Review of The Black Pillar (1963)


Isai Lukodianov (writer), Yevgeny Voiskunsky (writer).

Read in 2020.

Read in The Molecular Café (1968).

Six months after an attempt to drill through the crust of the Earth from a nuclear-powered rig over the deep ocean, the drill bit, which had been stuck in place, starts being pushed upward.

This is the kind of Soviet SF I was hoping for when I picked up the anthology. Ordinary-looking working-class heroes, engineers and scientists—mostly family men—work together to solve novel problems by doing their jobs, in crisp technical detail—despite minor glitches in English translation—and absorbingly immersive narration. It sounds simple, but it happens too rarely in US SF where literal work tends to disappear in favour of drama and hand-waving abstractions. Even work-adjacent US SF, like “Killdozer” (1944), is usually too heavy on action and the hero myth.

Some of the men of a Texan crew are the closest thing to villains in this story, which is full of internationalism: The UN coordinates drilling experts from around the world, speaking a Babel of tongues including Esperanto. There are stereotypes among them, and political propaganda, but no more so than in contemporary Heinlein.

The fictional scientific premises are unusual and somewhat inelegant but pleasingly dysteleological: The “black pillar” that rises out of the drill shaft is apparently composed of ordinary matter in a dense state comparable to neutronium. I don’t mean Sturgeon’s neutronium in “Killdozer” but the real deal. In “The Black Pillar”, this substance has formed naturally in the Earth’s core and escapes under pressure, with implausible but somehow foreseeable effects, including the cancellation of magnetism (hence electromagnetism, hence electric generators and motors) on the surface as a result of short-circuiting the layers of the atmosphere. This leads appropriately to a new unified field theory, and the severed pillar forms a natural megastructure in orbit—Kravtsov’s Ring—that becomes a launching point for a more united humankind’s ventures into space. It’s beautiful, it fits right into the era of the Urta-Bulak nuclear detonation to put out an oil-well fire in 1966, and it would make a great movie.

References here: Ringworld (1970).

text fiction