In October 2002, Islamist extremists took 850 people hostage in a Moscow theatre demanding the withdrawal of Russian forces from Chechnya. Authorities came up with a seemingly ingenious plan to flush out the militants without harming hostages. A chemical gas (thought to be weaponised fentanyl) was delivered through the buildings ventilation system. Acting effectively as an aerosol anaesthetic, the bold plan worked to the extent that all forty of the attackers were killed. The unintended effect however was that 130 hostages also died due to adverse reactions to the gas.
This dramatic event really happened. The situations described in Holly Ice’s THE RUSSIAN SLEEP EXPERIMENT are by contrast fictional, yet to the same extent detail what can happen when a gas experiment involving ‘an undisclosed chemical agent’ goes disastrously off the rails.
This 122 page novella is an attempt to add extended characterisation to a fictional story that has been circulating on internet sites (including UrbanLegends.com) for many years which itself sprung from a series of real life sleep deprivation experiments conducted in late 1940’s Soviet Union Russia.
The story’s opening sees political prisoners in a Russian Gulag promised their freedom in exchange for agreeing to participate in an experiment involving the inhalation of gas that ‘denies the subject sleep for thirty days’. (The Australian National Sleep Research Project lists the record for observed time without sleep for a human being as 18 days, 21 hours and 40 minutes.) The four volunteers who step forward are warned the gas is known to have a number of side effects other than the intended insomnia. Without going into spoiler alert, it’s possible to observe that the startling news this week from the medical fraternity that Alzheimer’s disease may in fact be contagious and be able to be spread on contact holds a not entirely unrelated parallel here.
Events are delivered via a first person narrator who changes throughout the story, beginning first with Mikhail - one of the prisoners - and later moving to Dr Glukhov, the head scientist conducting the experiment. The language used to unfold events alternates between straightforward and unadorned to poetic (“Valdis put his hands up in surrender but a tick leapt in his brow” p58) to an unfortunate tendency to the melodramatic. A heavy pall, befitting the settings as well as the theme of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which emerges in the final third of the story, lingers over every page.
Not so much FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE but more From Russia with Loathing – with an extra garnishing of madness, paranoia and blisters amply supplied.
Holly Ice, who it should be made clear is in no way related to the West Indian religious rights activist Holy Water, is an up and coming young writer who is to be applauded for taking on and largely doing justice to an ambitious and indeed fabled story and writing project such as this.