Andrei Rubanov’s allegorical tale Chlorophilia is set in 22nd-century Russia, a land dramatically different from the Russia we know today. 90% of the population now lives in Moscow. Russia has leased Siberia to the Chinese for agriculture and mining. Because China pays Russia for the land use, almost no one works anymore. Most Russians have chip implants so the government can keep track of people, paying subsidies for behaving and deducting for misdeeds. Moscow is overgrown with plants, the stalks of which reach fifty stories high. Society is stratified along the stalks: rich Russians enjoy the sun’s rays on the top stories, while the masses make their homes in the dark and mildewy lower stories. The ubiquitous plant pulp is edible and is used as a drug, especially among the lower classes. Others, like protagonist and magazine journalist Savely, live and work on sunny stories, but still use plant pulp – albeit in processed forms that allow them to eat meat and drink alcohol so their addiction goes unnoticed. However, they often give themselves away by drinking lots of bottled water and hogging sunlight by windows. People live in various vegetative states, and some even start to resemble potted plants with limited intellectual needs.
Chlorophilia seemingly has everything necessary for a good anti-utopia or dystopian novel: detailed scenery, three-dimensional characters, interesting SF concepts. Rubanov provides clever commentary on celebrification, consumerism, and passivity. I’m especially intrigued by the idea of people turning into plants – people who don’t want to think or act, but want merely to live without anything challenging their personal psychological comfort. So why then doesn’t Chlorophilia quite come together?
The problem lies in Chlorophilia’s execution. This book is so full of pseudo-philosophical reasoning for the anger of the day that it crowds out all other aspects of the story, much like the giant green plants overtaking Moscow. There is no distinctive or entertaining plot in the novel; instead, it is filled with neverending discussion of those timeless questions: “Кто виноват?” and “Что делать?” Of course, such reflection on the status quo is welcome in science fiction…but not so much when it comes at the expense of basic action. Rubanov repeatedly mulls over his position, completely forgetting to move his characters or story forward. The result is a fantastic idea simply buried under a huge volume of morals rather than developed into a compelling plot.
Chlorophilia is entertaining but nonetheless light, not a rigorous soon-to-be classic that steers the brain away from that dreaded vegetative state…
But beneath that tangled green mess of stalks is a truly curious concept. Perhaps the novel will grow on you more than it did on me.
★ ★ ★
Хлорофилия by Andrei Rubanov. Pub. 2009 by AST. Paperback, 320 pages. ISBN13 9785271252839.