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Reading John Wyndham's Retro Hugo nominated story, "The Sleepers of Mars", I was startled to see that his cosmonauts knew of only seven Soviet Republics (in a story published in 1938 and set in 1981). When the USSR broke up in 1991, there were fifteen of them. What, I wondered, had Wyndham done with the other eight?

Four were easy enough. In 1938, most of what is now Moldova was part of Romania (with what's now Transdniestria part of the Ukrainian SSR), and the three Baltic states were enjoying a precarious independence (incidentally, they've now been independent again for longer than they were between the World Wars).

However, Wyndham was actually a little out of date with regard to the other four. There had indeed been only seven Soviet Republics up until the new Soviet Constitution of December 1936. But from then on, the former Transcaucasian SSR was split into the Georgian, Armenian and Azerbaijan SSR's; and the Kyrgyz and Kazakh SSR's were split off from the RSFSR (now the Russian Federation). The Uzbek and Turkmen SSR's had been constituents of the Soviet Union since 1924, and the Tajik SSR was split off from the Uzbek SSR in 1926. His cosmonauts should have made Mars the twelfth republic to be attached to the Soviet Union, not the eighth.

It's a slightly surprising slip from Wyndham. It would be odd to write a story set 43 years in our future about, for instance, making Mars the fifty-third state of the US, or the thirty-fifth of the European Union, without checking how many states there are in that entity at the moment and deciding how many you thought there might be in 2057. Perhaps the story was written before December 1936; or perhaps (I guess most likely) the news of the new Soviet internal arrangements hadn't seeped very far into popular discourse by the time he wrote the story in 1937.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 2nd, 2014 04:34 pm (UTC)
This is the sort of forensic, artistic pedantry that sets us apart from the animals. Well done, that man!
Jul. 2nd, 2014 05:52 pm (UTC)
My sentiments exactly.

Did Tales of Wonder have a lettercol? Would be interesting to see whether contemporary readers had anything to say in subsequent issues.

(To first order, I myself hadn't known any of this stuff.)

Edited at 2014-07-02 05:53 pm (UTC)
Jul. 2nd, 2014 04:48 pm (UTC)
Surely it's just a case of reference materials taking a while to be updated? I mean, if you were writing a story and needed to know how many republics there are in the USSR, you'd go to your bookshelves and consult your most recently purchased encyclopedia or atlas, and this would likely be out of date by a few years. Or you'd note down the query for reference next time you went to the library, but even though the library updates its copies more regularly than you do, there's still a lag of months or years from an event to its inclusion in reference materials to the acquisition of the updated references by your local library. In most cases being a year or two out of date wouldn't matter, but here Wyndham got unlucky.
Jul. 2nd, 2014 05:43 pm (UTC)
I susect it also shows (as is fairly obvious from other evidence) that Wyndham wasn't in with the political Left in the 1930s. True, there were other things going on at the time, but I'd have thought the USSR's constitutional reform would have been real news for political junkies, especially since that interesting chap Stalin was behind it; the sort of subject that one's Party friends could bore on about at great length. Either Wyndham wasn't listenng to them or, more likely, he didn't have any.
Jul. 2nd, 2014 06:57 pm (UTC)
Also, year of publication isn't necessarily the same as year of final draft. It's possible the manuscript sat on a shelf for two years.
Jul. 2nd, 2014 07:38 pm (UTC)
I recall another story, which may have been Wyndham too, in which the Third Reich was still going in the twenty-first century, and a force other states would want to stay on good diplomatic terms with when one of their rocket passenger ships fell out of the sky.

That's not the same class of story-writing issue, of course; it just reminded me, is all.
Jul. 2nd, 2014 08:35 pm (UTC)
There was a mention of the new draft Soviet constitution and the increase from seven to eleven republics in the Observer on June 7th 1936 (page 27). The Guardian had an article mentioning eleven federal republics without naming them on June 13th 1936 (page 16).
Jul. 3rd, 2014 04:49 am (UTC)
Thanks. That confirms what I thought, that a Guardian reader would be unlikely to have made this mistake; but I have no evidence that Wyndham was one, and indeed this slip is evidence that he wasn't.
Jul. 3rd, 2014 06:24 pm (UTC)
I would actually be somewhat surprised if Wyndham was a Guardian - or rather Manchester Guardian - reader in the 1930s. At the time, it was definitely a northern English newspaper, with only limited circulation (though apparently a reasonably high reputation) in southern England. Indeed, the situation was still the case into the 1950s, when my parents had to have it specifically on order from a local newsagent in order to get it. Though the Observer was completely separate from the Guardian until about twenty years ago, and always published in London.

Though I expect that even a Manchester Guardian or Observer reader could have made that mistake - if, say, they had little personal interest in the Soviet Union and had skipped the relevant inside pages.
Jul. 3rd, 2014 12:48 am (UTC)
Obvious "save" (if this were the Who discontinuity, say, and we needed to gloss it somewhat less breathlessly in a subsequent novel) one could simply add some Lumping to the Periods of Splitting. After all, the Russian component had several subsidiary levels of federalisation, so hardly inconceivable to do the same with the Caucasians, the Central Asians, etc.

But in the spirit of Dave Gorman and having a look at what that's done to the graph, one would think that any SF writer worth the name would plot the available data, and do some sort of best-fit analysis to a power-law curve, as a starting point. And then chose the number they wanted to use in the first place.
Jul. 3rd, 2014 04:51 am (UTC)
Agreed, on both points.
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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