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Literature / The Bull's Hour

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The Bull's Hour is a 1968 Social Science Fiction novel by the Soviet author Ivan Yefremov and is a Sequel to his earlier Andromeda Nebula, taking place some two centuries later than the original novel. Telling the story of the Earth starship Dark Flame's visit to a planet long ago colonized by refugees from the Earth during the turbulent periods of its history — it gave Efremov ample material to discuss his views on the society and criticize what he saw as humanity's shortcomings.

The novel has a turbulent history — written at the height of a Sino-Soviet split and the Cultural Revolution, it outwardly criticized what Efremov called "Chinese ant-socialism". But as he was already quite disillusioned with Soviet society at the time, Efremov's unflattering portrayal of the planet that the Earthling visitors called Tormance (explicitly after the eponymous planet in the David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus) was close enough to home that the authorities soon banned the book, which remained out of print for almost two decades until the Perestroyka, though unofficial copies were circulated and widely discussed in intellectual circles.

There was ample reason for this, as the bleak picture of a Police State verging on totalitarian control of the population, a stagnating, rigidly stratified oligarchical society with its deep-running enmity between the proletarian and educated classes, expertly played by the scheming oligarchy against the backdrop of a destroyed environment etc. resonated well with the disillusionment the Soviet intellectual elite felt about their own society during Brezhnev's times.

Naturally, the expedition itself wasn't a success. Losing five crewmembers out of thirteen: four to violent deaths involving the locals, and one to Going Native in attempt to do something about the miserable society of the planet, the starship returned to Earth with precautionary tales of the perils society might suffer if things went badly, though the reader is left with the vague hope than not all was lost with the planet.

The novel provides examples of the following tropes:

  • Action Girl: Several among the Dark Flame crew, mainly Fay Rodis, the expedition commander. Who, because of being a historian underwent a psychological and physical conditioning for better function in the "high-inferno" conditions.
  • Badass Bookworm: Again, many of the Earthlings, including Rodis and Vir Norin, one of the ship astrogators, who stayed back to organize La RĂ©sistance, but also the local engineer Tael, who helped to link the visitors to the local dissidents and free-thinkers despite the personal threat to himself.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: In the epilogue, we learn that the Earthlings' struggle wasn't in nought, and Tormancians have managed to break their planet out of the vicious circle, and the straight beam starship to induct them into the Great Ring is being sent there from the Planet of Green Sun, one of the Earth's colonies.
  • Changing of the Guard: Naturally, as the sequel takes place several centuries after the Andromeda Nebula.
  • Fantastic Caste System: The population of Tormance is generally divided into two major castes — the so-called "kzhi" (an acronym from the Russian "korotkozhivuschie", short-lived), who are the proletarians determined to be incapable of education, and are encouraged to commit governmentally promoted (and tacitly mandated — a grim reminder of the earlier population explosion, mentioned by the Cepheans) suicide, as the Tormancians are apparently unable to practice other forms of population control, and the long-lived "dzhi", who are allowed to live their natural course of life and consist of various educated professionals. The ruling class is technically also count as dzhi, though they are not referred as such. Between them are the thin layers of entertainers (who have varied lifespans, with the athletes and performers often euthanized fairly young, but artists being virtually dzhi) and farmers who are living a tough country life and also dying relatively young entirely naturally.
  • Fantastic Naming Convention: Actually exist both on Earth and Tormance. Earthlings having the naming system rather different from most current ones.
    • Tormancians generally have tripartite names among the commonets, and bipartite among the aristocracy, though both classes share the common custom to shorten the name in colloquial speech. For example, the dzhi engineer Honteelo Tollo Frael, the liaison official attached to the Earthlings by Chyo Chagas, is usually referred to as Hon Tael or simply Tael, while Chagas' second-in-command Gentlo Shi is usually called Gen Shi, and his wife Yantre Yakhakh has a common name of Yan Yakh. Only the Supreme Ruler's name is never shortened.
    • Earthlings, for their part, have two names, usually based on any word or sounds that caught the person's parents fancy, with none of them usually being hereditary. While there are recognizable first and second names, the surnames proper were already a dying custom even during the Nebula times (Miiko Eigoro having a hereditary Japanese name was commented as a particular oddity), and seem to be completely forgotten by the times of the sequel.
  • Faster-Than-Light Travel: Finally invented, based on the Ren Boz' experiment in the previous novel, though still very much involved and complicated process during the expedition itself — Dark Flame is, in fact, only a second FTL starship on the Earth, and currently the only one, the original prototype, Noogen, having disappeared during its last jump. By the time of the novel's Framing Story, however, some 130 years later, "straight-beam" starships are already a mature technology, and while not at the Casual Interstellar Travel level yet, they are already pretty mundane.
  • The Federation: The Great Ring has a much more expanded and involved role in this novel because of the invention of FTL travel. The news about the Tormance itself come to the Earth due to the passing-through straight-beam ship relayed the mail from its original discoverers, an expedition of the non-humanoid race "from Cepheus" who were denied landing by the locals, both the mailman and the Cepheans being the Great Ring members.
  • Framing Story: The narrative is presented as a historical film for the high school students some 100 years after the expedition.
  • Gaia's Lament: During a population explosion several centuries ago, the planet's inhabitants managed to almost destroy its biosphere.
  • Going Native: Vir Norin, a Dark Flame astrogator, hooked up with the local girl and decided to stay to help organize La RĂ©sistance.
  • Identical Grandson: Ren Boz's great-grandson, himself a prominent scientist in his own right, is said to be a splitting image of his ancestor.
  • Latex Spacesuit: Environmental suits had to be worn by the expedition's away party members, because the vaccination and acclimatisation to the local conditions and diseases would've taken too much time to allow free exit. These were made from futuristic high-tech alloys and in addition to environmental functions also protected from the most weapons known on Earth. It still wasn't enough for the four of them.
  • Legendary in the Sequel: Several of the Nebula characters, but chiefly Ren Boz due to his work on Faster-Than-Light Travel.
  • One World Order: There's only one state on the planet.
  • Overly Long Name: Defied. If anything, the aristocrats on Tormance have shorter names than the commoners.
  • People's Republic of Tyranny: Averted. While Choyo Chagas rule is pretty tyrannical, it largely isn't ideologically motivated and is more in line with the good ol' monarchical despotism.
  • Police State: The ordinary Tormancians live in constant fear of the Snake Carriers.
  • Prime Directive: Subverted. Outwardly, the Great Ring has a law forbidding the interference with the internal affairs of an independent planet, but its applicability clause states that it counts only for the planets allowing a full and unrestricted access to any information — meaning basically only the planets that might be admitted to Great Ring yesterday. Every other society is a fair game, an attitude not unlike the one of The Culture.
  • Secret Police: Snake Carriers are also spying on their own people in addition to their official police functions.
  • Spider Tank: The nine-legged SDF robots utilized by the main cast. These multipods can do basically whatever the plot needs them to do, probably justified by the fact this is an expedition to an unknown and possibly hostile world, coupled with the ability of the Earth's mighty scientific-industry complex to actually load a small robot with every feature the designers could imagine. Unfortunately, their lack of an anti-naivete warning system still left half of the Dark Flame's crew outright dead, and the rest traumatized for the comparatively short rest of their lives — not that the impregnable encounter suits or the commander's dreaded Inferno training helped much, either.
  • State Sec: Snake Carriers, the security apparatus of the Yan-Yakh state, wield an enormous power over its populace, their enforcer arm, the Lilacs, being basically the only thing resembling a military force on the planet.