Arkadii (Natanovich) Strugatskii Essay - Critical Essays

Strugatskii, Arkadii (Natanovich)


Arkadii (Natanovich) Strugatskii 1925– Boris (Natanovich) Strugatskii 1933–

(Also transliterated as Arkady Strugatsky) Russian science fiction writer, editor, and translator.

(Also transliterated as Boris Strugatsky) Russian science fiction writer.

Combining the literary talents of Arkadii, who has worked as an editor and translator of Japanese and English literature, and the scientific expertise of Boris, an astronomer, astrophysicist, and computer mathematician, the Strugatskii brothers have produced high quality science fiction, popular both in their homeland and abroad. They began writing in the post-Stalin era when Ivan Efremov's Andromeda reinvigorated science fiction in Russia and when constraints on writers were gradually eased. Unlike Efremov, who emphasized technology and adventure, the Strugatskiis explore social themes and ethics, speculate on social evolution, and depict the degrading effects of bureaucracy. Even though their future worlds reveal the expansion of Communism, their less than optimistic projections of social evolution and their satirization of bureaucracy have led to censorship of some of their works. These works have remained in circulation through samizdat, an underground system for spreading dissident works.

The early works of the Strugatskiis are set in a "future history" framework, a device used by several Western science fiction writers. These stories are characterized by the conflict between utopian ideals and historical obstacles. In Trudno byt' bogom; Ponedel'nik nachinaetsia v subbotu (1966; Hard to Be a God), for example, a protagonist is sent to a planet steeped in war in order to intervene and effect social change but finds himself powerless to do so. The more primitive alien society is unwilling, perhaps unable, to accept new values. Typical of the Strugatskiis's work, Hard to Be a God presents an intricate dilemma for which there is no easy resolution. Later works are more satirical, being especially critical of the presumption that humans can control the universe.

The Strugatskiis's refusal to neatly resolve complex problems, unlike most science fiction writers, has helped them win international acclaim. Their tendency to leave the reader pondering the implications of their stories, their poignant observations of human aspirations and failings, and the humor that infuses their work have made them a popular writing partnership in contemporary science fiction.

(See also Contemporary Authors, Vol. 106.)

Marc Slonim

The brothers Arkady and Boris Strugatski, popular Soviet science-fiction writers, are often compared to Ray Bradbury. Their first novel, "The Country of Purple Clouds," which depicted a flight to Venus, was very popular in Russia in 1959 and was followed by other highly successful visions of the future and its technological complexities.

Lately, however, the brothers … seem to have taken a new tack. "The Hellenic Secret" (1966) and "The Martians' Second Invasion" (1967) were sharply criticized in the Soviet press as negative in outlook and politically ambiguous. These accusations probably led the Strugatskis to take refuge in the Siberian magazines Angara and Baikal; but the editors of these two periodicals were recently demoted for having published heretical works by the brothers, "The Troika Fairy Tale" and "The Snail on the Slope." The latter provoked the Moscow censors to such wrath that the offending issue of the magazine in which it appeared is unobtainable in libraries or bookstores.

"The Snail on the Slope" is a caricature of Soviet bureaucracy represented by a fantastic "Office of Forest Affairs," with departments of Scientific Security, Mechanical Penetration and Extermination and their numerous subsections that serve to conceal inefficiency and hypocrisy under the disguise of haste and bustle, useless paper work and idiotic orders. When an outsider, the idealistic scholar Perec, arrives to study the hidden forest, he finds the area neglected and laid waste. Drawn into the absurd machinery of the Office of Forest Affairs, Perec goes through a series of astounding adventures and learns the truth about the nightmarish institution. Pravda called this merciless satire "a libel on and defamation of Soviet reality." Refusing to take "The Snail on the Slope" as a simple fantasy, it stressed the political implications of the story's most grotesque and whimsical scenes.

Marc Slonim, "Soviet Satire," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1970 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 13, 1970, p. 71.

T. A. Shippey

In several ways [Hard To Be a God] falls straight into an identifiable American [science fiction] sub-genre: the feudal planet on which agents of the advanced civilisation of Earth have the job of leading the natives anonymously to progress. Just like Poul Anderson or Lloyd Biggle or a dozen others, the Strugatskis make straight for a set of connected themes—the difficulty of changing belief-systems, the way in which innovations are misunderstood, the obstinate habit slaves have of understanding their masters better than their liberators, the danger that revolutions can turn out to be cyclic rather than spiral. Is this derivation, or parallel evolution? The question hardly matters, for in spite of the similarities of narrative convention the Russian novel remains wholly different both in tone and ideology from its American analogues.

Probably the main non-English feature is the implied theory of history. The protagonist Anton (or Don Rumata) in fact opposes his superiors of the Institute of Experimental History in wanting to become involved, to intervene in the processes of class-warfare and the decline of feudalism; but even he believes in the inevitability of those processes and wants only to speed them up. His situation, then, is that of an Orwell, unable to reconcile what he knows about the front line with what he is told back at base, and right at the end, indeed, he expresses a philosophy close to that of Animal...

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Darko Suvin

[The Strugatskii brothers] have created without doubt the most significant Soviet Science Fiction (further SF) after 1958. (p. 454)

The first phase of the Strugatskiis is—except for a few early stories—a "future history" system formally similar to the science-fictional model of Jules Verne's cycles or of newer U.S. writers such as Heinlein and Asimov. It is a not quite systematic series of novels and stories with interlocking characters and locations progressing from the end of the twentieth to the twenty-second century, realistically conveying life on a predominantly communist (classless) earth and human relations in explorations on and between the planets of the Solar system and some nearer stars. [Ivan] Efremov's monolithic leaders and huge exploits were here supplanted by young explorers and scientists finding romance in their everyday pioneering tasks. Retaining the utopian sense of absolute ethical involvement and personal honor, even the Strugatskiis' early protagonists—at times moody or vain, tired or capricious—were much more lifelike than the usual cardboard or marble figures in most Soviet SF. Together with the vividly depicted and variegated surroundings, the sure touch for detail and the adventure-packed action leading to some ethical choice, this immediately brought the young authors to the forefront of Soviet SF. But from good juvenile-adventure SF they quickly passed to a richer form in which the adventure level serves as vehicle for socio-philosophical exploration and understanding.

This first Strugatskii cycle is still fairly idyllic. Except for the occasional egotistic and capitalist survivals, conflicts take place—as they formulated it—"between the good and the better," i.e., within absolute and generally accepted ethics. Thus, the only fundamental conflict left is the epic adventure of man faced with and conquering nature as a "collective Robinson."… Yet at the end of the cycle—in The Apprentices and some stories such as Wanderers and Travellers, The Puzzle of the Hind Foot, and The Rendez-Vous—an element of open-ended doubt and of darkness enters into these somewhat aseptically bright horizons. Some protagonists die or retire, and some "come home" from cosmic jaunts to Earth and its problems. Though the future is still envisaged as a golden arrested moment of "noon," historical time with its puzzles, pain, and potentialities of regress begins to seep in as shadows of postmeridial experience lengthen. This adventure model is interlarded with quotations from neo-romantic poets such as R. L. Stevenson and Bagritskii. In the second phase, an adult exploration of a more complex and painful world concentrates, as one of its novels has it, on the "predatory things of our age"—a title appropriately enough taken from Russia's major poetic exploration of relationships in such a world by Voznesenskii.

The dialectics of innocence and experience, of utopian ethics and historical obstacles on the way to their enthronement provides henceforth the main tension and pathos of the Strugatskiis' opus. In their second phase they went about finding the proper form for such dialectics. The black horizon of a history where slavery and high technology go together appears in An Attempted Escape, though only as an exception (a backward planet) within the utopian universe of the first phase. In this work the Strugatskiis are still defensive about their new tack. Even stylistically, it is halfway between the careful realism of the extrapolative-utopian cycle and a new parable form, so that it reads as a first sketch for It's Hard to be a God. The protagonist—an escapee from Nazi concentration camps—and the paradoxical society are even less motivated than Mark Twain's Yankee in Camelot. Nonetheless, this story introduces the first full-fledged conflict of utopian innocence and twentieth-century experience using the highly effective device of a protagonist caught in a blind alley of history.

The first two masterpieces of the Strugatskiis are the long story Far Rainbow and the novel It's Hard to be a God. In both of them extrapolation gives way to a clearly focussed analogic or parabolic model of mature SF. In both, utopian ethics are put to the test of anti-utopian darkness, of an inhuman and apparently irresistible wave of destruction. (pp. 456-57)

It's Hard to be a God amounts to a Bildungsroman where the reader is the hero, learning together with the protagonist the nature of painful conflict between utopian human values—always the fixed Polar Star for the Strugatskiis—and the terrible empirical pressures of mass egotism, slavery to petty passions, and conformism. Under such pressures the great majority of people turn to religious fanaticism, mass murder or apathy…. Outside interference cannot liberate a people without introducing a new benevolent dictatorship: the Earthling "gods" are both ethically obliged and historically powerless to act. The true enemy is within each man: Slavery and Reason, narrow-minded class psychology and the axiological reality of a classless future, are still fighting it out, in a variant of Dostoevskii's Grand Inquisitor confrontation. The Strugatskiis' mature opus retains the utopian abhorrence of "the terrible ghosts of the past" and belief in the necessity of a humanized future, but it is also intensely aware of the defeats humanity has suffered since the heyday of utopianism in the early 1920's. Thus, from this time on their work takes its place with the insights of best SF—of Wells, London, and others—into the dangers of social devolution: it is a warning without pat answers, a bearing of witness, and "an angry pamphlet against tyranny, violence, indifference, against the philistinism which gives rise to dictatorships" (Revich). Even further, it is a significant rendering of tragic utopian activism, akin in many ways to the ethico-historiosophical (geschichtsphilosophisch) visions of the best Hemingway and of poets like Brecht (the protagonist's dilemma in this novel is not too dissimilar from that in The Measures Taken), Okudzhava, or Voznesenskii. It is no wonder this novel has become the most popular SF...

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Roadside Picnic is a "first contact" story with a difference. Aliens have visited the earth and gone away again, leaving behind them several landing areas (now called The Zones) littered with their refuse. The picnickers have gone; the packrats, wary but curious, approach the crumpled bits of cellophane, the glittering fliptops from beercans, and try to carry them home to their holes …

Some of the mystifying and dangerous debris proves useful—eternal batteries which power automobiles—but the scientists never know if they are using the devices for their proper purpose, or employing (as it were) Geiger counters as hand-axes and electronic components as nose-rings. They cannot figure out...

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Algis Budrys

The Strugatskys are among the most Westernized sources of Eastern European SF, and normally their work thus rings familiarly upon the ears of the American aficionado. But competitive pressure from Poland's Stanislaw Lem has apparently sent them back in search of their roots. The result in [the case of Definitely Maybe] is a story that combines the gloomy desperation of Yevgeny Zamyatin's seminal We with a Lem-like satirical strain expressed as slapstick humor.

The proposition is that the universe can sense attempted reversals of entropy—the grand thanatopsical running-down of all energy to the state of matter at Absolute Zero. The Strugatskys postulate that the universe wants it that...

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Stanislaw Lem

The Strugatskys and I both started with a tone of "happy futuristic optimism" and gradually arrived at a darker vision of things…. My pessimism (which, by the way, is far from absolute) originated with my despair in the lack of perfection to be found in human nature; the Strugatskys' on the other hand was a rather social type of despair…. [The Strugatskys] have tried very hard to turn their books into a kind of instrument of righteousness. I can even perceive a positive correlation between the very weakness of some of their titles and their stated intention of socially improving the "state of affairs" (The Ugly Swans, seen by them as an act of defiance and rehabilitation, attempts to present in a favourable...

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George Zebrowski

In the short time since its publication in English, Roadside Picnic has established itself as an important novel…. The hunting trips through this alien refuse area are fascinating. The effect of the unknown on the lives of the stalkers, scientists and townspeople is moving, often heartbreaking. What makes the story work are the human reactions and relationships, the sudden details that startle the reader but are part of the normal world of the story. The characters accept their world with all its changes, and so do we.

At one point a character speculates on the notion of reason as an explicit form of instinct, through which we approach and assimilate the unknown. It occurred to me as...

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C. R. Pike

Since the late 1950s, [Arkady and Boris Strugatsky] have gradually fashioned a body of original and enlightened works of speculative literature. Remarkable in their perception of the conflicts between the individual and technology, between man and the universe which may or may not be his, the Strugatskys' stories and novels have achieved a unique status within Soviet literature and now deserve the attention of Western readers….

[Far Rainbow is] satisfying as straightforward science fiction. Well-intentioned, but monomaniac scientists corrupt a tranquil planet with their "zero-T" experiments which finally release the lethal black Wave. The Strugatskys here quickly build a neat plot into a...

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Gerald Jonas

[The stories of the Strugatsky brothers] present a curious blend of action and introspection. Their protagonists are often caught up in adventures not unlike those of pulp-fiction heroes, but the story line typically veers off in unpredictable directions, and the intellectual puzzles that animate the plots are rarely resolved. Their writing has an untidiness that is finally provocative; they open windows in the mind and then fail to close them all, so that, putting down one of their books, you feel a cold breeze still lifting the hairs on the back of your neck.

This sense of proximity to deeper mysteries is oddly underscored by reading the Strugatskys' fiction in translation. Unlike Stanislaw Lem,...

(The entire section is 525 words.)