Good news for Strugatsky fans: a brief, adroit novel founded, like the best of their work, on a tantalizingly glimpsed hypothesis rather than reams of science-fiction explanations. In an unnamed town in a land ruled by an Orwellian ""Mr. President,"" mysterious causes have produced two years of unceasing rain and turned the local schoolchildren into a cadre of advanced beings who regard their human progenitors with benevolent detachment. Their metamorphosis seems to be bound up with the simultaneous plague of ""yellow leprosy"" which has left unknown numbers of bandaged victims (""slimies"") wandering about the town in apparent communication with the children. Victor Banev, well-known novelist, has come back from the capital to the stricken town to be near his ex-wife and their newly transformed daughter; this mission of moral support quickly takes the form of hanging around the hotel bar with a gaggle of cronies alcoholically trying to put two and two together. The denouement may remind some of Childhood's End, but the Strugatskys are vastly more resourceful and energetic novelists than Clarke. Witty, economical, and provocative.