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'The Great Glass Sea' sets an imaginative tale in a near-future ruled by oligarchs

Yvonne ZippThe Christian Science Monitor

As a symbol of oppression, a greenhouse, with its warmth and light, is an unlikely choice.

But in his story of two Russian brothers divided by the panes of glass, The Great Glass Sea, Josh Weil handily turns his into an inexorable, glittering behemoth, which shrivels shadows, night, and the natural order in its unending glare.Dmitry Lvovich Zhuvov (Dima) and Yaroslav Lvovich Zhuvov (Yarik) are twins in their 30s in the fictional town of Petroplavisk in a near-future ruled by oligarchs.

The weekend has been abolished and everyone works 12-hour-shifts or risks being locked up in The Dachas, a ghetto of weekend cottages formerly owned by Soviet apparatchiks. Dima and Yarik, who used to be fishermen like their father, lay panes of glass for the Oranzheria, which is covering their city like a second sky. “[I]t spread northward from the lakeshore, creeping over the land like a glacier in reverse: the largest greenhouse in the world.”

Space mirrors, called zerkala, are perpetually aimed at the city like sci-fi heat lamps, holding the long Russian winter and night itself at bay.

“No long months of winter brooding, darkness drawn of Petroplavisk like goose down. No twilight melancholy, no dreaminess of dusk. No midnight urge to lie on dewy grass between the trolley lines inhaling the summer’s scent,” Weil writes. “No evening-ushered crime spike. No streetlamps. No car headlights. No night.”

While it’s been a boon for productivity, the Oranzheria has wreaked havoc on flora and fauna alike. Arctic foxes forget to turn white, geese forget to fly south for the winter, confused roosters never crow, and ironically, nothing can grow except the bioengineered seeds. In the apartment Dima shares with his mother, who has retreated into dementia, the balconies have plastic sunflowers as a neat bit of decoration/symbolism.

As they build, the brothers dream about buying their uncle’s old farm, which is currently out of the reach of the mirrors. Their story-telling, pipe-smoking uncle took them in when they were nine and their father died and their mother went temporarily mad with grief. Out there, roosters can still crow, the lupines, birches, and larches haven’t died off and a small farmer could still grow potatoes and cucumbers.

Or rather, Dima dreams and tells his dreams to Yarik. Yarik has a wife and two children and his focus isn’t as resolutely on the past as his brother, but sure, a farm, someday, might be nice for the kids.

After an encounter with their billionaire bosses high on a crane, the twins are forcibly separated.

Yarik begins to receive promotion after promotion as the literal poster-child of the new society. Dima, on the other hand, quits and spends his days riding buses and reciting Pushkin’s epic poem, “Ruslan and Ludmila,” standing atop a statue of Peter the Great in a park.

Communists and anarchists alike want to use Dima as a symbol of their movement, but he belongs to a far older Russian order: the holy fools. Walking the streets in his tattered coats, Dima looks like a skinny Old Testament prophet. His main companion is his rooster, a Golden Phoenix with six-feet-long plumes who could have been plucked from a Pushkin fairy tale.

"Now he haunted all of Petroplavilsk on foot," Weil writes. "His beard blowing, his hair a tattered flag, his cheekbones hard and thin as the edges of a soup bowl, his eyes in the sun so blue."

The poignancy of lost fraternal love and a longing for simple things might sound harmless enough, but the oligarchs are having none of it. The second half of “The Great Glass Sea” has a feeling of dread hanging over it as solid as those panes of glass but far more opaque.

As a writer, Weil conjures up image after image of great beauty and melancholy: two boys alone in a rowboat at night, off to kill the mythical creature that swallowed their father’s soul (at least, before they lost the oars). Some of them, like a lone figure skating atop the Oranzheria, have an indelible originality.

On the downside, this can cause the plot to drag, especially in the middle section. But “The Great Glass Sea” is a work of great ambition and imagination, capped off by an ending that manages to evade any pat answers without eradicating hope.