Svět zítřka v socialistickém Československu
(The World of Tomorrow in the socialist Czechoslovakia)

First edition: Prague, 2010, 248 pp., Czech language

The book examines the past visions of the future that never was. It depicts the faith in the rapid progress of science and technology, the dogmas of the socialist utopianism and the popularity of the science fiction genre within the socialist culture. The fully colour illustrated book brings essays and studies on the history of sf genre and utopia in Czechoslovakia in the books, visual arts, cinema, comics, architecture and the social theory. Being much more than just an exhibition catalogue, it goes deeper and to the broader context.


Arbor Vitae
Jaselská 3, 160 00 Praha 6, Czech Republic


  1. Tomáš Pospiszyl: History of the utopian future: Introduction to the time travelling
  2. Ivan Adamovič: From fantastika to sci-fi: Science fiction and the culture of socialist Czechoslovakia
  3. Ivan Adamovič: Sputnik pop: Signals from space in the Czech popular culture
  4. Ivan Adamovič: Faces of the future: Ilustrators of the Czech science fiction and futuristic journalism
  5. Ivan Adamovič a Jaroslav Olša, jr.: Over the red planet on the board of the photon rocket: Space socialist realism in other countries
  6. Milan Krejčí: Burian´s fantastic worlds: Fantastic and science fiction themes in the post-WWII works of Zdeněk Burian
  7. Tomáš Pospiszyl: Space visionary Teodor Rotrekl: Sf illustrator and artist in the traps of the present time
  8. Ivan Adamovič: Silver comets of the silver screen: The search for the future in the Czechoslovak cinema
  9. Tomáš Prokůpek: Soc-comics: From the pages of youth magazines to the graphic novel – and back
  10. Tomáš Pospiszyl: The future and the avant garde: Czech and Slovak artists between utopia, dystopia and nostalgia
  11. Ondrej Herec: Utopia that wasn´t: Utopian thought in the socialist science fiction


Planet Eden examines the image of the future formulated in Czechoslovak high art and popular culture in the years 1948 – 1978. Especially during the first decade of this period, it was not possible to separate public expressions of culture from politics. The Communist Party of Czechoslovakia tried to regulate cultural life to the maximum, so that it would serve the ideology of Communism. One of their central doctrines was the conviction that there could be only one future – that of Communism – and that the only alternative was no future at all. Marxism came fully armed with historical determinism. The contradictions between the classes were supposed gradually to lead to the worldwide dictatorship of the proletariat, and the creation of a Utopian classless society. The future was thus, from this point of view, a done deal, and the achievement of Communism was only a matter of time. According to the estimates of the Czech experts at the Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences, Czechoslovakia was supposed to reach this stage by the end of the 20th Century.

This battle for the future could not help but affect the genre of science fiction. Writers and other artists– if they wanted to depict a sufficiently distant future – had to pay lip-service to the official view of social evolution. In Czechoslovakia, however, this imperative lasted no more than ten years, and only a very few works propagating straightforward Communism came into being, e.g. Vladimír Babula's Signály z vesmíru [Signals from Space] or František Běhounek's Akce L [Operation L]. After the denunciation of Stalin's personality cult, and faced with daily life in really existing socialism, the notion of a Communist Utopia had begun, by the start of the 1960s, to seem distant, improbable, or just plain ludicrous, even to its former supporters. In particular, Czech SF cinema, around this time, withdrew into politically inoffensive madcap comedies set in the near future, often in fictional countries which had nothing to do with the East-West divide at all.

In the context of Czech science fiction, the expectation that the genre should illustrate a Communist paradise very soon ceased to be relevant. However, the irreconcilable position of the establishment towards the culture and politics of the Western world remained unblunted. The battle for the future migrated to the level of theory. One of the oft-repeated assumptions of literary critics with an interest in the genre was the thesis that art provides a direct reflection of the ideological environment in which it is created. The cautionary tone and anti-Utopian tendencies that so characterised some post-War British and American science fiction were explained by the fact that authors living in a society condemned to extinction were simply not able to imagine anything better.

A significant influence on both high art and popular culture was the early success of the Soviet space programme. Czechoslovakia did not escape its own short wave of "sputnikomania". The first artificial satellite of the Earth leant its name to cinemas, restaurants and rock bands, and it became the mascot of popular science magazines for young people. The most distinctive Czech SF film of the period, Ikarie XB-1 (shown in the USA in a heavily cut version as Voyage to the End of the Universe), was shot in 1962 in direct response to a demand from the Communist Party for a blockbuster about the conquest of space. After 1963, however, public interest in space exploration began to decline, to be replaced by anxieties about the consequences of civilisation's over-reliance on technology, which provided the stimulus for a whole new set of views of the world of tomorrow.

Czech SF illustration, in particular magazine illustration, was at first strongly indebted to Soviet models. Amongst the hardest working representatives of this early magazine "astro-art" was František Škoda (1925 – 1990). At the same time, however, the mid-1950s saw the first publications of Teodor Rotrekl (1923 – 2004), a pivotal figure in Czech science fiction art, who for several decades had something like a monopoly on the visual representation of the SF genre. Rotrekl illustrated dozens of books and stories, constantly refined his art, and especially in the 1960s tried to conduct a dialogue with contemporary gallery art. The volume and significance of his work evidently has no equal anywhere in the whole of East European SF illustration. A number of SF stories were also illustrated by the respected classic of adventure illustration and palaeontological art, Zdeněk Burian (1905 – 1981), in particular during the years when his style was too much at variance with official demands. In common with many other artists, he found a freer platform for his work, and a valuable source of income, in youth magazines.

The graphic design of Czech books and magazines in the 1960s is a phenomenon all to itself. During this period, a significant number of the best local avant-garde artists were involved in book design. Their work inevitably also influenced science fiction publishing, enriching it through the introduction of completely new approaches, absolutely at variance with the traditional SF canon. Adolf Hoffmeister's anthology of Western SF, Labyrint [Labyrinth], published in 1962, went so far as to deliberately define itself in opposition to the descriptiveness and realism of conventional SF illustration, offering its surprised readers first-rate examples of contemporary abstract art.

Echoes of these Communist and cosmic Utopias can still be found in the works of contemporary artists, bearing evidence of their struggle to understand the world in which their generation grew up. Thus, they end up recycling material from the better tomorrow they had all been promised, but which never arrived.


by Cyril Simsa

Reading through the catalogue of Ivan Adamovič & Tomáš Pospiszyl's major new exhibition, it occurred to me that the future has a problem.

If, as Pospiszyl says in his introduction, the fall of Communism in Eastern and Central Europe ushered in "the end of history" (to borrow Francis Fukuyama's much disputed sound-bite of a phrase), does that not logically imply that 1989 also marks the start of the end of the future? And if there is no longer any real possibility of our ever establishing a viable alternative to the kind of Western liberal democracy that "won" the Cold War, what does that imply for science fiction writers, whose whole raison d'etre is based on envisioning just such alternatives?

"It was not always thus," writes Pospiszyl. "Not only did we once have a history, we also had a future. It was, admittedly, a highly debatable and problematic one, and horrific to many, but for all that, it was there. Some conception of the way the future might turn out to be did exist."

The focus of Planeta Eden is precisely this future that never was: the future as technocratic socialist Utopia -- a visionary future of Young Pioneers and twinkle-eyed Academicians, backed up by legions of shock workers, conquering the stars -- with its roots in that curious historical moment after the Second World War, when it seemed, briefly, as if Soviet science might actually defeat the West. And though the authors extend the period of their coverage from the date of the coup that first installed a Communist regime in Czechoslovakia in 1948 to the space flight of Vladimír Remek, the first Czech cosmonaut, in the 1970s, the key to the whole exhibition is inevitably the 1950s. This, by no coincidence, is also the period when the iconography of post-war Soviet sf was formed. As the authors write in their blurb, the 1950s were a time when the Communist's pursuit of "social Utopia was rapidly being replaced with technical Utopia. After the amazing success in conquering the universe it seemed that human migration into outer space was inevitable within the next few decades."

Of course, this kind of gung-ho attitude relating to the imminent colonisation of space is nothing unusual in American sf, either. What we tend to forget, though, is that for a time it looked as if the Soviets and their allies would get there first, and their artists and writers knew it. It is the combination of this technological optimism with an enthusiasm for the standard propaganda-poster iconography of flag-waving young men and women in red scarves, singing patriotic songs to the sound of the harmonica, that gives so much Communist sf art of the 1950s its special naïve charm. (In fairness, Western sf was not immune to this kind of stuff, either: Heinlein's absurdly straight-laced Boy-Scouts-on-Ganymede adventure, Farmer in the Sky [1950], does very much the same thing in khaki. Both sides evidently wanted to catch their cadres young.)

In hindsight, we now know that the dream of Soviet space supremacy was only a bubble, and that by the mid-'60s the West was in the lead again, but at the time, the outcome was far from certain. [1] Soviet scientists seemed to have the universe at their beck and call, and where the Academy led, writers and artists were not slow to follow. To give just one example, consider the truly mind-boggling development plan outlined in all seriousness by Soviet Academician V.A. Obruchev in 1953, which was appropriated by the Czech novelist Vladimír Babula (1919-1966) as the introduction to his 1955 sf novel Signály z vesmíru [Signals from Space]: Soviet science will, it seems, within a couple of generations, "extend life expectancy to 150-200 years ... learn to manufacture all known chemical substances on Earth, even the most complex of proteins, and to invent new ones] ... learn to control the weather, to regulate wind and temperature, to move clouds, and to share out rain and dry spells according to need..." etc. Faced with such prognoses, is it any wonder that leading Soviet sf writers like Ivan Yefremov (1907-1972), and their Czech imitators like Babula, foresaw a socialist future? Only now do their heroes start to seem like Lysenkos of the space ways, and their plans for a Communist empire of the planets like blueprints for the same kind of technological hubris that made a desert of the Aral Sea, but there is no doubting that at the time the whole project was meant sincerely.

Planeta Eden tackles this period of Czechoslovak sf with great verve, presenting a cross-section of materials that for the most part have never been displayed in a gallery context before (a large proportion of the exhibits comes from private collections, or has been purchased especially from the Czech equivalent of eBay). The range of media covered is truly fascinating: far from restricting themselves to obvious choices like books and film stills, the authors demonstrate the spread of Soviet space iconography into the widest fields. I was especially taken by the profusion of children's books and magazines from the '50s (already alluded to above), in which rugged, outdoorsy boys and girls in Communist uniforms are swept up into high adventure in rocket ships, cosmodromes, and laboratories (think of The Famous Five at Baikonur). Slightly later, as the '50s stretch out into the '60s, these are joined by sf toys, futuristic advertising, TV shows, and even architectonic studies for unrealised building projects.

Perhaps the culmination of this first phase of Czechoslovak Communist sf is the classic film Ikarie XB-1 (1963, often translated Icarus XB-1, but given that "Ikarie" is a proper name, no translation is really necessary). Based on an obscure Stanislaw Lem novel, this is a psychological tale of a space crew going slowly crazy on an extended flight to the stars, whose position is further complicated by their traumatic encounters with a derelict vessel from the late 20th Century and with and what seems to be an alien intelligence (in typical Lem fashion the film ends just as contact is about to be made, so the nature of the intelligence is never made explicit). All the same, the film is very impressively made, with an excellent cast, a very early, experimental synthesiser soundtrack, and sober, carefully extrapolated sets. In the context of the exhibition, it is the sets, with their visualisation of the technocratic space-faring future of the '50s, that take on the greatest relevance. But in a wider context, the film is also interesting for capturing the moment when the boundless optimism of the '50s began to crumble, as doubt and introspection overwhelms the crew. It is not so difficult to see the protagonists' inability to deal with their inferiority in the face of the aliens as a tacit acknowledgement that the supremacy of Soviet space science might not, after all, be assured, or to read the claustrophobia of the crew as a metaphor for the burgeoning claustrophobia of the reform-minded intelligentsia in Communist Czechoslovakia as the mid-'60s began to loom.

The iconic status of the film in the former Soviet bloc has a curious coda. Following its success at the First International Festival of SF Film in Trieste in 1963, it was picked up for distribution in the USA, where it was released in a severely mutilated version as Voyage to the End of the Universe (1964), and although this version of the film is risible, the visuals clearly had an impact on American sf film and television in the second half of the 1960s. The design of the ship's bridge and corridors in particular finds an echo in the set designs for the original series of Star Trek, and perhaps even in the corridors of the space station in 2001. Not withstanding the literary successes of the foremost Czech sf author, Josef Nesvadba (1926-2005), then, whose stories were widely translated in the '60s and '70s, it is thus almost certainly Ikarie XB-1 that is Communist Czechoslovakia's most successful sf export. [2]

Belief in the attainability of this politically and technologically advanced future began to decline rapidly in the '60s, and by the end of the decade its creators were left only with a collection of artefacts (films, books, plastic gizmos, artworks), reflecting a project that was already lost. In a specifically Czechoslovak context that overwhelming sense of pessimism was possibly not unrelated to the Soviet invasion of 1968, and the crushing of the reform wing of the Communist Party, which had briefly gained the ascendant during the so-called Prague Spring. But more widely, it seems this was a general malaise affecting the whole of the Soviet Bloc -- the tank drivers, as well as their targets -- as the dream of Soviet technological supremacy failed.

By the 1970s, the whole notion of a socialist high-tech future had deteriorated into comedy and high camp, as exemplified in particular by the clever, funny, but utterly implausible films developed from the stories and screenplays of Josef Nesvadba over the following two decades, e.g. Zabil jsem Einsteina, pánové! [I Killed Einstein, Gentlemen!] (1969) and Zítra vstanu a opařím se čajem [Tomorrow I'll Wake up and Scald Myself with Tea] (1977). The only Czech sf film to take itself at all seriously between the Soviet invasion of 1968 and the fall of Communism is Otakar Vávra's well made, but politically reprehensible Temné slunce [The Dark Sun] (1981), very loosely based on Karel Čapek's Krakatit (1924), in which Čapek's hypothetical new explosive is equated with the neutron bomb, and its abuse in the political arena is ascribed to a jet-setting cabal of capitalist playboys. Vávra doesn't quite roll out the old saw about the capitalist world order being run by an international Jewish conspiracy, but he comes pretty close. That being said, the climactic scenes, after the bomb goes off, are extremely powerful, and belong among the scariest moments Czech sf cinema has yet produced.

Planeta Eden happily stops before the real cultural dog-days of the '80s, when the increasingly anomalous hard-line regime in Czechoslovakia began to seem out of step, not only with its own artistic underground, but also with the cultural policy of Gorbachev's Kremlin. Adamovič & Pospiszyl map out the dream of the socialist technological Utopia, from its rise in the '50s, through to its final abandonment in the '70s, with aplomb. Even though the exhibition is not structured strictly chronologically, opting instead for a thematic arrangement (film, urbanism, toys, etc.), one does still get a sense of the future's story arc.

The catalogue is conceived somewhat differently, taking the form of a series of essays on topics raised by the exhibits (comics, Utopia, the relationship between sf illustration and the avant-garde). It also adds individual chapters on Zdeněk Burian (1905-1981) and Teodor Rotrekl (1923-2004), the two most important Czech sf illustrators of the post-War period. Most of the texts are by Adamovič or Pospiszyl, but there are also contributions by Jaroslav Olša jr., Ondrej Herec and others. The quality of the essays is generally very high, but (obviously) since they are in Czech, their international readership is likely to be limited. On the plus side, though, the book is beautifully illustrated, with 460 well chosen reproductions, most of them in full colour. Another similar compendium of Communist-era future art is unlikely to be published anytime soon in any language, and for this reason alone the book deserves a place in any historical/critical sf collection.


1. Francis Spufford, in his recent novel about the history of Soviet science and technology, Red Plenty (London: Faber, 2010) -- which, by one of those strange coincidences, was published in exactly the same month as Planeta Eden -- defines the dates of the "Soviet moment" as lasting from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 to Gagarin's spaceflight in 1961. But allowing run-up time for the development of the relevant Soviet space technology, and a time-lag for public perception to change afterwards, the extended period of Adamovič & Pospiszyl's interest from the early-'50s to the mid-'60s, matches Spufford's remarkably well.

2. The uncut version of the film is available as a Region 2 DVD, with English subtitles, from Filmexport Home Video:

This review had been first published in Foundation: the international review of science fiction, Nr. 108.