Omon Ra is the coming-of-age story of a young Soviet boy who grows up to become a cosmonaut. Originally written in Russian, an English translation of the book[a] is available for free (and with the author's consent).
This article is split into two parts - a review of the book, and then an analysis of it. The review will be as spoiler-free as I can make it, but the analysis part will be spoiler-tastic. Myself, I read the novel after reading spoliers for it. In fact, it was the spoilers that made me read the full novel. If you are like me, then, you may still find it enjoyable, even after spoilers.
Our main character, Omon Krivomazov, finds the strict restrictions of post-war Soviet society intolerable and dreams of flying to the moon. After being accepted to cosmonaut training, he realizes that the whole Soviet space program is a big lie. The USSR doesn't have the technology to send people into space and bring them back safely. In fact, they are so much behind in technology that even the un-manned missions are faked: Things like rocket stage separation and rocket booster ignition are done manually by men trained for "heroism" who ride along on suicide missions. The Lunokhod[d] rover? A steel tub, propelled by a Soviet hero on a bicycle inside. Everything to maintain the belief that Soviet socialism is triumphant.
He seemed to take it very close to heart, so he was practicing even when left alone in the dorm, trying to make his movements completely automatic. He would squat, close his eyes and start moving his lips - counting to two hundred and forty, - then turn counterclockwise, pausing every forty five degrees of the arc and performing elaborate manipulations with both his hands. Even though I knew that in his mind he was undoing the latches which fastened the first stage to the second, every time it looked like a fight scene from a Hong Kong blockbuster to me. After completing this complex job eight times, he would fall on his back and kick up hard with both legs, pushing the invisible second stage away.
The story is described as satire, but I would add that it is as much a horror story. The absurdities that Pelevin serve up are funny, but the satire plays out against the backdrop of a world of lies, deceit and inhumanity. As Omon travels further along his path to the moon, where he will be the one propelling the Lunokhod before being the last one of his team mates to die, we see more and more of the brutality of the system, and we like it less and less.
A constant theme throughout the book is that we define reality by what we can percieve. This is then combined with a deceitful totalitarian state that has near absolute control over just what its subjects do perceive, and the result is a nightmarish sensation of drifting between realities. The slowly increasing mismatch between the world of propaganda and reality only serves to amplify this sensation.
The book contains numerous references to Russian and Soviet propaganda and history. As the translator notes, in terms of being accessible to people outside the author's culture, Omon Ra is not doing very well. Despite this, one can enjoy the novel for its philosophical aspects (which will be further discussed in the next section), the parts of satire that are universal, and the way which Pelevin conjures up a dream of a world gone mad.
Finally, I'd recommend everyone to read the endnotes by Yuri Machkasov. While us non-Soviets may not appreciate having the satire explained for us as much as we would enjoy figuring it out ourselves, the notes fill out the experience nicely.
The following section contains spoilers. I enjoyed the novel even after having read spoilers for it, but you may not be like me in that sense.
Throughout Omon Ra is the philosophy of subjective idealism. That is, that there is nothing except minds and the perceptions of those minds. If something is perceived, it is real, even if it is only imagined. Thus, if a majority believes that the Soviet space program is successful, then it is successful. As Omon notes when he looks at a movie involving a view from a cockpit: When he shares the same percepts as the two pilots in the plane, he is in the plane. This also holds true if he can only imagine the percepts: If he can imagine looking out from a cockpit, then he is in the plane.
This theme, that reality can be altered by willpower, that we can create worlds by imagining them, was explored by Jorge Luis Borges in Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius[g] and more recently by Eli Piilonen (2DArray)[h] in his game This is a Work of Fiction[i].
In Omon Ra, the philosophy is seen in a benign way in Omon's memories and daydreams, and in a malign way in the propaganda and institutions of the totalitarian Soviet state. When the state is unable to produce real achievments, they are substituted by imaginary achievements. The clearest example is of course Omon's journey to the moon, but also the amputation of the cadets's feet in order to emulate Aleksey Maresyev[j], the medical processes that create the paraplegic Korchagin morale officers, and, hinted at but never revealed, the machine-gunning of the students at the Matrosov[m] Infantry Academy. By re-creating the mind-state of the hero in the moment of heroism, they create a world in which the Soviet propaganda is true. (This also has a lot in common with cargo cults[o], where mock-ups of airfields are built - or abandoned fields are "rebuilt" - to make the planes return with riches.)
In Omon Ra, we peel off layer after layer of deception. First we find out that the USSR only has a few airplanes, which are kept at the border where the Americans can photograph them. The deception is limited to fooling a likely enemy into overestimating one's strength. Then we find out that the "unmanned" missions are, in reality, manned suicide missions. Suddenly, lives are being sacrificed to keep up the illusion of Soviet prowess. Finally, we find out that not even the suicide missions are "real" in the sense that rockets are actually being launched. When Omon is supposed to kill himself with his pistol and it misfires, he finds himself in a subway tunnel on Earth. The "Lenin fault" that he was to have pedaled the Lunokhod along wasn't. What's more, the mission was only known to Omon and the handlers. We have gone from lying a little to many people, to the maximalism of building up a massive lie in just one person. But if we create worlds just by imagining them, then it is sufficient that one person imagines that the Soviet space program is triumphant:
One such soul is enough for the red banner of victorious socialism to unfurl high above the Moon. But at least one soul, for at least one moment - is indispensable, because it is in this soul that the banner will be soaring...
Shortly after being told this by his handler, Omon escapes to the Moscow subway system and wonders where he'll go next. Then the novel abruptly ends. Subjective idealism goes both ways. When Omon was preparing to exit the Lunokhod, he thought of Colonel Halmuradov playing tennis while he was dead. Omon felt insulted before realizing that
once there is no me, there won't be any Halmuradov or any stadium either[*][r]. By focusing his attention elsewhere, the horrors of the space program, and maybe the program itself, have all ceased to exist.
The first name is from OMON, the Russian SWAT unit, given to him by his father to push the son along the right path in life. The last name is a variation of Karamazov from the novel The Brothers Karamazov[b] by Fyodor Dostoyevsky[c], but here as a combination of "Krivo" (crooked) and "mazov" (from "mazat", meaning "smear", "to miss completely").
Possibly as a hint from the author, the morale officer warns Omon against just subjective idealism, noting that heroism must be performed in reality.