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Massaraksh!

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky with the Soviet Union in the Background

The expression means “World Inside Out!” It is the most frequently used expression in Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s great novel of the Noonday Universe, Prisoners of Power (Обитаемый остров, 1969). Over the years, I have read twelve of their works, most of which were excellent or better. The best by far, though, is Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине, 1972), which was made into an equally great movie by Andrei Tarkovsky called Stalker (1979).

Both are dead now (Arkady in 1991 and Boris in 2012), and only slowly is the world beginning to realize what it has lost. It is not easy to find their works in print (except for Roadside Picnic); it is only on the top floor of the Los Angeles Central Library that I am finding a treasure trove of their work. And I will read them all, making my way through their collection like a Beetle in the Anthill (Жук в муравейнике, 1980) —itself the title of another Strugatsky work.

In the first paragraph, I referred to the Noonday Universe, which is a theme of about half the Strugatsky novels I have read. According to Wikipedia:

The victory of communism and the advance of technological progress on the Earth of the Noon Universe resulted in an over-abundance of resources and eliminated the need for most types of manual labor.

Mankind is capable of near-instantaneous interstellar travel. Earth social organization is presumably communist, and can be described as a highly technologically advanced anarchistic meritocracy. There is no state structure, no institutionalized coercion (no police etc.), yet functioning of the society is safeguarded by raising everyone as responsible individuals, with guidance of a set of High Councils accepted by everyone in each particular field of activity.

One of the controversial occupations is progressor. They are agents embedded in less advanced humanoid civilizations in order to accelerate their development or resolve their problems. Progressors’ methods range from rescuing local scientists and artists to overthrowing local governments.

The main governing body is the World Council, composed of the brightest scientists, historians, doctors and teachers. The local matters are handled by the regional versions of the council. Planetary councils are present on each Earth colony (e.g. [Far] Rainbow), as well, although “colony” in this context refers to a planet that wasn’t home to any sentient life before the arrival of Terran settlers. In the Noon Universe, Earth has never attempted to seize permanent control over any other civilization.

The universe is populated by a number of sentient races. Some of them are humanoid, while others are so alien that humanity didn’t realize that they were sentient for decades. Several sentient races maintain diplomatic relations with Earth’s society. Many planets in Noon Universe are inhabited by races identical to humans in all but minor genetic differences. It has been speculated that they were humans who wound up on other worlds due to the Wanderers’ manipulations (as Beetle in the Anthill shows, that is hardly unprecedented).

The Wanderers are the most mysterious race in the Noon Universe. Technologically advanced and highly secretive, the Wanderers are suspected to manipulate sentient beings throughout Noon Universe for their own purposes. While those purposes were never clarified, it was hinted that they try to “progress” various sentient beings.

The Noonday Universe is a kind of allegorical device used by the Strugatsky Brothers to subtly disguise a critique of the Soviet system in a fashion that has been described as Aesopic. For instance, the world in Prisoners of Power is crippled by a stupid bureaucracy. The Earthman Maxim Kammerer, whose spaceship is stranded on the nameless planet, is immune to many of the methods used by the “Creators” to keep their people under their control, and even survives several bullets which he simply “passes.” Eventually, he allies himself to the society’s underground and dedicates himself to toppling the control mechanisms that keep the people prisoners of power.

I have read the following Strugatsky titles over the years:

  • Space Apprentice (Стажеры, 1962)
  • Escape Attempt (Попытка к бегству, 1962) *
  • Far Rainbow (Далёкая Радуга, 1963), the first one I read and still one of my favorites *
  • Hard to Be a God (Трудно быть богом, 1964) *
  • The Final Circle of Paradise (Хищные вещи века, 1965)
  • The Second Invasion from Mars (Второе нашествие марсиан, 1967)
  • Prisoners of Power (Обитаемый остров, 1969) *
  • The Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (Отель «У Погибшего Альпиниста», 1970)
  • Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине, 1972), definitely the best of the bunch
  • Definitely Maybe (За миллиард лет до конца света, 1977)
  • Beetle in the Anthill (Жук в муравейнике, 1980) *
  • The Time Wanderers (Волны гасят ветер, 1986) *

The titles above appearing with asterisks are considered to be part of the Noon Universe series. Of the Strugatsky Brothers’ twenty-seven novels, only some four have not appeared in English translations.

4 thoughts on “Massaraksh!

  1. I have read Roadside Picnic and have seen the film, and I agree: both are excellent. I had no idea that they had an extensive series, partially because I seldom see anything about their work. However I will search around for more of their works, especially the Noon Universe.

    Excellent review.

    M John has a similar concept in his _Nova Swing_

    “next to the city is the event site, the zone, from out of which pour new, inexplicable artefacts, organisms and escapes of living algorithm – the wrong physics loose in the universe.”
    There is even a special unit of the local police whose job it is to stop people from entering the zone and bringing stuff out.

  2. Would it be best to read the Noon Universe in publication order? Is there a significant chronological flow to the series?

    I found three in book format at the local library: It’s Hard to be a God; The Doomed City, and The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn.

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