Efremovthe Man


In an intricate way Ernest, Wade and Efremov blend together in my thoughts. I am sure this would have pleased the last, because he was a great fan of our mythical west. "Would you kill this Boer thickboned creeper in Texas manner?" he wrote me about a rather boorish paleontologist. Ernest and Wade I can't be sure of. Maybe the connection comes because they all helped me so much in my studies of fossils, but I think it is something more. In meeting and coming to know each I was in a somewhat alien culture, learning new ways, and each was an honest, straightforward if not always gentle, guide through his strange land. Each was an outdoor man, and in his own way knew nature and the land which had raised and kept him — and sometimes, harshly, nearly killed him.

Efremov, while growing up, had advantages that neither Wade nor Ernest enjoyed. He lived in the country in the village of Virtz, near what was then St. Petersburg (now Leningrad), where his father, Anton Kharitonovich Efremov, a high ranking member of the Semenov Regiment, was manager and part owner of a large estate. In our long conversations, and from his writings in introductions to his books, I picked up some of Professor Efremov's feelings about his early life. I could see in these feelings threads that wove into the complex, exhuberant and ever curious man that Efremov remained even while living in the midst of the rather drab, mundane social setting of everyday Moscow during his later years.

The library of Anton Kharitonovich Efremov was extensive, and by the age of six, Ivan Antonovich, with free run of the shelves, was delving into H. G. Wells, Joseph Conrad and Jules Verne, finding a special hero in Captain Nemo and his undersea adventures. Ahab and the great white whale were high in his list of favorites. If a romantic flair is somehow nested in the genes, it was there in Efremov from the very earliest times that he could recall.

Efremov learned to read very early and very well (Figure 27). He became an avid consumer of books and was multilingual. This devotion to reading persisted to his very last days. Friends around the world received requests to send books from long lists which he had compiled but could not obtain in Russia. Many of his correspondents responded so that his apartment was literally lined with an almost unbelievable olio of books in a dozen or so languages, on topics from the ancient history of Egypt through the Ionian and later Greek philosophers. Oriental books were much in evidence. Some of these books were mailed in, but many sent by this route failed to be delivered; others were hand carried to the Soviet Union. Many never made it at all, disappearing into that mysterious void known only to the postal services and the Russian censor system. Orwell's 1984, Shute's On the Beach, Miller's A Canticle for Leibowitz, Comfort's Darwin and the Naked Lady, Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinus, Conrad, Zane Grey, adventure stories without end, Mickey Mouse, Michener, Al Capp, Allister MacLean and Ber-trand Russell were all there. There were no detective stories and no books on Jewish travails.

In 1917, just ten years after his birth, young Ivan Antonovich Efremov saw his childhood begin to crumble with the onset of the revolution, and in the civil war that followed he saw the family break up. As a child, young Efremov was especially close to his father, a lover of nature, and from his father learned always to ask "why?" and to expect and get an answer. His outlook rarely wavered from the positive thought that there were answers to be had. His father was his first great hero, a man of the woods and the land. Later, so Efremov told me, having lost contact with his father when he was very young, he cast himself in the surrogate hero role and throughout his books, the hero tends to be his alter ego.

With the civil war, Efremov's childhood ended, having begun to crumble earlier. Being large in stature, he was able to enlist while just 13 years old in the 6th mechanized corps of the army. Sensing that his beloved country was in danger, he felt he must make his contribution. Much of his service was spent on the shores of the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, where he first saw the life of the seashore and water firsthand. His love of the sea, developed first from stories he had read, grew even more impelling. Dreams of what lies out there beyond the horizons run through all of Efremov's writings, both in science and in fiction. His military career was ended by a near miss of a shell from a British gunboat, which very nearly killed him and left him without speech for some time.


Figure 27. Ivan Antonovich Efremov. Left: With his beloved books, 1958. Right: In the Navy, 1925.


The roots of his steadfast loyalty to his country, his faith in progress, his prejudices and yearnings, and the slightly sad cast of many of his stories stem partly from his badly disrupted early life. The odd schism of his strictly materialistic philosophy, which eschews the use of linear logic and mathematics, and his somewhat mystical constructs of the universe find a base in the dialectical pull of the sea and its mysterious romance and science with its hard core empiricism. He first found a resolutionof this schism in science applied to the geological history of the world in a progressive mode, and later in his romantic, often nautical parascientific writings of adventure, mystery and romantic fantasy.

A side of Efremov that somehow rarely appears in his writings, but was much a part of him as a person, is the whimsy such as he showed when explaining to me his rather pronounced stammer. He had just put his arm around my shoulder, the Russians being great huggers compared to us cold Nordics, and said,

"J-j-just b-b-between us gir-gir-girrrls, we b-both better be af-af-af-afraid of the Ch-Ch-Chinese." He was convinced to the day of his death in 1972 that war between the Soviet Union and China was inevitable. Being a bit shy about his stammer, probably aggravated by the sensitive nature of what he had just said, he explained to me that he stammered in English, because the shell that landed near him had come from a British gunboat. Not quite true, of course, for he also stammered in Russian, but a gentle dig to one with a British (mixed with Norwegian) heritage.

Recovered from the shell blast, Efremov returned to Leningrad, and while employed as a lorry driver's mate, he enrolled in a correspondence course in marine navigation. Labor and study, he told me, were the common practice in Russia in the 1920s. At the same time, having read a paper by Academician P. P. Sushkin on the ancient great rivers and fossils of some 200 million or so years ago, exposed along the North Dvina River, he had written to the author. As a consequence, Efremov was given free run of the Museum under the informal tutelage of Sushkin on the lore of fossils.

Efremov's first taste of paleontology was interrupted by his naval apprenticeship service in the Far East and the Caspian. Still uncertain of his career, he returned to Leningrad and his books, entering Leningrad University in the practical areas of geology and mining engineering. The books in the winter and sailing in the summer tugged in opposition.

With Efremov, as is true for so many, a seemingly minor event determined the final direction of his career. Efremov described, in his introduction to his Stories, a coincidence of events which channeled him into science and away from the sea. Curiously, one of them occurred at sea.


For a long time I had hesitated between two professions, the sea and science. Once, during my service on the Caspian, I was returning to Baku by motor boat. The day was unusually serene and sultry. The sea was a sheet of opaque greyish-green glass; a fiery sun hung in the heavens. 1 was lying in the boat's prow and peering into the depths; the sunlight reached deep into the water, and in some places I could see the bottom at the depth of about 30 feet.

Suddenly I realized that I was looking down at the ruins of an inaccessible submerged town, at walls and towers, which slowly receded under the boat's keel. I already began to make out elusive outlines of streets and houses when the surface of the sea was ruffled by a breath of wind and the vision vanished.


In Baku, on shore, Efremov found waiting a telegram from Academician Sushkin offering him a minor position in the Academy of Science. The die was cast. The lure of the past seen in the undersea images proved too strong to resist. After Sush-kin's death, and with his education and several seasons of exploration in back of him, Efremov was asked to take over some of the work of his mentor. With some reluctance he agreed, although feeling inadequate and knowing that museum work would limit his travel and exploration. As the restrictions on travel became stronger in his new position, he began to seek relief in writing about his travels and the peoples he had seen and come to know. But his awkward, colorless prose, according to his own analysis, failed to satisfy him. He could not seem to catch the essence and beauty of nature and of the history he was trying to portray. Reams of paper went into the trash basket.

Scientific writing, on the contrary, flourished during this period. Efremov's first paper came out in 1927, when he was just 20 years old. In 1940 his doctoral thesis, a massive, mature work in the European manner on "A Description of Habits of the Ancient Amphibians," established the paths followed by much of his subsequent research. Many other papers were published between the 1940s and the 1960s, and at the time of his death Efremov was well into the preparation of a popular book on paleontology for the Russian people.

A switch in emphasis began early in the 1940s. Efremov again took up writing stories, this time with more success. Eventually, he came to devote more effort to this work than to science, which led in part to a schism between Efremov and Orlov. This pushed him even further into fiction writing.

A geologist will often run into things that puzzle him or interest him but have to be put on a back burner for a time. Efremov sometimes found grist for his story-mill in these little notes and memories. The basis for his fictional story "Almaz-naya Truba" ("Diamond Tubes")/ in which the hero discovered rich deposits of diamonds near Yakutz, was one such encounter. Not too long after its publication geologists discovered, quite independently, actual diamond-producing tubes at almost the same place as that specified in the story. I had talked with Efre-mov briefly about this and gathered that some sort of a story was connected to it.

"Many troubles followed," he laughingly told me.

It was in Leningrad that more of it came out. The people in Leningrad were extremely gracious, but, as always happens, time begins to hang heavy as a guest is entertained. There was a seemingly endless supply of mineralogical museums, which I as a geologist should enjoy. I think I saw them all under the slow, gracious conduct of the directors. One day, as I was being toured about, with full explanations in Russian, the diamonds came up. As usual, after an hour or so, I had tuned out, giving back nods, shakes, "das" and "nyets", a "shto?" now and then, and an occasional "krasivyi" and "ne vozmoshna" ("beautiful" and "impossible").

My guide opened a flat case and pulled out some dark, translucent, unfinished stones. I came to, a bit.

"Diamonds?" I asked.

"Yes," he answered, "from Siberia."

"Professor Efremov's diamonds?" I went on.

Seemingly a little startled, he asked, "What do you know about that?"

"Not much," I followed, with a comment that I had only heard there was an amusing incident.

"Yes, but not too amusing."

He went on to tell me the story as he knew it, one of several versions I eventually heard. Once actual diamonds and diamond tubes had been discovered by geologists, a "Catch 22" situation developed. Efremov was in trouble for his story, first for concealing important economic information from the government, that diamonds existed, and second for revealing in published form, without permission, "state secrets!"

During the 1960s, fictional writing became more and more important to Efremov, and when he resigned from the Institute, for reasons I do not recall, they became a needed source of income. This change in emphasis did not enhance him to some

of his colleagues.

"He's too busy writing his novels," Orlov would tell me as

an outsider. "No time for science."

"Professor Orlov ought to push paleontology at the Academy more," Efremov would tell me. "He's the only one with an entry and the power, and he sells us short."

Because I was an outsider, both seemed to feel free to unburden their troubles on me and discuss subjects that were more or less taboo in the Institute.

This rift between Efremov and Orlov mended, but only a few weeks before Orlov's sudden death from a heart attack. The two met in a bank, embraced in proper Russian style and seemed once again to be the good friends of old. Efremov was immensely relieved and, I suspect, the same was true for Orlov. As it had earlier, Efremov's renewed efforts at fictional writing stemmed from enforced inactivity. During an earlier expedition to Central Asia, he had contracted typhoid fever, which had gone undiagnosed by the local doctors. The typhoid would recur, so he told me, about every five years, so severely that he would be hospitalized. It was, I gather, the start of the ill health that plagued all of his later years. While confined in a hospital in Sverdlovsk, in 1942, unable to serve his country in the Great Patriotic War, he began to set down his experiences in story form once again. This time some of his writings were brought to the attention of A. N. Tolstoy, who invited Efremov to visit him, even though Tolstoy was seriously ill at the time. He praised the style as elegant and formal. Inquiring, Tolstoy found the source of Efremov's style in the rigors of scientific reporting, something Efremov had lacked earlier. In most of the translations of Efremov's non-scientific work, however, this style does not come through clearly. Often the stories appear turgid and verbose. The stories as translated, while imaginative and charming, conform too closely to the literal Russian to have the graceful flow that superior English prose could have given them. The translation of Cors Serpentis (The Heart of the Serpent) is an exception and comes close to portraying the richness of his style.

Through periods of good health and bad, science and fantasy alternated in importance. Upon the publication of his scientific papers of the 1940s, Efremov assumed a prominent place as an interpreter of ancient earth history, first in Russia and later elsewhere. His first literary efforts, gathered in Stories of the Unusual, published in 1944 and translated into English in 1954 as Stories, began a successful literary career, if success is to be judged by the popularity of the product rather than the criterion of acceptance by the literati.

Out of Efremov's mix of experiences emerged a strange and somewhat enigmatic philosophy, a materialism with a dialectical base and a deep flavor of Eastern philosophies. Somewhere in all of this lay answers to questions that puzzled me, more so as I came to know him better. How could such a person come to be and continue to live comfortably and productively in the controlled society of the Soviet Union? Why have his works been so popular with the people of the Soviet Union and treated so lightly by the literary critics? Where lay the base for the obvious rapport that both he and I sensed at our first meeting and developed so freely thereafter?