The Fatal Eggs is a science fiction novel by Mikhail Bulgakov, published in the mid-1920s when Russia was recovering from the Civil War and Stalin was beginning to consolidate his power. The novel reads like a 1950s B-movie. When Professor Persikov discovers a red ray in his laboratory that can massively increase growth in cells, the Soviet government takes control in order to solve its own problem, with disastrous results.
Bulgakov trained as a doctor and served during World War I as a Red Cross volunteer. After the First World War his sympathies lay with the White Russian forces during the Russian Civil War. His politics were conservative and his sympathies leaned towards the old regime. His first novel, The White Guard, was a sympathetic portrayal of White Russians which undermined Bolshevik propaganda, by portraying the Whites as ordinary human beings. As Bulgakov’s career moved from medicine to writing and an involvement in the theatre in the early 1920s, his satirical bent and criticisms of Soviet Russia led to his writing being frequently censored throughout his life, despite Stalin’s purported admiration. His most famous work, The Master and Margarita, was never to be published in his own lifetime.
The Fatal Eggs, however, did manage to get publication approval, despite its critical undertones. It was written in 1924 and published in 1925 at the beginning of Stalin’s rise. The novel is set in 1928 in a period that seems to have overcome the problems of the Civil War. Moscow is stable and wealthy. The construction of fifteen apartment buildings in Moscow has solved the housing crisis that plagued the city until 1925, we are told.
But a new threat is about to emerge thanks to misapplied science. Even before the disaster, there are hints that not all is right in this Soviet utopia. The novel’s protagonist, Professor Vladimir Ipatevich Persikov, represents an intellectual class able to pursue academic interests and free to conduct his courses as he wills. Persikov has exacting standards and fails most students who study beneath him. And he is obsessive about his subject, zoology, and the study of amphibians. But he feels the tightening reins on his intellectual freedom. Three of his five university rooms have been taken from him, and he considers that he might need to go abroad for the sake of his career. Bulgakov, himself, had applied to emigrate because he felt he could not flourish as a writer under the strict Soviet censorship laws, but he was never given permission, unlike his contemporary Yevgeny Zamyatin. Similarly, Persikov never goes abroad, either. Despite Bulgakov’s swipe at the application of science in this book, Persikov remains a humble, serious man of science who is relatable and becomes exasperated, as we may also, at the intrusions of the press and the incompetence and ignorance of a system that misapplies his discovery.
The Fatal Eggs is a science fiction novel and its political undertones may not be immediately evident to some readers. But stories of science going wrong have been staples of our literary legacy since Mary Shelley produced Frankenstein. The hubris or carelessness of scientists in these stories is bound to underscore the apprehension caused by the opacity of science to the layman, or the harmful outcomes which weigh larger in the imagination than the many benefits science has produced. For this reason I found the best way to imagine the subject and tone of The Fatal Eggs was to imagine 1950s science fiction movies, especially those stories where scientists go too far and produce something horrific and deadly. During the beginning of the Cold War stories around nuclear issues or invasion were common subjects. The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951) was an admonition from an alien race concerning the direction that humanity was taking. The Fly (1958) explored the horrific consequences of scientific experimentation, while Them! (1954) explored the latent dangers of science, when atomic testing mutates insects into giant creatures which threaten humanity. Godzilla is an expression of the national trauma suffered by the Japanese after they were bombed by America at the end of World War II.
In this context it is easy to see that The Fatal Eggs anticipates the tropes of a lot of popular culture to follow. Professor Persikov accidentally discovers a red beam produced under his microscope that accelerates and exaggerates the growth of amoebas, and produces aggressive behaviours. It’s has similarities H.G. Wells’s story, The Food of the Gods and How it Came to Earth, which tells how two scientists discover a way to accelerate growth, which initially results in giant chickens. Bulgakov was an admirer of Well’s fiction, even though at the end of the third chapter Ivanov, Persikov’s assistant, generously states, “Do you understand, that in comparison with you, Well’s heroes are simply rubbish? And there was me thinking that it was all fairy tales.” There is nothing as common to claim a story is serious than saying that everything that’s gone before is child’s play.
Bulgakov’s story also involves chickens, and for a while I was expecting a few giant chickens to cluck across the page. A chicken plague breaks out in the farming collective run by widow Drozdova. The disease spreads and very soon Russia has lost its entire chicken population. Naturally, the spread of the disease is stopped at Russia’s borders, either by geography, like at the sea at Vladivostok, or at the borders of neighbouring countries, “Whether it was by the effect possibly of a different climate, or of the preventative measures taken by neighbouring governments.” The containment seems improbable, even convenient, just as the final denouement of the novel is owed to a liberal use of deus ex machina. I wasn’t sure whether this was because Bulgakov understood that he might write himself into a corner, otherwise, or whether it was because the threat posed by the scientific catastrophe was the point rather than the details of its clean-up.
Persikov’s discovery is appropriated by the government to try to solve the chicken catastrophe. More eggs are shipped into Russia and the red beam will be used to accelerate their growth. It’s here we sense the inevitability of the disaster. Chicken eggs have been banned in Moscow during the crisis but some people naturally eat them anyway, causing sickness and death. They are ‘fatal’ eggs. The etymological similarity of the words ‘fatal’ and ‘fate’ are apparent in English. So, too, it seems, are they in Russian. In this edition, Roger Cockrell, the translator, names the government’s agent Alexander Semyonovich Fatum. In the Russian original he is called ‘Rokk’, like the Russian, ‘Rok’ for fate, which echoes the original Russian title, Rokovye yaitsa (‘The Fatal Eggs’). Something inevitably will go wrong with the plan, and something does. When Fatum’s experiment produces enormous creatures that threaten the existence of Russia, ordinary people turn against Persikov and blame him for the disaster.
Reading the novel now, it may be hard to understand how it is interpreted as a satire against Soviet Russia. But there are specific elements like the red ray and broader issues like the failure of science that suggest Bulgakov’s intent. The fact that the ray is red seems important: like a metaphor for communist ideology, the ray is applied to the ordinary world to solve its problems. But a monarchist like Bulgakov must have seen inevitable disaster in this. The idea that science could solve society’s problems and effect social progress towards a communist utopia was Soviet orthodoxy, but Bulgakov, instead, portrays the dangers of science, the fallibility of humans and the ineffectiveness of the State to address the threat.
The Fatal Eggs might be a good starting place for anyone unfamiliar with Russian literature. It can easily be read and enjoyed without the need to understand its social and historical context. Some of the action – the ‘monsters’ rising against humanity – is well written and quite gripping. Also, the book is only about a hundred pages long so it is possible to read it in one sitting. Its characters are uncomplicated and the story is a simple linear third person narrative. Anyone who has ever enjoyed a monster flick can enjoy this book. And for those interested in Bulgakov’s more famous writing this is probably a good place to start. And if none of that seems relevant, I’d also recommend this book simply for light entertainment.