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.

Unutterably Alien

Arkady (1925-1991) and Boris (1933-2012) Strugatsky, the World’s Greatest Sci-Fi Writers

There is something about these two Russian brothers: They wrote the simply most incredible science fiction novels. I am thinking particularly of Roadside Picnic (Пикник на обочине), writen in 1972. At some time in the past, parts of Earth were visited by one or more bands of interstellar travelers. They left their mark on the places they have stayed—in strange, unaccountable ways. Nowhere is there a description of the visitors: no one alive has ever seen them. But the laws of matter and energy don’t seem to work there any more.

The novel was turned into a film by fellow Russian Andrei Tarkovsky in 1979. The film was called Stalker, and it was one of the greatest films produced anywhere in that decade. The film so influenced Geoff Dyer that he wrote a book in 2012 called Zona about his memories of the movie.

Scene from Tarkovsky’s Stalker

This is some powerful stuff. Those two brothers had some freaky visions that could so influence so many follow-on works. I am currently reading one of their earlier works, Space Apprentice (Стажеры) (1962). It’s not quite the level of Roadside Picnic, but it is fascinating.

While we’re on the subject of Eastern European sci-fi writers, I thought I’d put in a word for Poland’s Stanisław Lem , author of Eden (1959). In that novel, the earthling explorers go to a strange new world, where they are ignored. The protagonists can make nothing whatsoever of the local inhabitants.

Triptych

Last Scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film Stalker

Last Scene from Andrei Tarkovsky’s Film Stalker

The following is adapted from my review of Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room as posted to Goodreads.Com.

What we have here is a triptych: three linked works of art, one loosely based on the other. First there was Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic (1972), perhaps the most memorable of the Russian brothers’ science fiction novels. Then came Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker (1979), ostensibly based on it and, in fact, employing the Strugatsky brothers as screenwriters. Now there is Geoff Dyer’s long essay entitled Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room. This last is in a genre by itself, an extended commentary retelling the story of the film with lengthy footnoted riffs about how the film has impacted Dyer’s life and imagination.

All three works are masterpieces in their own right. I have now read both books as well as seen the film, and I yearn to reacquaint myself with all three of them.

Is there something perhaps a little perverse about writing a ruminative essay about something that comes from something else. Have we somehow put ourselves too many removes from the original work by the Strugatsky brothers? Or does it matter, inasmuch as both Stalker and Zona are totally absorbing, as was Roadside Picnic.

Perhaps I should draw back a little and give you some idea of the world of the composite work of art I think of as “The Roadside Stalker Zone.” We are some time in the future, in a grimy post-industrial wasteland in a small country near an area once visited by extraterrestrials who just happened, for whatever reason, to leave strange inexplicable things behind—including a room in a deserted building which, if you enter it, grants all your innermost desires. (Never mind that the only known person to have visited it, a man code-named Porcupine, hanged himself shortly thereafter.)

These zones formerly visited by the extraterrestrials (who have all moved on without getting their visas stamped) have been sealed off by the authorities. But there is an active group of individuals called stalkers who, in contravention of the law, take people to visit the zones and perhaps bring some things back—things which are marvelous and inexplicable. The children of these stalkers are themselves strange, like Monkey, the film’s Stalker’s daughter (shown above), who has the power of telekinesis, which we do not learn until the very end of the film.

Stalker takes two individuals, referred to in the film only as Professor and Writer, into the zone. Their journey is a journey of self-discovery. Do they enter the room? I do not wish to spoil the story for you, so I urge you to consume the entire triptych, in order of publication or release, to come to the same realization that I have arrived at: That Geoff Dyer is a phenomenal writer whose work I am going to enjoy reading in the months and years to come.