Short Story Review: Vladimir Colin’s “The Contact” (1966, trans. 1970)


Today I’m joined again by Rachel S. Cordasco, the creator of the indispensable website and resource Speculative Fiction in Translation, for the second installment of our series exploring non-English language SF worlds. Last time we covered Kōbō Abe’s allegory of Marxist transformation, “The Flood” (1950, trans. 1989).

This time we journey east of the Iron Curtain to 1960s Romania with Vladimir Colin’s “The Contact.” It first appeared in his collection of short stories Viitorul al doilea (1966). We read it in Other Worlds, Other Seas: Science-Fiction Stories from Socialist Countries, ed. Darko Suvin (1970). The story was translated into English by the author. I cannot find a copy online. Reach out if you want to read it!

Make sure to check out Rachel’s website Speculative Fiction in Translation. Not only does she review the global phenomena of speculative fiction but gathers lists of translated fiction by language. Also check out her reference monograph Out of This World: Speculative Fiction in Translation from the Cold War to the New Millennium (2021).

Now let’s get to our reviews!

Rachel S. Cordasco’s Review

Vladimir Colin, part of the first generation of Romanian sf authors (SFE), which includes Adrian Rogoz and Camil Baciu, has written in many subgenres, including fantasy and science fiction. Five of his texts are available in English: “Beyond” (Edge, tr. 1973), “Within the Circle, Closer and Closer” (Jurnalul SF, #72-73, tr. 1994), “Tristan’s Last Avatar” (tr. Mihaela Avramut, Twelve: A Romanian Science-Fiction Anthology, 1995), his collection Legends from Vamland, adapted by Luiza Carol (Center for Romanian Studies, 2001), and the story under review today: “The Contact,” translated by the author (Other Worlds, Other Seas, 1970).

Despite the censorship and isolation Romanians experienced during the mid-to-late 20th century, Romanian speculative fiction authors, like Colin, read and translated what they could from neighboring countries and from the West, incorporating themes and ideas into their own works to generate exciting, uniquely Romanian texts. Though Colin’s story “The Contact” (published in Romanian in 1966) is very similar to Stanisław Lem’s Eden (1959) and Solaris (1961) in terms of theme and imagery, neither novel was translated into Romanian until long after “The Contact” was first published, though Colin may have been able to read them in the original Polish, or in Russian or German.

The beginning of the story, like Eden, is filled with the narrator’s attempts to understand the amazing colors and shapes that he is seeing. The vast differences between this “blue” planet and his own make the narrator realize that “[e]verything here is alien to me and everything ignores me, denying me even the possibility of investigation.” As in Lem, this seeming indifference on the part of the inhabitants of an alien planet is deeply disturbing to the Earth explorer- it’s almost as if the indifference is more upsetting than an outright attack.

Colin, like Lem, disrupts our belief that aliens must somehow resemble us: humans have thought that “reason could only be the attribute of beings like ourselves,” but eventually the narrator realizes that “life, groping blindly toward perfection, makes for an infinite number of forms adapted to various conditions.” And yet, despite his almost tearful frustration at the difficulty of describing the animal- and plant-like forms that he sees, the narrator tries to analyze what the creatures are doing and by what method of locomotion. Some he calls “parasites,” others “children,” and others are only describable by their shapes. Looking past all of this color and the strange creatures, the narrator continues to look for the “rational,” human-like creatures that he and other people were expecting, though no one like this appears. But then, taken aback, the narrator reveals that what he thought were plants are actually buildings; what looked like animals are actually machines. Realizing that what he has taken to be a chaotic, irrational planet is actually one with a complicated civilization, the narrator seems to become almost hysterical, repeating “we are not alone. Do you understand? We are not alone. We are no longer alone!”

At the heart of this story is the very human contradictory desire to find creatures like ourselves but also find planets that confirm our primacy in the universe as paragons of rationality. When Colin’s narrator, like Lem’s, realizes that a complicated civilization is uninterested in learning about the human explorer(s) that have come for a visit, the blow to the narrator’s ego is immense. The strangeness and incomprehensibility that Colin’s human explorer feels when confronted by this alien civilization underscores the author’s argument that we must be prepared for anything that we find in the vastness of space. Using ourselves as the benchmark for rational civilization will only throw us off course and make us blind to the unimaginable diversity of life that might exist out there.

Joachim Boaz’s Review

3.5/5 (Good)

As Rachel’s review of Vladimir Colin’s “The Contact” is wonderfully in-depth, I decided to focus only on a few elements that resonated with me, in particular, its revisionist take on the central ideas of Stanisław Lem. Vladimir Colin must have read Lem in a language other than Romanian. Rachel points out that the Romanian translations appeared after his story appeared in print. “The Contact” rewrites Lem’s central premise that the alien is unknowable as we are only seeking versions of ourselves. I can imagine the following quotation from Lem’s masterpiece Solaris (1961, trans. 1970) served as the genesis point of “The Contact”:

We are only seeking Man. We have no need of other worlds. A single world, our own, suffices us; but we can’t accept it for what it is. We are searching for an ideal image of our own world: we go in quest of a planet, a civilization superior to our own but developed on the basis of a prototype of our primeval past.

Stanislaw Lem in Solaris

Colin reverses the lens. In his formulation, an alien struggles to comprehend the nature of humanity and our unusual ways. “I have entered a cryptic universe,” the alien narrator proclaims (108). At first it appears that Lem’s premise holds. Our narrator flits across a world awash with a “riot of color” in a “desperate effort to grasp” the “vast liquid expanse” (another reference to Lem’s sentient ocean in Solaris?) before them (108). The ocean is in reality a field of crops. Perplexed by the nature of the ocean, the alien then turns to the row of harvesters (or perhaps machines attuned to sense the alien?) staggered across the field. Unable to understand what is actually alive, the alien heads towards a human city that it misinterprets as a cellular plant: “what if the shining of the agglomerations is due only to the phosphorescence of large plants [?]” (110). Clearly the alien comes from a world truly unlike out own in which the organic replaces the mechanical.

When the alien finally identifies what is alive–the fragile beings inside of the cars, trains, and urban apartments–another ideological clash occurs: “I can hardly bring myself to believe that is precisely these creatures who represent our rational beings, the masters of this unknown world” (115). And here Colin inserts the revision as Lem, at least in Solaris posits that it is impossible to understand the alien (I read Solaris more than a decade ago so I could be wrong here). Despite the radically different modes of understanding the world, the alien concludes that despite “misgivings” due to the “huge difference between their form and ours” that it might be possible to “overcome our prejudices and, to be frank, our stubborn hopes” and recognize the truly different as “positive” manifestations of intelligence (115).

In revising Lem’s thesis expounded in Solaris, Colin suggests that monolithic conjurations of difference propped up by narratives of exceptionalism–and by extension similar walls erected in his own Cold War dominated day–can be chipped away compassion and humility.

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