Last column, we looked at the life of Polish author Stanislaw Lem, who's best known for his novel Solaris. Looking at his career is an excellent starting point for examining how science fiction existed outside of the North American and British marketplaces. Throughout the Cold War, a number of other authors were putting words to paper across Europe, and especially in the Soviet Union. The best known science fiction authors from the USSR are a pair of brothers: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who enjoyed an enormous amount of popularity in Russia and beyond her borders.
Arkady Strugatsky was born on August 28, 1925, in Batumi, Georgia. The family eventually moved from the balmy shores of the Black Sea to the frigid north of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on the Baltic Sea, where, eight years later, they welcomed another member of their family. Boris Strugatsky was born on April 15, 1933. In a few short years, however, the family would be torn apart as World War II erupted throughout Europe and the Soviet Union. On September 8, 1941, the Siege of Leningrad began as the German military moved in on the city. Arkady and Boris, who were 16 and 8 respectively, and the family made some drastic measures to ensure their safety. Boris and his mother, Aleksandra Litvinchova, remained in Leningrad, while Arkady and their father, Natan Strugatsky, headed east, toward Vologda, where Natan died. Arkady was then drafted into the Soviet army.
Each brother survived the war, and both went on to study: Arkady graduated from the Military Institute of Foreign Languages in Moscow, where he trained as a Japanese and English interpreter. Boris went on to the Leningrad State University, where he studied physics and astronomy before graduating from the school's Mechanics and Mathematics College in 1955. He spent the next decade as an astronomer and then a computer engineer.
Russian science fiction has a fairly lengthy, although interrupted tradition in the first half of the 20th century: early on, fantastic voyage stories were common, until Joseph Stalin came to power and largely halted all science fictional works. Some, such as Yevgeny Zamyatin’s Мы (We), were published out of the country as authors faced restrictions or persecution. We is a particularly anti-utopian novel, and other authors would eventually explore the ideals of Soviet Russia within their works. Stanislaw Lem’s early works flirted with utopian and idealistic fiction before taking a far more pessimistic tone.
In the early 1950s, science fiction returned to Soviet Russia. In an essay titled “Future History, Soviet Style: The Work of the Strugatsky Brothers,” Patrick L. McGuire notes that “in the late 1950s, after near-total suppression during the Stalin years, Soviet Science Fiction began to rebuild. As was practically inevitable, this reconstruction involved extensive borrowing from English-language SF.” A new brand of science fiction was on the rise in the mid-1950s, and it was right around this time that the brothers began to collaborate and publish their stories. It’s also around the time in which the Soviet Union began to compete with the United States….
In 1957, the pair published their first novella, Страна багровых туч (Land of the Crimson Clouds), a story about cosmonauts traveling to Venus. The brothers also began to publish short fiction, and in 1959, they became the first Soviet authors to be published in the United States, with their story “Спонтанный рефлекс” (“Initiative”), published in the May issue of Amazing Stories.
In this early part of their career, the brothers kicked off the 1960s with a pair of collections: Шесть спичек (Six Matches) and Путь на Амальтею (Way to Amalthea). According to Rosalind J. Marsh, in her book Soviet Fiction Since Stalin: Science, Politice and Literature, the brothers employed a style that “displayed a heightened awareness of ethical and political concerns, reflecting the influence of Khruschev’s de-Stalinization campaign, the publication in Warsaw of Lem’s Solaris, and translations of Western science fiction.”Their earlier works explored ideals within communism and stories that pitted humanity against the elements. In 1962, the pair began their first major series, the Noon Universe, with Полдень, XXII век (Noon: 22nd Century). They rounded out the year with Попытка к бегству, Popytka k begstvu (Escape Attempt) and Стажеры (Space Apprentice).
Over the coming years, the brothers would recycle characters and settings, with the series eventually encompassing eight novels and a handful of short stories. They continued to publish a number of novels, some within their Noon cycle, while others were stand-alone works. By 1964, both brothers retired from their normal professions to turn to writing full time, and published Трудно быть богом (Hard to Be a God), another Noon novel. This particular book was more political, following a group of communist explorers as they try to keep a medieval society from falling into fascism. 1965 brought Понедельник начинается в субботу (Monday Begins on Saturday) and Хищные вещи века (The Final Circle of Paradise), and in 1967, they completed their next installment of their Noon series, called Далёкая Радуга (Far Rainbow).
The following year brought several of their best known stories, Сказка о Тройке (Tale of the Troika), Улитка на склоне (The Snail on the Slope)—which the brothers claimed was their best work—and Второе нашествие марсиан (The Second Invasion from Mars). An editor of Baikal had serialized The Snail on the Slope, and was soon thereafter fired over the anti-authority message within the text, a stark reminder of some of the limits imposed on writers during this time period, and how the Strugatskys had begun to push the limits of what they were permitted to write. The pair also drew from their influences, particularly in Second Invasion from Mars, which seemed to draw from H.G. Wells’ famous novel and continued to examine the invasion as the Martians reduce human lives into consumable objects. It was during the 1970s that the brothers began to explore far more radical themes, addressing Soviet politics, even as it meant delays or changes to their manuscripts.
Throughout the 1970s, the brothers continued to turn out new novels: 1970 brought Отель У Погибшего Альпиниста (Inspector Glebsky's Puzzle), followed in 1971 with Обитаемый остров (Prisoners of Power) and Малыш (Space Mowgli), two Noon novels. Гадкие лебеди (The Ugly Swans) was published in 1972, and in 1976, their next, За миллиард лет до конца света (Definitely Maybe) appeared.
The pair is possibly best known in the West for Пикник на обочине (Roadside Picnic), which was first serialized in 1972 in Avrora Magazine in Russia, although its hardcover release was denied publication for a number of years and heavily edited versions departed from the version the brothers had written. The story was eventually translated into English in 1977 by DAW books, and was a second-place contender for the John W. Campbell award in 1978.
The brothers came up with the story in February 1970, as they were writing Град обреченный (The Doomed City) in the middle of a snow storm, considering the question of what people would do with alien technology for which they’re not equipped to use or even understand. In 1971, they began to plot out the book in detail: “On January 19, 1971, we started the rough draft, and on November 3 of the same year, we finished a good copy.”
The book follows Red, a “Stalker” who makes clandestine trips into a mysterious Zone, a place where an alien ship seems to have landed. When it departed, equipment and technology was left behind, some of which humans found useful. The oft-quoted analogy here is that of a picnic on the side of a road: people stop, eat, fix a tire and then leave, leaving the creatures of the forest to examine what’s left behind, items beyond their comprehension, even if they might simply be discarded pieces of junk.
The alien Zones have strange properties: the dead come back to life, Stalkers can meet their end with meat grinders or be genetically affected afterward, all in search of highly valuable technology that can be resold on the black market. Red is in search of the Golden Sphere, which is reported to be able to grant its finder any wish. Throughout the story, the brothers examine the role in which material objects play in our lives and how we perceive potential aliens of a much higher intelligence or technological level—much as authors such as Arthur C. Clarke did with his novel Rendezvous With Rama and Childhood’s End. Humanity’s place in the cosmos is very small indeed—as Boris, an astronomer, would have known well.
In a foreword to the 2012 version of Roadside Picnic, Ursula K. Le Guin notes that translations of works from Soviet authors offer a glimpse into the complicated life behind the Iron Curtain, as well as the relationship between Soviet and U.S. authors: "a positive review of a work of Soviet science fiction was a small but real political statement in the United States, since part of the American science fiction community had undertaken to fight the Cold War by assuming every writer who lived behind the Iron Curtain was an enemy ideologue."
The book was a success in Russia and abroad. In 1979, a film adaptation titled Stalker was released, directed by Andrei Tarkovsky (already known for his adaptation of Stanislaw Lem's novel Solaris), working from a screenplay written by the brothers.
The brothers rounded out the 1970s with 1979’s Жук в муравейнике (Beetle in the Anthill). 1986 brought Волны гасят ветер (The Time Wanderers), and in 1987, the brothers were the Guests of Honor at Conspiracy ’87, the 45th World Science Fiction convention in Brghton, England. 1989 brought Oтягощенные Злом, или сорок лет спустя (Otyagoschennye Evil, or forty years later), Град обреченный (Doomed) and Хромая судьба (Lame Fate). Their final novel, Беспокойство (Anxiety) appeared in 1990. The brothers prepared a new Noon novel, Белый Ферзь (White Ferz), which would have been a sequel to Prisoners of Power, but in October of 1991, Arkady passed away. Boris abandoned the manuscript, although he would return to writing under the pen name S. Vititsky, and became a vocal critic of President Vladimir V. Putin in the late 2000s.
In 2012, a new translation of Roadside Picnic was released by the Chicago Review Press, one that received much acclaim and brought the work closer to the Strugatsky’s original work. The book, with aforementioned foreword by Ursula K. Le Guin, helped to bring the book to new audiences in the United States. Later that year, Boris passed away at the age of 79 at his home in St. Petersburg. He was described by the New York Times in an obituary as a writer who “used the genre of science fiction to voice criticisms of Soviet life that would have been unthinkable in other literary form.”
The works of the Strugatsky brothers are still grasping the imaginations of Russian readers: a television series based on Roadside Picnic called Zona is set to premiere in Russia in 2015.