cover image Telluria


Vladimir Sorokin, trans. from the Russian by Max Lawton. New York Review of Books, $18.95 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-1-68137-633-2

Sorokin (Day of the Oprichnik) unfurls a hypnotic and hallucinatory piece of speculative fiction in which most of Russia and Europe have been shattered into fractious, feudal principalities in the wake of an apocalyptic near-future war between Christendom and fundamentalist Islam. With advanced technology and gasoline in the hands of a powerful few, much of society has returned to hardscrabble, premodern lives. Their one escape is tellurium, a powerful narcotic delivered by hammering—often fatally—a nail of rare metals directly into the brain. It’s a big concept, and Sorokin opts to convey it through many characters in 50 loosely related vignettes featuring royalty and rebels, peasants and soldiers, animal-headed “zoomorphs,” diminutive and gigantic “littluns” and “biguns,” and, of course, desperate tellurium addicts and the “carpenters” who administer the nails. As Sorokin puts it, the continent has been “plunged back into the blessed and enlightened Middle Ages... the world returned to human scale.” The author more than makes up for a slightly diffuse structure with his breathtaking imaginative leaps and wicked humor, which he conveys in dialogue between those who desperately want the tellurium and those who have it. Again, Sorokin succeeds at dragging the reader into a dark and scary place. (Aug.)