Bulgarian space jams and science fiction

Author: Maya Stefanova
Advances in science and computer technologies launched Bulgarian thought not just beyond the Earth’s orbit, but beyond the pull of the totalitarian sphere
Artist: Tekla Alexieva, Source: Sariev Gallery

In the early afternoon on August 7, 1981, the Soviet rocket Vostok-2M was launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia, about eight hundred kilometers north of Moscow. It carried a satellite called Interkosmos-22-Bulgaria-1300, part of the Interkosmos program for socialist space cooperation. It was sent to a near semipolar orbit, where it still orbits today. The purpose of this satellite, which was designed and manufactured in Bulgaria, is to provide information about the extraterrestrial environment above the Earth's polar regions, and its launch was part of the mass celebrations on the occasion of the 1300th anniversary of the country’s founding, which was reflected in its name.

The satellite was built in Bulgaria based on the Meteor series of satellites from the USSR, and all eleven scientific instruments on it are the work of Bulgarian scientists and intended for the research and measurement of radiation, charged particles, cosmic plasma and various chemical phenomena and processes. It is equipped with two solar power panels, each generating 2 kW of power, and is designed to orbit the Earth at an altitude of 825 to 906 kilometers with a total weight of 1,500 kilograms.

The Intercosmos-22-Bulgaria-1300 satellite
The Intercosmos-22-Bulgaria-1300 satellite / Source: Institute for Space Research and Technology at the Bulgarian Academy of Sciences

The launch and flight of the satellite were controlled by computers that are partly designed in Bulgaria, while the information that got sent back to Earth was recorded on disk drives produced in Bulgaria.

At the time, Bulgaria also produced other equipment used by the Soviet space program, such as Proton-1, which studies particle flow in magnetic fields, or Emo-5, used to observe the aurora borealis.

Today you can track the movement of the satellite Interkosmos-22-Bulgaria-1300 online in real time even though the connection with it has long been lost. In 2021, the memory of it resurfaced along with the idea to erect a monument celebrating the 40th anniversary of its launch in Stara Zagora, a symbol of the “cosmic glory” of the city. A copy of the satellite is still preserved in the local branch of the Institute for Space Research and Technology (ICIT) at the BAS.

Bulgaria’s participation in space research dates back to 1969, when an astrophysics group was created at the BAS, which later grew into a laboratory (1974) and then into an institute (1987). Its main field was the study of the ionosphere.

Soyuz-33 with cosmonauts Georgi Ivanov and Nikolai Rukavishnikov
Soyuz-33 with cosmonauts Georgi Ivanov and Nikolai Rukavishnikov / Source: Institute for Space Research and Technologies at the BAS

Certainly the most exciting, popular and memorable event among the various Bulgarian “space jams” at the end of the 70s was the preparation of the scientific program and the launch of the first Bulgarian cosmonaut Georgi Ivanov. When Ivanov went beyond our planet between April 10 and 12 in 1979 aboard the Soyuz-33 spacecraft with fellow astronaut Nikolai Rukavishnikov, Bulgaria became the sixth country in the world to have an astronaut in space. Their flight was complicated and dramatic; due to engine failure, the spacecraft cannot dock at the orbital station Salyut-6, and the whole mission nearly ends in tragedy. However, this experience allowed later crews to inherit equipment developed by Bulgarian scientists for research in astrophysics, medicine and remote methods of scientific study. And apart from being the first flight of a Bulgarian astronaut in space, it will be remembered as the first case of orbital engine failure in the history of manned spacecraft flight.

Georgi Ivanov's flight team, 1979
Georgi Ivanov's flight team, 1979 / Source: Institute for Space Research and Technology at the BAS

Flights of fancy

All this cosmic energy, technological innovation and discovery, and excitement surrounding mankind’s newfound ability to take its achievements and leave the solid ground of this planet behind – all this amidst the tensions of the Cold War – opened up the world for many Bulgarians and served as a conduit not just for new experiences, but also for ideas that could freely reach beyond the Iron Curtain, into space and even into the future.

Computers increasingly became not just a source of income for their creators, but also an inspiration for how the future could be built, and how specific industrial problems could be resolved. Automation and the replacement of manual labor with computerized and electronic production methods also inspired much debate about the role of humankind in the world, which is still going strong today.

This is just part of the 400-page long doctoral dissertation that Victor Petrov wrote at Columbia University in 2017 titled “A Cyber-Socialism at Home and Abroad: Bulgarian Modernisation, Computers, and the World 1967-198.”.

Postage stamp designed by Zhana Kosturkova, 1967
Postage stamp designed by Zhana Kosturkova, 1967 / Source: Socmus.com

The prominent Bulgarian Marxist philosopher Todor Pavlov, who headed the Institute of Philosophy until his death in 1977 (and was also a member of the Central Committee and the Politburo) was one of the early opponents of cybernetics and, using Stalinist rhetoric, stated:

"even the most complex robot cannot assimilate, cannot feel, cannot remember, cannot think, cannot dream, cannot fantasize, cannot seek.”

His tone eventually softened after Moscow’s attitudes changed, and in the 1960s he even allowed discussions about cybernetics to be published on the pages of the magazine Philosophical Thought (Filosofska misul), which was edited under his watchful eye, Petrov notes.

Thus, Bulgarian authors working in the field of philosophy began to talk more and more about aspects of automation and computerization that would affect society. Trifon Trifonov, for example, called for more in-depth psychological research because of the increasing complexity of the work environment. According to him, the psychological burden on workers was becoming greater than the physical demands placed on them. “Repetitive actions lead to mental states such as apathy, boredom, lethargy,” and if the state wants to prevent this from happening, it needs to develop a psychological framework for looking at labor that treats the worker as a cybernetic organism (Philosophical Thought, 1969).

Postage stamp designed by Zhana Kosturkova, 1967
Postage stamp designed by Zhana Kosturkova, 1967 / Source: Socmus.com

All these technological innovations give rise to real-life situations that could pass as fictional plots. Victor Petrov tells the story of two such interesting cases. The first was the result of concern about human labor being replaced, a problem that concerned workers as much as it did philosophers. The story is about the first computerized supermarket, where management hoped to take advantage of the machine's ability to calculate faster, easier and with greater accuracy. However, this did not please the supermarket’s employees (most likely, the notorious at the time figure of the cashier lady), and after its first day at work, the computer had water spilled on it. The next day, when the unknown perpetrator found out that the computer had a water-resistant coating, they chose a more extreme measure and set it on fire.

Another curious plot was born from the lack of much-needed computer specialists, and had to do with the life story of the anarchist Georgi Konstantinov, who spent several years in prison and even in the Belene labor camp because he helped blow up a statue of Stalin in 1953. "He was released in 1962 after Zhivkov closed the camps, the amnesty allowed him to study mathematics at Sofia University. He graduated in 1969 and although he was subject to constant surveillance and had one of the largest files in the State Security archives in Bulgaria, he was employed at the computer center of the Ministry of Internal Trade! In 1970 he took crash courses at the Computing Technology Plant (ZIT, Sofia), got busy helping write part of the manual for the ZIT-151 machine and headed a department at the Center. An anarchist terrorist and former political prisoner found himself employed at a distinctive position thanks to skills that were sought after in a country that was striving for rapid progress,” says Victor Petrov.

A Galaxy in your hands

Bulgarian science fiction also experienced its heyday during the socialist period, when a number of works broke ties with the themes of socialist realism and its attempts to project Marxist utopias into the future.

Artist: Tekla Alexieva, 1990
Artist: Tekla Alexieva, 1990 / Source: Goethe Institute – Bulgaria

The greatest leap forward began in 1979, when the Biblioteka Galaktika (“Galaxy Library”) series first began publishing, giving Bulgarian readers the opportunity to read Western science fiction alongside the best of Bulgarian and socialist sci-fi. The worldview of this type of literature, which explores fictional worlds or the distant, unfathomable future, apparently does not bother Bulgarian censors all that much, and classic authors such as Ray Bradbury, Frank Herbert, Ursula Le Guin and Arthur Clarke appear in bookstores alongside classic writers from the Eastern Bloc such as Stanislav Lem or the Strugatsky brothers. By 1989, 101 volumes had been released under the Galaktika imprint, which acquired a cult following among young readers. Its popularity was also a product of its impressive cover design, often done by artist Tekla Alexieva, who recently shared in an interview that because of the nature of the genre, her visual interpretations of these works were not strictly supervised by the censorship board.

Artist: Tekla Alexieva
Artist: Tekla Alexieva / Source: Sariev Gallery

One of Bulgaria’s most popular fantasy authors, Lyuben Dilov, rose to fame for his novel The Path of Icarus (1974), which was praised by Arkadiy Strugatsky himself and also garnered acclaim from the European science fiction community. In this novel, humanity travels to the stars aboard Icarus, a spaceship created from a hollowed-out asteroid now serving as the home of a generation whose sole purpose is to explore the universe. The main character does not focus so much on grandiose space conquests, but dwells on his own thoughts and experiences, and refuses to obey the rules and norms forced on him. One of the book's interesting plot points is a debate over whether young scientists should be allowed to fly into space, or whether the spaceship should rely on automated probes. This leads to a discussion of whether the Icarian society can allow changes to its strict rules.

Artist: Tekla Alexieva
Artist: Tekla Alexieva / Source: Sariev Gallery

Here, Dilov’s fiction conveys the author’s belief in the power of curiosity and the human spirit. He addresses another pressing issue often discussed at the time – the place of mankind amidst all these machines, where they meet and what separates the two. The novel also builds on Isaac Asimov's famous three laws of robotics by adding that

"the robot must under all circumstances legitimize itself as a robot."

In Dilov's more humorous collection The Missed Opportunity. From the Writings of My Computer (1981) a bored writer plays a game with his computer, feeding it different plot lines in all sorts of genres to see what kind of stories it will come up with. In the end, the writer realizes that the computer will only give him the stories that he enters as commands. In this and many other works Dilov is pessimistic about the regime’s dream of computerization, and his characters admit that computers cannot solve all the world’s problems if they are being controlled by imperfect humans.

The Weight of the Spacesuit, Lyuben Dilov
The Weight of the Spacesuit, Lyuben Dilov / The Fifth Law, Nikola Kesarovski

Thanks to the mathematician and writer Nikola Kesarovski, who was a regular contributor to the magazine Computer for You, Bulgaria also became the homeland of The Fifth Law (Biblioteka Galaktika, 1983) of robotics. It states that:

"a robot must know it is a robot."

Kesarovski was actively involved in popularizing science to children, wrote guides aimed at children and adults about how to use specific computer programs, and his fiction demonstrates his great belief that information can unlock human potential. His most popular book The Fifth Law was even turned into a graphic series in the comics magazine Duga (“Rainbow”).

Excerpt from “Griada” by Ivan Gongalov, Kosmos magazine, no. 6, 1963
Excerpt from “Griada” by Ivan Gongalov, Kosmos magazine, no. 6, 1963, Source: shadowdance.info

This desire to come up with further laws of robotics is the inspiration for Lubomir Nikolov's parodic story “The Hundred and First Law of Robotics” (1991), in which a writer is found dead while working on his pleasant but mediocre story titled "The Hundredth Law of Robotics," according to which a robot must never fall off a roof, but it so happens that the robot refuses to accept any more laws and draws the line at the last one, which stipulates that anyone who tries to impose a new law an ordinary robot should be immediately beat over the head with all 200 of Asimov’s collected works.

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