Strugatsky Brothers: Science Fiction

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

The Strugatsky brothers, Boris and Arkadii, rode the crest of the science fiction wave in 1973. Writing in a genre under an official cloud since the days of Stalin, the Strugatskys amassed a large audience at home and abroad for their novels. Their early works, such as Noon: 22nd Century (1962), offered a sunny exaltation of science that was attuned Soviet rationalism; The Way to Amaltheia (1962) featured intrepid cosmonauts that appealed to readers in the age of Gagarin. Later works however featured a psychological depth and sense of individual alienation that made them, in the context of Soviet literature, works of social criticism. Roadside Picnic (1972), tells of a mysterious Zone in Canada where enigmatic artifacts can be found. Their origins are unknown, though they seem to be otherworldly; more oddly still, nobody seems to question where they come from. The book contains no direct social critique, but its picture of a purposeless world of alienation rang true to Soviet readers, enough so that it was adapted onto screen by experimental director Andrei Tarkovskii under the title Stalker (1979). In the film the smuggler Stalker is a guide across a waste land to the Room, an ominous place where secret wishes are granted.

As the Strugatskys wrote the novel that would inspire his second science fiction movie, Tarkovskii was filming his first, Solaris (1972), based on Stanislaw Lem’s novel of 1961. Lem was Eastern Europe’s leading science fiction writer, aided by the relative cultural openness of his native Poland. His distinctive style, dubbed soft science fiction when its influence gained currency in the west, eschewed the naive awe of science that had characterized early science fiction, with its fantastic adventures, fancy technological, and dreams of a better future, for a more somber world in which human flaws were still prevalent. For Lem and others, questioning scientific rationalism was an effective way to question the rational principles of socialism. Solaris is a mysterious planet probed by earth scientists and cosmonauts. Covered by a living ocean capable of controlled chemical transformations, the planet communicates with the explorers by means of projected mental images. The hero of the novel is greeted by an image of his young wife, a recent suicide, and in confronting the image, comes to doubt the fabric of reality, or the possibility of rational choice. In his movie, Tarkovskii emphasized further the difficulty of any two beings communicating, whether they be alien life forms or husband and wife.

The distinctive Eastern European brand of science fiction spawned by Lem and cultivated by the Strugatsky exerted great influence in the west. In a way they were reestablishing the tradition of socially-critical science fiction begun by Aleksandr Bogdanov and continued in the 1920s by Aleksandr Beliaev. If science fiction was a massively popular form of Soviet literature in 1973, one that inspired unease among literary officials and captured a readership much broader than traditional science fiction, it was because it functioned as dissidence of a different sort.

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