A Commentary on "Without Sky"
by Brian L. Steed
I first read “Without Sky” nearly a year and a half ago. I was directed to the short story through several different articles dealing with the Russian conceptualization of modern warfare. I found the story online. The first reading was confusing: What is this “without sky” concept and how can it actually work? On a second reading, I began to see tremendous insight into Russian thought on conflict.
For me, the story’s value was well beyond the science fiction. Part of the value is in the commentary on the nature of war. The connection of the author, Natan Dubovitsky (real name: Vladislav Surkov) and Russian President Vladimir Putin was important as well; Surkov is reportedly a close advisor.
For the last two class years, I have asked my U.S. Army Command and General Staff College students to read “Without Sky,” and we have discussed possible meanings and interpretations. The discussion has proven to be illuminating. What follows is an adaptation of that discussion. I am including the text of the story with my commentary interspersed.
There was no sky over our village. That’s why we went to the city to watch the moon and birds, on the other side of the river. The people in the city were not thrilled to have us, but they did not try to stop us. On one of the hills, where the brick church stood, they even built an observation platform. Since for some reason they considered us drinkers, in addition to benches and a pay telescope, they built a small tavern by the observation deck, and a police post.
The early paragraphs set the stage for the main character. He is the voice of a broader community of people who are left without sky. Later on, the author explains that these victims can see only in two dimensions. Something about the nature of the fighting and the weapons used have created this transformation in perspective in those who lived beneath the sky in which the massive battle took place.
The two-dimensional perspective is also expressed in terms of yes and no, a sort of conceptual black or white appreciation of the world rather than simply a spatial limitation. I believe that the author is making a statement about the Russians’ being “without sky” — the simple people who are being kept out, and the West being the city — the civilization to which those without sky are being denied entry.
I could understand the city people. They had suffered greatly from the rage and envy of newcomers. And though it was insulting that they considered us — their closest neighbors, almost city people ourselves — intruders, still, we could understand them. And after all, they understood us. They didn’t drive us away. No matter what they wrote on their websites, they didn't drive us away.
Everyone understood, if they were honest, that it was not our fault we were left with no sky. On the contrary, it was a great honor for us, in a way. The marshals of the four coalitions chose our sky for their decisive battle because the sky over our village was the best in the world: calm and cloudless. The sun flowed through our sky like a wide, peaceful river. I remember them well, the sun and the sky. The marshals found this place ideal for the final battle. It’s not surprising. This was when all armies were airborne, and here there were no clouds, no turbulence. It was perfect.
In this science fiction oddity, it is easy to miss the comment on current and future evolving conflict: it is all aerial. This comment is reminiscent of theories developed and promulgated by thinkers like Giulio Douhet, Hugh Trenchard, and Billy Mitchell during the 1920s and 1930s. They proposed that the development of aircraft capability would make armies and navies irrelevant. In a world where all combat is in the air, then the air quality matters as the author notes.
The final point of note in these opening paragraphs is that the war was between four coalitions:
This was the first non-linear war. In the primitive wars of the nineteenth, twentieth, and other middle centuries, the fight was usually between two sides: two nations or two temporary alliances. But now, four coalitions collided, and it wasn’t two against two, or three against one. It was all against all.
The coalitions are morphing before and during the conflict. There is no linearity to combatants, objectives, or actions. When the author states that this is the first non-linear war, he is not referring to the geography or geometry alone. He is also referring to the personal relationships, organizational associations, and political/military objectives.
The commentary on contemporary war begins as he describes the primitive wars of the reader’s current era, when war was fought between two sides or two “temporary alliances.” In “Without Sky” the war was all against all.
And what coalitions they were! Not like the earlier ones. It was a rare state that entered the coalition intact. What happened was some provinces took one side, some took the other, and some individual city, or generation, or sex, or professional society of the same state — took a third side. And then they could switch places, cross into any camp you like, sometimes during battle.
The greatest complexity was the nature of combatants. They didn’t enter the war as a singular intact state. Rather, the states were divided in the conflict, since provinces, cities, generations, sexes, and professional societies could each take a side and even switch sides during the fighting into “any camp you like.” Here the author pokes fun at the West and its seemingly confusing gender issues. He will do this again in his following paragraph.
The author places emphasis on the role of corporations as well as pointing out the important role of non-state actors. I think that “professional societies” alludes to the critical role of business and business-like groups in promoting and sustaining conflict. The reference to generations gives insight into the emphasis of the Russian information apparatus to weaken trust in institutions across the West such that there are significant differences in generational perspectives of sources and definitions of truth.
The goals of those in conflict were quite varied. Each had his own, so to speak: the seizing of disputed pieces of territory; the forced establishment of a new religion; higher ratings or rates; the testing of new military rays and airships; the final ban on separating people into male and female, since sexual differentiation undermines the unity of the nation; and so forth.
If the ever-changing coalitions were confusing, then so were the goals. Here the author pokes the West again for its constantly changing expectations from war: was the war over weapons, or security, or resources? It is unclear. One could see in this story the confusion over U.S. objectives in Afghanistan, Iraq, or Syria, although involvement in Syria was rather new in 2014, when the story was first written.
The author lists several goals. One can see the reference to the perceived importance of Western media and business in the nod toward ratings and rates. The author places further emphasis on the role of industry in promoting war as he alludes to the use of the conflict as a testing ground for new military hardware. He gives another reference to gender issues by expressing it in an extreme position. It is worth noting that poking the West over gender-related issues is also done by ISIS in their video “And No Respite.”
The simple-hearted commanders of the past strove for victory. Now they did not act so stupidly. That is, some, of course, still clung to the old habits and tried to exhume from the archives old slogans of the type: victory will be ours. It worked in some places, but basically, war was now understood as a process, more exactly, part of a process, its acute phase, but maybe not the most important.
The author expresses that in contemporary conflict there is no victory. Only a simpleton would seek such a thing today. No surrender documents. No parades and ceremonies. One might argue that there is only the promotion of interests and influence. U.S. military doctrine uses a five-phase approach to understanding conflict, with actual combat coming in phase three. In essence, U.S. doctrine and “Without Sky” agree that the acute phase of war is only a particular part of the process of contemporary war.
Some peoples joined the war specifically to be defeated. They were inspired by the flowering of Germany and France after being routed in the second World War. It turned out that to achieve such a defeat was no simpler than achieving victory. Determination, sacrifice, and the extraordinary exertion of all forces were required, and, in addition, flexibility, cold-bloodedness, and the ability to profitably administer one’s own cowardice and dullness.
The 1959 movie The Mouse that Roared was a comedy with Peter Sellers about a very small country that sought to fight a war with the United States in order to be defeated and then rebuilt along the lines of the Marshall Plan. What the author of “Without Sky” suggests is that such behavior may be done in all seriousness. He also suggests that winning and losing are difficult in the kinds of “forever wars” that will exist in “Without Sky.” To win wars or even to lose them requires a Machiavellian cunning and willingness to commit and sacrifice in favor of the effort.
But all of this was realized and analyzed later by historians and economists. Then, it was just war, World War V, and rather horrifying. I was six. We were all six or younger, all who today enter the Society, who are thirty years old now. We remember how, from the four corners of our sky, the four great armadas swooped down. These were not roaring, screeching and howling airborne apparatus of the old kind, as we had become used to seeing in the video-archives. For the first time, the newest, absolutely silent technology was employed, with some kind of invisible systems of complete noise reduction.
Hundreds of thousands of airplanes, helicopters, and rockets destroyed each other throughout a day in the silence of the tomb. Even falling, they were silent. Sometimes dying pilots screamed out, but rarely, because almost all of the machines were pilotless.
At that time, automatic machinery was being hurriedly brought into general use, and not only in the field of transportation. They introduced hotels without staff, stores without sales people, homes without masters, financial and industrial firms without directors. Even a couple of “pilotless” governments were organized as a result of democratic revolutions, so airplanes were nothing to speak of.
As a result, there was no one to scream while crashing onto roofs, bridges and monuments. The only sound was the cracking and crackling of our homes as they were destroyed beneath the rain of falling debris. And it wasn’t loud. The systems of sound reduction were effective across almost the complete depth of the battlefield.
What were World War III and IV? One might consider the Global War on Terrorism to be World War III, but this suggests another sort of war between our time and the time of the short story.
I suggest that one needs to divorce oneself from the author’s reference to aircraft when considering the silence of present and future wars. Russia was able to invade Georgia in 2008 and Crimea in 2014 in near silence. Almost none of the daily events of the fighting against ISIS gets coverage in the media. War is effectively silent today except for those unfortunate enough to be crushed by the weight of the action.
The final form of silent warfare is cyberwar. Robots are silent. I know that many Air Force officers will argue that drones are not robots but, as far as the conflict area goes, they are effectively the same.
The increased use of self-driving cars and other autonomous systems for life and lifestyle are important to the societal commentary — what is life when no person does the activities of living? Is it life at all? Is it war if no one is doing the fighting and dying except for those poor victims who might be characterized as nothing more than collateral damage?
Our parents tried to shelter us in the city. Above the city, the sky was clear, but the city people closed the city. Our parents cried for help from our side of the river. They begged them to at least take the children, at least those younger than ten, or seven, or three. Or younger than one year old. Or only the girls. And so forth. The city people did not open the city, and we children could understand them. We understood our parents, too, of course, including my own.
My father said: they won’t let us in. We have to dig down. We burrowed into the riverbank sand, in a minute’s time, it seemed. Everyone did, even the fattest and oldest of us. People don’t know themselves well. It might seem strange, but we are, in fact, much more nimble and intelligent than worms. One detail: it was winter. Freezing. The sand was hard.
It is difficult when reading this paragraph not to think about the people in Syria, Eastern Ukraine, Mosul, and the Sahel region of Africa, who are effectively shut out of the cities of the West and the homes and personal devices of all the “civilized” people of the world. Those poor people are left to dig out their own shelter and protection within the challenges of the conflict zone. This connects back to the “silent” nature of modern warfare.
George Berkeley (1685-1753), the Bishop of Cloyne and a well-known Irish philosopher, posited the question that has morphed into: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound?” Here, “Without Sky” asks a version of that question by suggesting that if one does not perceive the suffering, then it does not actually exist.
Mama and Papa burrowed in together with me. They were warm and soft. Papa, a brave and clever man, brought some of my favorite candy from the house with him, a full pocket. And Mama bought my handheld game player. With it, I was happy and not bored in our burrow, so my time passed splendidly. The tail of an airplane fell on us, towards evening.
The fighter aircraft of the Northern Coalition were super-light, made of almost weightless materials. Even if an entire one of these fighters fell on us, the whole airplane, it would not have caused us serious harm. And Papa had dug us in pretty deep.
The place where we were hidden attracted the tail of another airplane. Unfortunately, it was an attack aircraft of the Southeastern League, an older plane, relatively silent, but heavy. Our burrow was deep, but not as deep as the tail of the attack fighter was heavy. The sand above us was frozen solid, but all the same, it was sand, not concrete, not steel, not the shawl of Our Lady: sand. And sand is not steel. I learned this well then, once and for all. And to this day, wake me up in the middle of the night and ask me: Is sand steel or not? I will answer: No! On the run, not pausing for a minute to think, not doubting. No.
I lay between Mama and Papa and didn’t hear the blow. It’s possible that Papa made some funny quacking sound when the excessive weight crushed him, or he swore coarsely. One time he had yelled out something of the sort in front of me and frightened me.
It’s possible that my mother also let out some kind of sound, but not necessarily. I’m not sure she even had time for a guilty smile, like the one she always had when something unpleasant happened to Papa or me. I hope it wasn’t painful.
They were killed. I wasn’t. Death wound round their bodies but didn’t reach mine. My brain was just touched by its black and stifling presence. Something boiled out of my brain and evaporated: the third dimension, height.
What is happening to the children in present conflict zones? Are they suffering the boiling of their third dimension? As one reads further, that dimension is more than a spatial conception. It is also the ability to appreciate the details of life — the treasures of the Enlightenment or the scientific revolution or the benefits of a liberal arts education. The poetry of this story can help one consider the tragedies and opportunities of present conflict. The children living in the refugee camps in whatever country where they reside present the possibility to engage with the future country. They are a time machine: the ability to change something that hasn’t happened yet. The unfortunate reality is that we view these children as the present. In ten years, these same people will either be friends or enemies of the West.
When they dug me out in the morning, chilled to the bone because my parents had quickly grown cold and become like the sand, I saw a two-dimensional world, endless in length and width, but without height. Without sky. Where is it, I asked? It’s right there, they answered. I don’t see it, don’t see it! I became frightened.
They gave me treatment, but didn’t cure me. This kind of contusion, severe, can’t be cured. The tail of the attack fighter crushed my consciousness into a pancake. It became flat and simple. What do I see in place of the sky above our village? Nothing. What does it look like? What does it resemble? It looks like nothing, resembles nothing. It’s not that this is incommunicable, inexpressible. There’s nothing of that. There’s just nothing.
After the war there were about fifty other cripples like me. All of us, the two-dimensionals, turned out to be the same age. Why? No one knew. The city scientists dug around in our consciousness for a while. They wrote a few treatises. They dragged us around to symposiums and talk-shows. Several foundations were organized on our behalf. Laughing at us was forbidden by a special law. They built an observation platform for us and a charitable institution. Then we went out of fashion and they forgot all about us.
The West was horrified by the image of a dead Syrian child on a Turkish beach in September 2015. For several months refugee policies, the attitudes of national leaders, and the emotions of populations changed. Just as with the two-dimensionals, so it was with the refugees: the interest in what made them different from those of us “in the city” or, more accurately, in the West, faded as the refugees “went out of fashion.”
If it was only that we didn’t see the sky above our village, that would be nothing, but our very thoughts lost the concept of height. We became two-dimensional. We understood only “yes” and “no,” only “black” and “white.” There was no ambiguity, no half-tones, no saving graces. We did not know how to lie.
We understood everything literally, and that meant we were absolutely unsuited for life, helpless. We required constant care, but they abandoned us. They wouldn’t let us work. They wouldn’t pay us a disability pension. Many of us deteriorated, fell and perished. The rest of us organized ourselves to stay afloat, to save ourselves together or perish together.
We founded the Society and prepared a revolt of the simple, two-dimensionals against the complex and sly, against those who do not answer “yes” or “no,” who do not say “white” or “black,” who know some third word, many, many third words, empty, deceptive, confusing the way, obscuring the truth. In these shadows and spider webs, in these false complexities, hide and multiply all the villainies of the world. They are the House of Satan. That’s where they make bombs and money, saying: “Here’s money for the good of the honest; here are bombs for the defense of love.”
We will come tomorrow. We will conquer or perish. There is no third way.
The final portion of this story is the most frightening if this is, in fact, how the author views the West. We are the three-dimensional people. We use words without hard meaning. We believe in ways of conflict that aren’t conflict — lawfare or media operations or information operations.
Much has been said and written of the Gerasimov Doctrine. Supposedly, the senior Russian military officer expressed a conception of a new way of warfare that is dominated by information and deception. The important point is that the Russians believe that the West started this non-war warfare.
If one reads The Management of Savagery by Abu Bakr Naji, then one will see a reference to a media halo. The idea that there is a false conception of reality created by the media environment. Abu Bakr Naji states that destroying this media halo is essential to defeating the West. Essentially, the author of “Without Sky” is making a similar argument. This falseness of conflict needs to be returned to the simplicity of power versus weakness: the Melian Dialogue where might is right.
I am uncertain how much this short story reflects the thinking and intentions of Russian leadership. It may simply be fiction. However, the references to actions and means of behavior that are observable in the present give one pause for consideration. I strongly encourage everyone to read and consider the meaning and possible ramifications for the present and future of conflict.
I want to thank Bill Bowler and Bewildering Stories for the English version of the story and permission to quote it extensively.
Copyright © 2018 by Brian L. Steed