ‘Dr, Zhivago’ as a child – which left its influence.
    The device to enter a parallel universe reminds me somewhat of H.G.Wells’ ‘Time Machine’. I’ve read/heard a lot of communists cite the notion that no communist regime has ever been truly communist – so I find this attempt at discovering an absolute version both amusing and fascinating. As with any political regime, the ideology seems to ‘forget’ what humans ARE. There is this constant disparity between deep human needs and the straitjacket of imposed ideology. It would have been interesting to know the author’s and character’s imagined ‘perfect form’ of communism. What would people ‘be’ in that other-world? Would we recoginse them?


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