These two novellas, Red Star (RS) and Engineer Menni (EM), capture a fascinating time and frame of mind. The time was 1908 (1913 for EM), when the Bolsheviks were gaining strength but before their 1917 revolution against the Tsarists.
RS describes a Socialist Utopia on Mars, documented by a visitor from Earth. He is chosen among all earthmen for his properly revolutionary spirit, and whisked away to Mars as their earthly envoy. This Socialist paradise presents an odd paradox of individual vs. collective. Individual achievement is nominally scorned, because of the historical inevitability of a discovery, or because honoring the great inventor would implicitly dishonor the farmer or laborer. Still, the story focuses on the magnificent achievements of exceptional scientists, silently mocking the brotherly equality supposedly being celebrated. EM is a similar tribute of hero-worhip for a fictional engineer of RS's pre-Socialist past, with similarly hollow regard for the common proletarian.
Actual descriptions of the Martian Utopia sometimes sink under the weight of revolutionary rhetoric, but I consider that to be part of this book's value. The narrator's socialist zeal, bordering on ranting, seems to capture an actual mind-set of the time, or perhaps a fictional mind-set that Bolshevik propagandists wanted people to believe in. Every fact in the story had to be intepreted in a properly socialist way, down to details of physics and children's squabbles over toys.
This monomania, whether Bogdanov genuinely felt it or not, explains much of Soviet history up to the recent fall of communism in Eastern Europe. It appears in the narrator's fawning respect for a machine tool operator, one so devoted to his task that his supervisors were concerned that his zeal for work might endanger his health. It explains why the art museum has two sections, one where the inevitability of their contemporary art is traced in historical examples, the other where tools and consumer goods are displayed as the society's highest esthetic achievements.
An odd tone pervades both stories, though, an underlying melancholy that drives even the strongest of Bogdanov's characters to nervous collapse or to suicide. I don't know Russian literature very well. Perhaps that "memento mori" is part of their writing, perhaps there was thought to be something noble in ending one's own life before the weakness of age stripped one of his powers. A modern reader can only wonder why this profound sadness seemed to follow from the success of socialism.
Bogdanov's larger-than-life engineers and scientists remind me of Ayn Rand's characters in Atlas Shrugged, Anthem, and The Fountainhead. She was a Russian emigre, so she must have been exposed to the literary tradition and the kinds of heroes that Bogdanov portrayed. Her treatment of those very similar characters is very different, though. Where Bogdanov tried to diffuse their achievements across the socialist whole, Rand ennobled the individual. RS gives me a much better understanding of the trends and values that Rand answered in her own writing.
Although bland in themselves, RS and EM are informative. They show the ideals, whether heartfelt or imagined, that led to the revolution of 1917. They also show the core values that led to the revolution's eventual failure, so many years later.