Peter’s Burg: A Fragmentary Reminiscence.

Translations welcome.

This traditional honey cake was about the size, shape, and moistness of a deflated football, until you got to the honey core which was great. Sadly, I only got halfway through before I had to abandon it; it would never had got past Customs.

At 2 a.m., on my last night in St. Petersberg, a small coterie of Russian SF fans pounded on my door and offered me balls of meat on a plate (not to be confused with meatballs, which are minced; these were not). I don’t know where they came from— the language barrier was pretty formidable— but I think there’d been some kind of late-night BBQ happening somewhere on the grounds.  I think they were inviting me to join them.

I couldn’t, sadly. The reason I was up at that hour in the first place was because I had a web site scheduled to go live in less than two weeks and a half-dozen pages yet to build (also because the wedding party across the pond was still belting out “Venus” and “Money for Nothing” at 50db, so it would have been a restless night in any event).

That gesture of carnivorous cross-cultural goodwill kind of epitomizes the whole St.-Petersburg trip for me.  Not quite sure why.

*

As usual, click to embiggen most of these pictures.

*

Google Earth map of The Village: my place was second red blob from the right, upper right quadrant

Google Earth map of The Village: my place was second red blob from the right, upper right quadrant

I had thought this thing was going to happen in St. Petersburg, Russia’s “Gateway to Europe”.  It did not. It happened deep in a forest full of totem poles and sculptures and strange pedestals big enough to accommodate sacrificial offerings. There was a pond stocked with ravenous fish, frequented by a happy couple being photographed on the afternoon of their wedding (and a mere nine hours before the newly wed bride stormed from the honeymoon suite in a rage, telling her friend that her drunken husband was “a complete asshole”).  There was a giant outdoor television embedded in stone; pools and fountains and petting zoos full of small children (none of whom I petted). There was a glorious bar with low ceilings and tree drunks and stuffed animals on the walls; conference halls full of weird angles and steampunk chandeliers.  There was some Lovecraftian variant of the Scandinavian sauna, some new strain that involved beating yourself with dead branches between the scorching air and the freezing water.  I think the concept mutated on its way across the Baltic (Which is not surprising; I read some papers about Baltic heavy-metal levels back in grad school. Nobody crosses that sea without suffering an inversion or two.)

*

This bar was awesome.  Contrary to popular conception, I didn't see a single person drinking vodka the whole time I was in Russia.

This bar was awesome. Contrary to popular conception, I didn’t see a single person drinking vodka the whole time I was in Russia.

 europlus

thevillage2

I swear, I kept expecting Patrick McGoohan to appear around the corner.

 redmedia
Much higher production values than the Blair Witch Project.

Much higher production values than the Blair Witch Project.

*

The KGB was always close at hand, keeping an eye on things.

The KGB was always close at hand, keeping an eye on things.

I’ve only seen two Russian movies in my life. At least, only two stick out in my mind. One of these is Tarkovsky’s 1972 adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s Solaris (and while it has it’s charms, sorry, I think Soderberg did it better in 2002).  The other was an obscure post-apocalyptic downer called Letters from a Dead Man, which I saw in 1986 at a foreign film festival in Vancouver.  It blew me away. In a decade when nuclear war was being soft-pedaled with rosey-eyed sitcoms like The Day After, Letters had the unflinching balls to deny us any hope whatsoever.

Over in St. Petersberg I got to meet one the screenwriters for that movie, Vyacheslav Rybakov. We sat together on a panel discussing religion and state surveillance.

I think he was in favor of both.

*

There was a 2-hour Q&A. There were interviews: a couple of homegrown Russian magazines, and an iteration of Popular Mechanics that took root on these shores somewhere around the turn of the century. One of the locals asked me a question I’d never heard before, pointed out that I— a notoriously hard-SF writer— was married to a fantasy author. He wanted to know if that caused any discord on the home front; it was almost as though he was asking a card-carrying member of B’Nai Brith what it was like to shack up with the Treasurer of Hamas.

It was a good question, because it let me answer a different one; it let me air my thoughts on Fantasy in relation to SF in general. To my mind, there are two kinds of fantasy: the kind that uses the all-bets-off aspect of the genre as an excuse to be lazy, because everything’s just magic anyway; and the kind that regards that same element as a challenge to build new worlds rigorously and from scratch, without even the pre-existing scaffold of real-world science to help them out. I look down on the one with contempt; I look up at the other with awe. Basically— if you scale quality/merit along the vertical axis—  I regard SF as the filling in a fantasy sandwich.

It was during the Popular Mechanics interview, however, that I discovered that Russian chairs have it in for me.

It’s not just that they were defective blobs of cheap molded plastic.  That’s what I assumed when the first one collapsed under me. Nikolai, who must weigh at least as much as I do, offered me his, thinking that I must have simply chosen a defective unit. Except his collapsed under me too, after about ten seconds, despite the fact that it had been bracing his ass against the force of gravity without any trouble. As did the next. It was like some kind of antiCanadian autoimmune response.

I suspect smart matter, gene-locked against use by all but specific ethnic haplotypes.

*

It turned out okay, though.

It turned out okay, though.

Blindsight got my translator fired.

I learned this over a potato latte in the airport Starbucks, on my way back to London.  Apparently Astrel got sold on Blindsight solely on the strength of Nikolai’s own rabid enthusiasm; only after it had been bought and translated and put irrevocably into production did his bosses (who didn’t read English) have a chance to read for themselves what they’d bought.

Apparently they fired him on the spot. What the hell did you do to us? People will hate this book! It’s too complicated! Nobody will be able to make any sense of it unless they’re logged into a bunch of science journals at the same time! We’re completely screwed! Begone!

*

How To Make Friends By Insulting Them: My keynote speech was an updated iteration of Hive Minds, Mind Hives from a few years back, which incorporated my usual derogation of economics. You know the spiel: Dungeons & Dragons for geeks with MBAs, a beautiful model with little connection to the real world, There’s no such thing as Klingon and no matter how fluent you are, eventually the Laws of Physics are still going to beat the crap out of you and steal your lunch money. Followed by the token admission that A real economist would probably accuse me of horrendously mischaracterizing their profession

At which point a very pleasant gentleman with whom I’d been conversing prior to the talk stood up wearing a faint smile and said “Actually, I’m an economist…” Which is something that had never happened before, although I probably should have been expecting it.

It all worked out for the best, though. I even got his email, so I can run ideas past him while writing my next (economics-related) novel.  It’s an unexpectedly effective way of getting actual experts to help you out.

During my next talk, perhaps I’ll describe all neuroscientists as a bunch of New-Age witch doctors.

*

Breakfast, lunch, dinner.  Not necessarily in that order.

Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Not necessarily in that order. As I may have mentioned on facebook, the Russians are a stoic people.

The holding pen. The proximity of this picture to that of those nourishing meat dishes above is purely coincidental.

The holding pen. The proximity of this picture to that of those hearty and nourishing meat dishes above is purely coincidental.

Blindsight got my translator hired back.

It didn’t tank after all.  Turns out there were lots of people willing to hit the science journals. Turns out Blindsight actually became something of a cult hit, to Astrel’s astonishment— and after the numbers came back, Nikolai gets a phone call: So, how’s it going? Good, good— say, we’ve been thinking that maybe we were a little hasty before, we were thinking that maybe if you wanted to come back…

And Nikolai says Well, maybe, okay … but only if you publish this book about a bunch of misfits at the bottom of the sea…

I’m told that Blindsight‘s completely unexpected success opened a door for other N’Am authors, on whom Russian publishers wouldn’t previously have taken a chance: Cory Doctorow and Rob Wilson, among others.  Which would inspire me to gloat over the fact that Cory now owed me one, were it not for the fact that he’s already pimped my work and saved my ass so many times that this really doesn’t do anything but reduce the debt I owe him by some fractional amount.

Nikolai (translator/guide-dude), Vlad (translator), Елена (photographer).
Nikolai (translator/guide-dude), Vlad (translator), Елена (photographer).

 *

I was planning on writing much less— impressionistically— about this trip.  In fact, I’d jotted down extensive notes both during the con and on the flight thereafter, so I’d have a solid basis for the narrative. I’ve been trying for the past week and a half to find any trace of those notes, on any of my laptops, or on any of the external hard drives we keep as backups (one always physically offsite), because no one in this house is stupid enough to trust The Cloud.

But I can’t find so much as a word. This is all from memory.  Draw whatever moral you can from that.

*

There was this war with the Swedes. I learned a little bit about it during a walking tour during  my last morning in Russia, between four hours of sleep the night before and three hours of jetlag induced after.  (Details are fuzzy. I think I remember a Burger King in the shape of a flying saucer.) But beyond the armories, the immortalized microcephalics, and the bronze mutant rabbits, the waterfront of St. Petersberg is decorated by these, well, totem poles: studded by the stylized bows of vanquished warships, each memorializing Russia’s triumph over the dastardly Swedes.

Such monuments seem fairly common in St. Petersberg. I asked if Russia ever built monuments  commemorating its defeats.

“The Poles commemorate defeat,” they told me. “Russians commemorate tragedies.”

The Petersberglians do seem to have a thing for rabbits, though.

The Petersberglians do seem to have a thing for rabbits, though.

 thedanes

This is The Hermitage Museum, one of the biggest cultural repositories on the planet:

Click to embiggen

Actually just the left-hand side, but it’s still pretty big. That column in the square is not fastened to its plinth by anything except weight and gravity. Pray that Bruce Banner doesn’t take the St. Petersburg walking tour. Click to embiggen.

The building itself is massive, the size of city blocks. We didn’t dare go inside; it would have taken days just to find our way out again.  But I knew about this place. It’s famous. I’d read an article in the New Yorker:  it’s the home of a colony of feral cats down in the basement with its own staff of feeders and veterinarians, charged with keeping the seventy-odd furballs in good shape.

“This is the place with the cats?” I asked.

My guide shook his head. “This is one of the largest museums in the world. It was founded in 1764 by Catherine the Great, and it’s got more da Vinci’s in its collection than any—”

“Yeah, but it’s famous for the cats, right?”

“No, it’s famous for being one of the largest galleries in the wor—

“But aside from that—”

Ultimately, we agreed to disagree.

 

The Petersburglians do like their cats, though. I’m given to understand that during and after the Siege of Leningrad they literally shipped them in by the truckload, as a vital anti-vermin strategy. They like their spiders, too.  Spiders are considered good luck here.  It’s nice to see arachnids getting a break.  I approve.

I do not approve of the (apparently Russia-wide) superstitious hatred of snakes, on the other hand. Snakes get demonized in Russian culture, much as they do elsewhere throughout the world. I blame the fucking Christians and their idiotic serpentophobic creation myth.

I’m pretty sure the Russians blame the Swedes.

This deeply disturbing piece of public art  commemorates either a famous Russian microcephalic or a sculptor raised on the early films of David Lynch.

This deeply disturbing piece of public art commemorates either a famous Russian microcephalic or a sculptor raised on the early films of David Lynch.

This is a bookstore. It sells actual paper books, and it's proud of the fact. Can you imagine anyone in North America gilding their bookstores so elaborately?Hell, can you imagine anyone in North America having a bookstore?

This is a bookstore. It sells actual paper books, and it’s proud of the fact. Can you imagine anyone in North America gilding their bookstores so elaborately?

Hell, it’s getting increasingly difficult to even  imagine anyone in North America having a bookstore.

"The Bronze Horseman", a tribute to Peter the so-called Great (although "great" is not the word that springs to my mind when I contemplate someone who deliberately crushes the skull of an innocent and utterly undeserving reptile beneath the hooves of his horse).

“The Bronze Horseman”, a tribute to Peter the so-called Great (although “great” is not the word that springs to my mind when I contemplate someone who deliberately crushes the skull of an innocent and utterly undeserving reptile beneath the hooves of his horse).

In St. Petersburg's Field of Mars gutters this "Eternal Flame", which I'm told has been burning continuously since the year before I was born. Having been raised by a Baptist minister in the heart of Alberta's Bible Belt, I've long been familiar with the prospect of eternal flames. I have to say, when you actually encounter them they're a lot less intimidating than their rep would have you believe.

In St. Petersburg’s Field of Mars gutters this “Eternal Flame”, which I’m told has been burning continuously since before I was born. Having been raised by a Baptist minister in the heart of Alberta’s Bible Belt, I’ve long been familiar with the prospect of eternal flames. I have to say, when you actually encounter them they’re a lot less intimidating than their rep would have you believe.

This is Nataly, who got me there and back again. I wish I spoke Russian.  Or she spoke English.

This is Nataly, who got me there and back again. I wish I spoke Russian. Or that she spoke English.

And finally, St. Petersberg Cathedral. I could not stop taking pictures of this, it was so amazing. It just about broke my camera. It's as if a Greek Orthodoc Church fucked a Fabergé Egg.

And finally, St. Petersberg Cathedral. I could not stop taking pictures of this, it was so amazing. It just about broke my camera. It’s as if a Greek Orthodox Church fucked a Fabergé Egg.
This entry was written by Peter Watts , posted on Monday September 29 2014at 05:09 am , filed under On the Road, public interface . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

18 Responses to “Peter’s Burg: A Fragmentary Reminiscence.”

  1. Typo or fascinating?:
    There was a glorious bar with low ceilings and tree drunks

    Tree drunks sound like cool partying ents or raging botanists.

  2. Awesome trip. I need to travel more, I guess I better get cracking on my sci fi novelist career so I get invited to interesting places.

    (What? You can just go to places on your own initiative? Isn’t that cheating??)

  3. Damn. Typo, but you’re right; I think maybe I’ll leave it.

  4. The Poles do have a few victories to commemorate, plus I often wonder if Felix Dzerzhinsky was not in his own way the most victorious Pole of all: he founded the KGB. We have a strange sense of humor and a strange sense of how it relates to the “real world.”

    St. Petersburg has always sounded fascinating; I hope I get the chance to go some day. And awesome travel notes as always. Thanks.

  5. The way to understand the decor of older Russian architecture is by remembering that one of the great passions of the Russian people is the gathering of wild mushrooms.

  6. Great story!

    Just in case you are interested –

    The bookstore used to be headquarters of the Singer Co. After 1917 revolution, the Bolsheviks converted it first into a publishuing house, and later, into the USSR’s biggest then bookstore.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singer_House

    The cathedral is known as “The temple of the Resurrection our Saviour upon the spilt blood” or just “Church of our Savior on the Blood”; it was built on the place of asassination of Emperor Alexander II
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Church_of_the_Savior_on_Blood

    and the “microcephalic” is Peter the Great – as sculptor Mikhail Shemyakin saw him :)
    There is another work of the same artist in the city – a sphinx which is half-sceleton; that’s in memory of the Stalin’s repressions.

  7. …and the crushed serpent represents Sweden :)

  8. Glad you liked the gilded bookstore. The prettiest bookstore in Victoria BC is Munro’s Books. It used to be the local main branch of the Bank of Montreal, built about 125 years ago. Looks like the church of book when you go in. Fabulous wall hangings above the bookshelves, made by the owner’s ex-wife. The owner sold it recently to a group of his long-time employees for a pittance over the inventory price, a move for which he has been praised.

  9. Sorry for off topic, but you don’t have a mail address on your author info so the next best thing should be your comments. There are actual meltdown madonna memes in the wild at the moment, the only thing missing is the evolving computer virus:
    https://www.google.com/search?q=ebola-chan
    https://www.google.com/search?q=ebola-chan&tbm=isch
    (I’d feel dirty for linking to knowyourmeme, so have the google search instead)

  10. Love the “tree drunks” entry. I’m a raging drunken Botanist myself…nice to know there are others.

  11. I’m an economist who would love talking with you about what we get wrong in our discipline. You know, if you’re looking for more input and can stomach talking with another glorified Dungeon Master. I also happen to live in Toronto.

    Did that come off needy enough? Picture me as a cat.

  12. Amazing trip, looks like! Probably pics don’t even do it justice.
    heh… smart plastic blue chair. lol!

  13. Pavel,

    At least it seems the early Slavic pagans were nice to snakes; well, kinda, if not worshipping Perun:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veles_(god)

    If you want actual snake friends, I guess Lithuania is the place to go:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Žaltys

    But sadly, it seems snake-killing has a strong tradition:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/How_to_Kill_a_Dragon

  14. “This deeply disturbing piece of public art commemorates either a famous Russian microcephalic or a sculptor raised on the early films of David Lynch”

    It’s actually a statue of Peter The Great (believe it or not), and in true Russian style, it is not supposed to be ironic

  15. Pavel: There is another work of the same artist in the city – a sphinx which is half-sceleton; that’s in memory of the Stalin’s repressions.

    Oooh. I wish I had seen that one.

    Joe: I’m an economist who would love talking with you about what we get wrong in our discipline. You know, if you’re looking for more input and can stomach talking with another glorified Dungeon Master. I also happen to live in Toronto.

    You’re on. Always looking for experts to add to the list. You on facebook?

    Of course, since you’re an economist and I’m an obscure midlist SF writer, the drinks are on you. You understand that whole currency-for-goods thing better than I do anyway.

  16. What I take away from this is, WWI / WWII meh. Cold War, not much to make a fuss about. But a win against the Swedes, bring forth the statue builders!

    Maybe it is time to reactivate some of the Carolean Regiments and get back on the path of glory…

  17. >Can you imagine anyone in North America gilding their bookstores so elaborately?

    I dunno, we got some pretty neat looking bookstore back in New York

  18. Peter Watts,

    Yeah, I totally am on fb. I sent you a “friend” request. I find your offer fair and reasonable as you have not read anything that I’ve written and I have read a lot of what you’ve written, making you the relative celebrity.