Gary Kern

IVAN YEFREMOV & THE STRUGATSKY BROTHERS:
MODELS & ANTI-MODELS OF RUSSIAN SCIENCE FICTION


University courses in Russian literature often include works which might be called science fiction: We (1920) by Yevgeny Zamyatin, Heart of a Dog (1925) by Mikhail Bulgakov and even The Bedbug (1929) by Vladimir Mayakovsky. But such works are chosen not so much for their SF affiliation as for their inclusion within the canon of great or important works of literature. Rarely do students encounter a novel by Konstantin Tsiolkovsky (1857-1935), Aleksandr Bogdanov (1873-1928) or Aleksandr Belyaev (1884-1942), works likely to be categorized as straight SF. There exists in Russian literature, as in American, a distinction between "high literature" and popular SF literature, with the assumption that the first is better written, more profound and more rewarding to the intelligent reader. SF supposedly appeals only to the reader's need for light entertainment, often mindless. No doubt in many cases this distinction holds up, but there are also instances where it cannot stand examination. Professor Dowell's Head (1925) by Belyaev, for example, is a superbly crafted novel, superior to many novels of the 1920s emphasized in histories of Soviet literature. The question of the actual difference between the two genres is a can of worms I do not care to open. It can simply be stated that the two categories exist as a matter of convention, a matter of generic indicators and often a matter of authorial tone.

Whatever its literary merit, SF is concerned with vital problems of its society and worth examination for this reason alone. In the erstwhile Soviet Union, avowedly founded on the principles of Marxism-Leninism, dedicated to the building of socialism and the inauguration of a classless Communist society, such a literature took on a special significance and was obliged to carry a specially heavy ideological burden. It is significant, for example, that while the rest of the world indulged in yearly, monthly and even daily catastrophic SF invasions, from the Mars of H.G. Wells to Godzilla of Japanese films to the ubiquitous alien encounter on nighttime TV, the Soviet Union only rarely experienced a SF invasion by android or monster.(1)

The Bolshevik Party placed stringent restrictions on the themes of SF, and during the Stalin years the futuristic potential of SF was ruled out completely. SF writers were instructed to keep within the limits of the possible, to aim for the "immediate target." Thus nauchnaya fantastika--science fantasy, in Russian--lost its fantasy half and became a fictional means of popularizing new scientific achievements. Only after the death of Stalin and the easing of his policies by Nikita Khrushchev were the utopian and fantastic aspects of SF permitted to return. The outstanding writers within this development--a surprisingly late one for a modern world literature--were Ivan Yefremov and the Strugatsky brothers, Arkady and Boris. Although they professed mutual admiration and never entered into a debate on opposite sides, their works represent diametrically opposed approaches to the development of Russian SF and to the formation of a Weltanschauung in general.


1. The Sovietization of the Universe

Ivan Yefremov is generally credited with initiating a new era in Russian SF. His novel The Andromeda Constellation (Tumannost' Andromedy) is set thousands of years in the future, when a "great ring" of inhabited planets maintains communication through space and time. The novel was serialized in 1957, in the months between the XXth Party Congress of October 1956, when Khrushchev denounced Stalin, and the launching of Sputnik in October of 1957. Separate editions appeared immediately thereafter. The book sparked a prolonged debate in the press on the nature of Soviet SF, its detractors standing for the old guard, its supporters proclaiming the new wave. Yefremov himself, an active polemicist, expounded his views in articles and interviews, laying claim to the dialectical method. Time and the Party awarded him the victory: the novel was reprinted, the author was celebrated in critical reviews and the doors of the state publishing houses opened to other writers on the wide universe and the imaginable future. Thus, according to latter-day assessments, Andromeda began "the Golden Age of Soviet Science Fiction" (1957-1972). Yefremov ultimately was confirmed as the dean of SF writers, and his works were taken as the embodiment of Socialist Realism in SF. A model for Soviet SF was established.(2)

By way of form this model offered nothing new. It marked no advance on such 19th?century writers as Ivan Aksakov, Ivan Turgenev and Gleb Uspensky and hardly equalled their style. In content, however, it put forward a unified system of remarkable scope, carefully conceived, rationally argued and ideologically buttressed. As the intended application of dialectical materialism to the fictional exploration of the future, it commanded attention and set the standard for other Soviet SF writers, whether or not they chose to follow it. In a sense it formed the ground upon which their matching or divergent patterns could be perceived. A review of those works which place the blocks in his system should make this clear.

Yefremov's first SF piece was the long story "Stellar Ships" (Zvyozdnye korabli, written in 1947 and published in 1954. It concerns two scientists astonished by the discovery of dinosaur bones bearing the unmistakable signs of bullet wounds. Compelled by the evidence to assume that the Earth was visited 70 million years ago, the two set themselves the task of explaining and conceptualizing the ancient visitors. Their reasoning runs as follows:

1. The number of stars in the universe is infinitely great, so there must be many planetary systems capable of supporting life.

2. Matter is uniform throughout the universe, so life must be found in intricate molecules composed of carbon.

3. Excessive heat or cold prevents the formation and growth of such molecules, so the necessary conditions must be similar to those on Earth.

4. All life develops according to the laws of evolution.

5. Intelligent life capable of space travel requires the existence of two-eyed, stereoscopic vision, highly developed working limbs such as hands, sufficient size to combat environmental conditions, legs for locomotion and a head enclosing a large brain held high to see the world.

The scientists conclude that the space creatures must be very much like human beings, differing only in details. Fortunately, they discover the skull of an unknown creature who was accidentally crushed by a falling dinosaur: the skull is definitely anthropoid. As a final confirmation, they discover the creature's pendant with his portrait: a bald head without nose or ears and with a turtlelike beak, yet also with a powerful brow and two eyes "burning with the boundless courage of reason." The story ends with the hope of contacting intelligent life elsewhere in the universe.(3)

As a story, "Stellar Ships" succeeds in transmitting the excitement of a dinosaur dig, the pursuit of the unexpected and the processes of logical thinking. It's not a bad story. And, with its defense of paleontology and all branches of science, inserted as a student debate in the midst of the action, it does not sin against the demand for the immediate target, though it does prepare the way to other worlds. The reconstruction of the space creatures provides the key: the scientific rationale for human forms throughout the universe. Thus far-distant targets could be conceived: contact, communication, socialization.(4)

These targets are reached in the universe of Yefremov's chief work, Andromeda. Early in the novel, a lecture is broadcast to a distant planet outlining previous stages in the history of mankind. They are:

I. The Era of Disunity

l. Early stages marked by wars and injustice, but containing productive forces leading to the next stage.
2. The Fission Age. Organization of life along scientific lines, development of communal labor, understanding of the dialectical course of history, ideological struggle for the victory of Communism; elimination of poverty, hunger and demeaning toil; work toward a world government.

II. The Era of World Unity

1. The Age of Alliance. Countries unite into a world government.

2. The Age of Power Development. New scientific discoveries, nuclear energy without radioactive waste, intellectual and physical improvement of each individual.

3. The Age of the Common Tongue. A world language with a linear phonetic alphabet, verbosity eliminated.

III. The Era of Common Labor

1. The Age of Simplification. End of frivolities and luxuries, provision of basic necessities to all peoples.

2. The Age of Realignment. Industrial and living zones separated, harvesting of oceans, transformation of deserts, moderate heat at the equator.

3. The Age of Abundance. Fruits of the above.
4. The Age of the Cosmos. Improvement of rocket technology, emplacement of artificial satellites, exploration of immediate galaxy. Expulsion of old nuclear armaments into deep space.

IV. Era of the Great Ring

Contact with a distant planet, translation of its symbols into Earth language, entrance of Earth into the family of intelligent planets known as the Great Ring.(5)

Such is the pretext of the novel, the course of history before the characters begin to play their parts. Yefremov fills in the outline with inventive details of science fact and fiction, and the characters, who preserve the best qualities of the distinct races from which they have descended, behave as befits the self-controlled, laconic, super-intelligent human beings of the Great Ring. (Except the heavy, who is emotional and spineless, a hangover of the wavering intellectual of early Socialist Realism.) Obviously we have here not simply a literary fantasy, but a universal socialist program, be it utopian or scientific. To recapitulate the main points of Yefremov's two works:

1. Matter is the same throughout the universe.
2. Life is basically the same and follows the laws of evolution.
3. Intelligent life develops to the same point.
4. Communism is the most progressive social force.
5. Once the Earth is improved under Communism it may join the most advanced planets in existence.

In effect, Yefremov extrapolates universal tendencies from specific developments on Earth and projects them into the universe. Consequently, in "Stellar Ships" the universe is anthropomorphized, then in Andromeda it is Sovietized. Yefremov's system, for all of its social and scientific inventiveness, is a straight-line extrapolation, solipsistic in that it rules out the possibility of radically new information--different matter, different forms of life, different principles from those on Earth. It is tendentious, in that it attributes all the world's evils to capitalism and promotes the land of Gulag as the world's most progressive force. And simplistic, in that it draws black and white sides, good and bad characters, right and wrong theories by excluding the complexity of past and present experience. (Note, for example, that in the real world space ships were sent to the moon and nearby planets not very long after Sputnik and well before any era of world unity.) Ultimately, Yefremov's universe is a composite of bits and pieces transplanted from the Earth no less arbitrarily than Lucian's inhabited moon, with the difference that Lucian tells us not to believe a single word and to laugh. Yefremov wants us to believe every word, and laughter is permitted only for the health of the organism.

This straight-line approach is strangely at odds with the author's theoretical statements. Repeatedly Yefremov argued against a simplistic projection of present-day tendencies into the future, insisting that only a dialectical development of the present could claim the reader's assent:

We, the people of a socialist country, are so accustomed to looking ahead, making plans, considering the future and referring to it that we sometimes forget that the future does not yet exist. It will be constructed out of the present, but the present dialectically, and not mechanically extended into the future. Therefore, the idea of a strictly determined structure of the future, which science-fiction writers must necessarily discover, is pure metaphysics, a bungling attempt to repeat Biblical prophecies. Only a dialectical extrapolation of the actual experience of the history of the Earth, the cosmos, life and human societies may lay claim to a scientific anticipation of the possible future.(6)

Despite these wise words, the dialectical method is not applied in Yefremov's fiction to basic postulates, such as the history of mankind and the nature of the universe, but rather to the psychological problems experienced by future spacemen. This feature may be observed in Yefremov's third major SF work, first given the Latin title "Cor Serpentis," later the Russian equivalent, Serdtse zmei ("The Heart of the Serpent," 1959). This long story consolidates the Yefremov model and clearly demonstrates its flaws.(7)

The main event in the story is a chance meeting between two rocket ships in outer space, one from Earth and the other from an unknown world. The two crews behave identically: they are thrilled by the encounter, maneuver their ships for a rendezvous, communicate by means of pictures and reveal their naked bodies to one another. They prove similar in everything, save that the aliens are silvery, possess huge almond eyes and breathe fluorine. With this episode, Yefremov intended to refute the Western anti-utopian novel and stories about hostile aliens, in particular the story "First Contact" by Murray Leinster (1945). His chief point is that intelligence develops similarly throughout the universe, since it must be founded on the laws of mathematics and dialectics; therefore, for intelligent human beings, communication with intelligent creatures from other worlds would be easier than with unintelligent people on Earth. The story by Leinster (which the captain of Yefremov's story reads to his crew) represents the delusion of capitalist countries, which believe their system to be permanent and universal; consequently (so runs Yefremov's account) the captain of a space mission in that story, upon encountering an alien spaceship, can conceive of nothing but trade or war: he has "the heart of a poisonous snake." The two ships sit poised for attack in deep space until the Earth captain succeeds in smuggling weapons on board the alien ship; with these he forces an exchange of ships and leaves toward Earth with his prize. But such a distrustful first meeting was never to happen (exults Yefremov's captain), because Soviet Russia was the foundation for the future; hence a world utopia was feasible and a peaceful first contact assured. "The Heart of the Serpent" is set in the age just prior to the Great Ring of Andromeda: the Earth is Sovietized and only some work on its undeveloped landscapes is needed to make it perfect. We may assume that this peaceful first contact with aliens, who it is hoped will learn to breathe oxygen, successfully introduces the Earth into the family of intelligent planets.(8)

Dialectics enters the story in the form of a time paradox and its effect on the spacemen. Yefremov is keen about distance and time; he permits himself to invent space-warp travel approaching the speed of light, but does not overlook the immense distances between galaxies. Thus the crew of the Tellur, sent out beyond the star Cor Serpentis to investigate the transformation of matter on a carbon star in the Hercules Nebula, fall subject to the laws of relativity and cannot return home for 700 years of Earth's time. They must "die for 700 years," accept the death of all their loved ones on Earth and prepare themselves to return as ancient foreigners in payment for the joy of space exploration.

But this joy is not unmitigated, for better and better spaceships are being made all the time and the Earth remains the home base for all the missions sent into space. Therefore, each succeeding space exploration will render the previous one obsolete, and the Tellur may return home with rather stale news. (The story suggests that spaceship 2 may bypass spaceship 1 and return to Earth sooner, spaceship 3 bypass spaceship 2 and so on, which seems to run counter to the theory of relativity, but I leave this problem to the experts. The general argument is that the Tellur is stuck with its own technology for 700 years, which may render it and its mission pointless upon its return.) The crew, aware of the epistemological limbo they have entered, constantly suffer malaise, a haunting suspicion of meaninglessness, which they oppose with physical exercises, dances and an intensification of the present moment of discovery. The ship's captain, in addition, dispenses doses of "dialectical logic," such as the following:

"Man. . .realized that while as an individual he was as minute and transitory as a drop of water in the ocean or a spark struck in a high wind, he was at the same time as great as the Universe which his reason and emotions embraced in the infinity of time and space."

As regards the crew's natural longing for a return to a simple, consoling past, they must dialectically turn their sights to the exciting, shining future. These matters treated in the prologue, the Tellur makes its surprise contact with an alien, an event which places a big plus sign on the dialectical equation by the providence of plot.

In this way Yefremov draws back from the void he has opened. The universe remains an extension of the principles operant on Earth, differing only in details, but those who seek out the details must sacrifice all the pleasures of the Earth for a glory existing only in their own imagination. The Earth meanwhile experiences leaps of knowledge from ever more advanced explorations and therefore moves more swiftly into the future. Consequently, the voyage of any spaceship, by its very nature, is predictable, meaningless and obsolete.

Probably without knowing it, Yefremov touches on the paradox conceived by Franz Kafka in one of his several meditations on the Tower of Babel. In "The City Coat of Arms" (Das Stadtwappen, 1920), Kafka considers the problem of building a utopia over a period longer than one lifetime. With centuries available in which to realize the eternal idea, it makes no sense to start building right away, for the art of building will constantly improve and each succeeding generation may have to tear down the work of the preceding. Therefore, the first generation in Kafka's account concerns itself with the arrangements for the building and the accommodations for the workers, while the succeeding generations compete for better accommodations, having recognized somewhere along the way the senselessness of building a heavenreaching tower.(9)

Kafka's paradox, like Zeno's, denies forward movement, raising the problem from the individual to the social level. If one lives for himself, he will not build for others; if one builds for others, they must obliterate his work. Yefremov, sensing the same bad situation, can only insist on action as the necessary thing: farmers and ancient builders did not wait for automatic machines, early scientists did not wait for the "quantum microscope," otherwise there would have been no progress and we would be living in caves. But such observations do not really address the problem of self-sacrifice, the 700-year death, since early farmers and scientists worked for themselves, or for people in their own time. As a final argument, Yefremov produces a social imperative: "We have a duty to perform, like every other member of society." The duty of a spaceman, then, is to collect data which may prove worthless, or may enrich human life--the life, that is, of future Earth people, whom he has a duty to love, though he does not live on earth and cannot possibly know them. The argument runs in circles and may be taken as an example of high idealism or doublethink.

For all that, Yefremov's vision exerts a curious appeal. It offers a simplified universe, a collection of wholesome characters and a challenging space-age paradox overcome by an affirmation of love for one's fellow human being. Again and again, in its innocence of human nature, and more specifically of anti-utopian literature, the story repeats situations which have long been regarded as sterile and dehumanizing. The spacemen, for example, are not permitted to have children and raise families on their lengthy mission. They have a formula for happiness: an equal share in the rational, sane society, limited only by the conquest of nature. Yet the nature on Earth has been so completely conquered, there is little left to learn--hence the flights of exploration into the "icy chasms of cosmic space." To seek out new worlds which are virtually predictable on Earth. And also to enjoy acrobatics instead of sex, the obligatory utopian musical instrument--this time an electromagnetic "viono" (violin + piano), and drugs--uppers and downers. The reader of Zamyatin and Huxley can have a field day debunking this pro-utopia dialectically unaware of its anti-. Yet it would be wrong to deny it the charm of a religious myth.

In his last novel, Hour of the Bull (Chas byka, 1970), Yefremov builds upon his previous extrapolation, setting himself the task of drawing characters after the Era of the Great Ring. It would be unscientific, he explains in one of his articles, to transfer people from the 20th century into the distant future without changing their psychology, because the people of the distant future would have a different social background, hence a different psychological makeup.(10)

Accordingly, the characters of Hour, living in the Era of Met Hands, look back to the characters of Andromeda as to their spiritual ancestors: the heroine Fay Rodis (of Hour) regards Veda Kong (of Andromeda) as a personal model. At the same time, these later characters represent an evolutionary advance: ideal nationalistic types (of Andromeda) have evolved into ideal universal types (of Hour). Specific features of past historical periods and separate nationalities are retained only as occasional costumes and as theatrical roles assumed for the purpose of making a psychological impact. Races have merged, individual egos overcome and specialized jobs eliminated. Now every member of the world's society is a scientist, who pursues a specialized line of inquiry only for the purpose of contributing to the harmonious whole of mankind. Will power is developed for the control of one's emotions and physical strains, love is extended beyond individuals to the entire planet and other worlds, and consciousness accepts the human protest against mortality as a necessary suffering. Those remnants of the past, who think only of themselves, are scorned as "bulls."

Most interestingly in this almost universal perfection of the human species, Yefremov distinguishes superior properties in the female gender. In the radiant future it turns out that women are "by nature more exact, more participating, softer and closer to nature than men." Even more: beauty is always "more complete in the woman, it is marked more strongly in accordance with the laws of physiology."(11)

And still more: the movements of women are more graceful, hypnotic, compelling, wonderful. The curves of their limbs, etc. Here an individual, masculine and somewhat bullish point of view springs forth--in short, the point of view of a hardened romantic, the author. To lend credibility to his simmering glorification of feminine charms, Yefremov creates a far planet where the inhabitants have not yet reached the most advanced stage and therefore can marvel at it. The men of this planet regard Earth women as goddesses, the women regard them as mother figures. Also these underdeveloped beings require social reconstruction: their society is a mix of monopolistic state capitalism and "ant-heap [i.e., Chinese] pseudo-socialism." The matriarchal crew from Earth, with the proper experience of the correct (i.e., Russian) form of socialism, effect the necessary changes, but some must sacrifice themselves as a lesson in non-violence.

Thus step by step, from "Stellar Ships" to Hour of the Bull, Ivan Yefremov put together the blocks of a uniform system that sought no less than to describe the scientific, social and psychological future of mankind from the victory of Soviet socialism to the equalization of the inhabited universe. The scope of his project is breathtaking, the realization of his plan inspiring. Yet, for other writers, the principles involved are restrictive, the straight-line projections prohibitive. The matriarchy of strong, beautiful women predestined at the end of individuality might zieht uns hinan or return us to the womb.

At its inception, Yefremov's work acted as a liberating influence in Soviet SF, but as it acquired greater definition and weight it assumed the form of a monolith: the officially approved, dialectically materialist, socialist-realist portrayal of the Communist future. Against this standard, the works of younger SF writers appear scattered, heterogeneous and dubious. And those writers who departed too far from it, namely the Strugatsky brothers, ran into trouble and fell silent. It may be a coincidence, but after Yefremov died in October 1972, the Strugatsky brothers, who went on living, practically ceased to publish in the Soviet Union. The Golden Age of Soviet SF had come to an end.(12)


2. The Road to Xenology

The first stories by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are not far removed from Yefremov, concerned as they are with such standard SF subjects as space exploration, contact with aliens and curious scientific experiments. The very first story, in fact, was published only months after Andromeda and could easily have been signed by Yefremov. Entitled "From Outside" (Izvne, 1958), it tells of ships from outer space which upset a team of archeologists near Stalinabad (now Dushanbe) on the Afghan border. The Earthmen make an attempt to communicate with one of the ships and fire on it ineffectually when it does not answer. In time they see the ships up close as black cone-shaped helicopters releasing giant spiders onto Earth. The hero of the story, Boris Lozovsky, manages to stow away on one of the landed aircraft, much regretting that he must forsake his wife and friends, but inspired by a duty to mankind. He is transported up to a space station orbiting the Earth, where he finds a museum and a menagerie of fanciful creatures collected from far points of the universe. Other than these, there are no aliens on board: the whole thing is a mechanical laboratory which journeys through space in search of inhabited planets. The spiders are computerized robots, entirely unarmed and harmless, programmed to collect things like cars, cows, sheep, but not higher forms of intelligence. (The interesting problem of mechanically distinguishing man from animals and determining a scale of sentience is not investigated.) Lozovsky is rendered unconscious and safely returned to Earth. The story ends with an exhortation to observatories to be on the lookout for visitors from the cosmos. Less sophisticated than Yefremov, designed for a teenage audience, "From Outside" has some good moments and an expertise in astronomy (Boris' profession). The aliens, though never seen, are presumed to be humanoid, friendly and of superior intelligence. Thus the Strugatskys made their contribution to the model of peaceful contact prior to Yefremov's "The Heart of the Serpent."(13)

Similarly the story "An Emergency Case" (Chrezvychainoe proizshestvie, 1960) presents an alien that at first appears ominous: a black fly born from a spore drifting through space, a fly which feeds on oxygen, produces embryos in every cell of its body and resists all available poisons. This fly, noticed in a spaceship returning to Earth, very soon fills the vessel with millions of buzzing replicas. The captain, anticipating the solution of spacemen and spacewomen ("spacepersons," that is) after him, blows the swarms of aliens into freezing space. But in a surprise ending, the ship's biologist keeps a few flies in a vial and successfully defends his decision: the flies represent an unknown, non-albuminous form of life which under controlled conditions could produce "hundred of tons of the finest quality cellulose per day. And that means paper, fabrics, coating..."(14)

Thus the Strugatskys keep the friendly (here, helpful) alien hypothesis, but construct a dangerous alien form not easily extrapolated from Earth. Likewise, the story "Six Matches" (Shest' spichek, 1960) concentrates on the social responsibility of the scientist, a favorite theme of Yefremov, but in the unusual context of self-experimentation in telekinesis. The story "Wanderers and Travellers" (O stranstvuyushchikh i puteshestvuyushchikh, 1963) seems to confirm Yefremov's principle that "intelligence develops to the same point," but in the context of what high intelligence often does to low: the hero objects to the tagging of unknown mollusks with sound-generating pellets, because he himself has just returned from a space voyage and begun to emit radio beeps on Earth.(15)

These stories, then, might be said to present a world-view consistent with Yefremov, only with clever individual touches. The story "The Gigantic Fluctuation," however, marks a fantastic departure. Nothing that happens to the hero of this story lies outside the range of natural phenomena, yet every incident ranks very low on the scale of probability. For example, when he tosses a coin he gets heads ninety-eight times out of a hundred, when he draws a ticket it is always number 5, on the first day of every month he comes down with a cold. He sees multiple rainbows, attracts silverware like a magnet and watches in despair as his girlfriend flies away through the sky, the Brownian movement of the molecules in her body having for a moment become regular. The story serves as an excellent popularization of science (in this case, probability theory), yet at the same time breaks the Yefremov mold of straight-line projection: extremely unusual, low-probability things could occur on Earth and in outer space; in a sense they are guaranteed by the theory.(16)

The Strugatsky brothers published novel after novel through the 196-s, each new work moving farther and farther away from Yefremov, calling his basic postulates into question one after the other. Certainly this was not their intention, to build a career on the disintegration of the dean of Soviet SF, yet the process resulted from a different way of thinking. Against the cumulative effect of Yefremov's works, the novels of the Strugatskys did not each add a component to a universal system, but if anything worked away from any system, breaking the world and the universe down into meaningful and meaningless fragments.

At the same time the narrative approach of the brothers differed from their mentor. With Yefremov, a pretext exists in the form of a carefully planned history prior to the time of the work: this prehistory is related or explained early in the work and causes no difficulty in the reading. With the Strugatskys, a pretext exists in the form of a detailed "other world," which is presented in media res with all of its unexplained practices, relationships and terminology. No explanation is offered in any one place to account for this unfamiliar world: it is experienced and interpreted in the process of reading. Those elements of mystery remaining toward the end are explained before the conclusion. The reading is obstructed but also driven by the mystery.

The very diversity of the Strugatsky brothers' novels prohibits a work-by-work survey, which would have the virtue of a complete chronology, but the tedium of the same. Rather, let us select and discuss works chronologically only as they depart from the Yefremov model, understanding that this departure may not be the authors' chief purpose. As for our purpose, it is simply to uncover their contrary picture of the universe and to ponder the implications.(17)

As a starting point we can take the novel Far Rainbow (Dalyokaya Raduga, 1964), which contests the Yefremov notion that physical principles remain the same throughout the universe. Here the characters must grapple with a new science, "zero-physics." This science came into being during an attempt to transport matter instantaneously through space. (The attempt succeeded without ill effect two years later on American TV in "Star Trek.") The experiment in "zero-transportation" was being conducted on a distant planet named Rainbow when something curious happened: "the zero-transference of a small platinum cube on the equator of Rainbow elicits on the planet's poles--and for some reason only at the poles!--gigantic gushers of ores, fiery geysers that can blind a man and a terrible black Wave, mortally dangerous to any living thing."(18)

This discovery creates a new science and divides it into two camps, one for each of its pursuits: transportation of matter and production of waves. Meanwhile the waves convert the planet from a halcyon resort for Earthlings into a fearsome deathtrap. Toward the end of the novel, the scientists debate the value of wave experiments to mankind, as against the loss of relatively few lives, including those of their own children. Their moral dilemma (one that reappears in the short novel translated as Definitely Maybe and that has social resonance in the Soviet context) is decided by Gorbovsky, captain of the sole escape ship, who puts all the children on board and sentences the remaining adults (including himself) to destruction by the final, unforeseen wave. The unknown physics of another planet, with its own inexorable laws, has brought a disaster to mankind, while the zeal of Earth scientists has destroyed a habitable planet. The reader today cannot help but think of the scientific amazement over the photographs of Saturn's rings, which "defy the known laws of physics," or perhaps of the repeated discoveries of new particles in sub-atomic physics.

Hard To Be A God (Trudno byt' bogom, 1964) turns the focus on the historical stages of social development. Here a distant planet at an early stage of development--feudalism--should be ripe for a renaissance, mercantilism, capitalism, industrial revolution and socialism. Unaccountably, it leaps into Nazi-style fascism. The application of this fictional development to our real world can be made by a glance at "underdeveloped" countries which experience a leap "from the dark ages to the twentieth century," often without passing intermediate stages and not landing in a predictable spot. The Uganda of Idi Amin, for example.

If the early stages of social development are not certain, the final, utopian stage can hardly be guaranteed. The novel Predatory Things of the Age (Khishchnye veshchi veka, 1965, translated as The Final Circle of Paradise) presents a European sea resort which promises 12 circles of paradise. As the novel progresses, the resort takes on the aspect of a nightmarish orgy, with universal drunkenness and gormandizing, a stultifying entertainment industry, mindless and sexually promiscuous teens, impotent adults, all-powerful street toughs, a secret police force and an electrical mind stimulant that produces a feeling of personal filthiness and shame. Something like a bridge between Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange (1962) and Stanislaw Lem's The Futurological Congress (1971), the novel combines horrors from the consumer society and the police state and trashes Yefremov's assumption of clear-cut lines of opposition leading to the victory of socialism, etc. Evidently the authors worried about the implications of this gloomy work, for they appended a rare political preface citing Marx and Lenin and insisting that only bourgeois society was intended.(19)

Nevertheless, the mixture of capitalist and Communist ills thereafter became a familiar feature of the Strugatskys' novels. As an example we can take the humorous parable, The Second Invasion from Mars (Vtoroe nashestvie marsiyan, 1967). The story line might seem apolitical and applicable to any society. After landing on the outskirts of a small Grecian town, the aliens clean out the thugs in control and begin planting blue wheat. The townspeople, all with classical Greek names, are at first wary, but eventually induced by generous payments to make donations of gastric juice at vans (or juice-mobiles) set up for the purpose. In time, they are drinking blue wheat-beer, selling their body fluid and enjoying themselves immensely. The only opposition, a young communist type who likes to attend meetings, discuss social problems and dedicate himself to mankind, decides not to become a cow for the Martians, but by himself is unable to influence the course of events. Thus the Martians, unlike their violent predecessors in H.G. Wells, conquer the world by way of the belly.

The Western features in this little story are clear enough: the Mafia-style city government, the philistine daily round and the easy sell-out for a bad bottle of beer. The Soviet features require closer scrutiny. When the Martians arrive, the citizens can obtain no reliable information; neither the newspapers nor governmental spokesmen will talk about the matter and all vital concerns must be communicated by rumor--as in Soviet Russia. When the Martians inaugurate their program, the newspapers slavishly follow suit, filling their pages with incomprehensible discussions of the new wheat--the Soviet reader could fail to think of his own newspapers with perennial headlines and articles about bumper crops. Eventually Martian cars appear on the streets--sleek and black like the dreaded black Volgas of the KGB and party upper-crust. Human collaborators with the Martians sport tight jackets and beat up the old privileged class--recalling the leather-jacket Bolsheviks of the twenties and their strong-arm tactics. A farmer is celebrated for his incredible ability to produce gastric juice--a clear allusion to the Donets coal-miner Aleksei Stakhanov and Stalin's program of socialist competition. And so it goes: the long lines in stores, the closing of a newspaper for printing an innocuous poem, the habitual drinking at all levels of the populace--all these derive from and comment upon Soviet society. So the moral of the story was meant to hit home in both ideological camps.

So too the novel The Ugly Swans (Gadkie lebedi, 1967), which combines supposedly contradictory features: an anti-communist state with fascist yellowshirt thugs led by a Stalinist president with a personal propaganda industry amid universal drunkenness, whoremongering and double-dealing. The time is within memory of WWII, the place somewhere between England and Russia. The characters refer to known thinkers such as Hegel and Einstein, and also to unknown--such as the great Zurzmansor. Their names indicate a miscegenation of nationalities, not pre-selected for an international space mission as in Andromeda, but simply thrown together by chance and fortune: Viktor Banev, Yul Golem, Rem Quadriga, General Pferd, Diana, Teddy, Bol-Kunats, etc.

Ugly Swans also questions the laws of evolution, implied by Yefremov to be smooth and rational. Here a resort town experiences an outbreak of "yellow leprosy" which leaves in its wake an entire leprosarium of "slimies" (a nice translation of mokretsy--literally, "wet ones"). The slimies, by special powers, produce rain and fog, agreeable to their skin, but disastrous to the resort business and the very buildings of the town. Far worse, the slimies, who cannot live without books, exert a decisive influence on the children and win them away from their all-too-human parents. Without being physically cruel or personally abusive, the slimies absolutely reject all human failings and all human achievements in spite of failings--all the good and bad of the present world and its texture. The hero Viktor Banev ("bath man") eventually understands that the slimies are a mutation, a new stage in human evolution and a leap into the future. As a writer with a degree of personal integrity, he (along with the reader) must choose: the old flawed human world, or the new perfect slimy world. Such a choice, plus the non-stop gloom, nastiness, cursing, drinking, literary debates and mockery of propaganda made this novel anathema in Soviet Russia. It was published by the émigré publishing house Posev in Germany in 1972. (20)

The problem of applying anthropomorphic thinking to totally fresh phenomena is tackled head-on in the novella Roadside Picnic (Piknik na obochine, 1972). Following a presumed "Visitation" from extra-terrestrial beings, six uninhabitable zones are closed off on Earth. Valuable, but highly dangerous objects are collected from the zones by scientists and illegal "stalkers." After twenty years of experience, the scientists can neither determine the purpose of the objects nor prevent unforeseen consequences emanating from their possession. As for the purpose of the Visitation, they are left to their imaginations.

In one scene the Nobel-laureate Dr. Valentine Pilman explains that all such questions come under the heading of "xenology":

"Xenology: an unnatural mixture of science fiction and formal logic. It's based on the false premise that human psychology is applicable to extraterrestrial intelligent beings."

"Why is that false?" Noonan asked.

"Because biologists have already been burned trying to use human psychology on animals. Earth animals, at that."

"Forgive me, but that's an entirely different matter. We're talking about the psychology of rational beings."

"Yes. And everything would be fine if only we knew what reason was."

"Don't we know?" Noonan was surprised.

Dr. Pilman runs through a number of definitions of reason: that which distinguishes man from dog, speech, the ability to act unreasonably, a complex instinct not yet fully realized, or, finally, the ability to use the forces of the environment without destroying that environment. Obviously, if human reason is plural and uncertain, then reason, purpose and actions in the universe must be plural and irreducible to one anthropomorphic law. As far as Pilman is concerned, the great Visitation may well have been a brief picnic party and the wondrous objects merely the refuse of the event. Scientists, he says, are at the stage of chimpanzees poking buttons to get a banana: they sometimes get results, but don't understand the whole picture.(21)

The nature of the overall universe, its intelligence and the role of separate intelligences operating within it, is contemplated in one of the last important works published by the brothers in the Brezhnev years, A Billion Years to the End of the World (Za milliard let do kontsa sveta, 1974, translated as Definitely Maybe). The novel is set in present-day Leningrad, described apolitically and quite realistically, save that fantastic things begin to happen to the characters--wrong numbers, headaches, visits of beautiful women. These incidents are taken as interferences in the apparently unrelated investigations of a number of scientists, and they are interpreted first as the opposition of an extraterrestrial super-civilization, then as a conspiracy of a mysterious and ancient sect of wise men, next as the meddling of the police. The winning hypothesis is that the scientists with their advanced thinking have jeopardized the homeostasis of the universe, which is fighting back in accordance with a previously unknown law as natural as gravity. This fanciful premise allows the Strugatskys to unleash a cyclone of fantastic events (united only by the quality of interference), to pose again the moral question for science (truth for truth's sake, or self-censorship for the good of the world?) and to explore the problem of personal courage (fight to self-destruction, or give in to absolutely overwhelming force?). In one of their tightest-knit conclusions, they resolve the alternatives by the argument that all scientific work seeks to learn the laws of nature in order to put them to good use. Thus one lone scientist, not burdened by family, youth or other vulnerabilities, will take up the work of the others forced to surrender. In effect, man makes the world despite the evil of other men. Here the Strugatsky brothers seem to take a step back and re-establish contact with Yefremov, but in fact the universe they have conceived, its principles and its phenomena are the opposite of his model. The Strugatskys are pluralists, Yefremov is a monist.

Late in the Brezhnev years the brothers polished an unpublished novel, Khromaya sud'ba (Lame Fate, 1970-1982), and kept quiet, pursuing careers in astronomy and Japanese literature. SF publication drastically declined in the USSR, and favored writers safely sought "the immediate target." Eventually, unpredictably, everything would explode.(22)

3. Panta rhei

In the so-called Golden Age of Soviet Russian SF, Ivan Yefremov and the Strugatsky brothers stand out as the most significant writers, and so naturally invite comparison. The critic Rafail Nudel'man noted as early as 1964 the anthropomorphism of Yefremov and the relativism of the Strugatskys, and he recommended the latter as an antidote to "present-day myths and dogmas." The American Slavist John Glad marked the additional distinction of traditions: For Yefremov, Jules Verne: "technical, naive, optimistic." For the Strugatskys, H. G. Wells: "non-technical, sophisticated, pessimistic."(23)

Language levels might also be investigated: For Yefremov, a stodgy, conservative Soviet calcification of the bones of Turgenev. For the Strugatskys, a dissonant, indiscriminate babble of international voices. The crucial distinction, however, is the role of philosophy, ideology or worldview in the construction of their respective works. With Yefremov, we see the building of a system, a single idea expanding to embrace and choke the universe. With the Strugatskys, we see dispersion away from a central point of view, toward a plurality of possibilities on every level--scientific, social and personal. In contrast to Yefremov, they proceed on the following premises:

1. Physical principles may not be the same throughout the universe.
2. Life is varied and evolution may take unexpected leaps.
3. Intelligent life develops in unforeseen ways, some of which may be cruel.
4. Historical stages of social development are not guaranteed. Ideologies and social systems do not remain pure. The solution of social and technical problems on Earth may produce worse problems, not utopia.
5. Scientific research, though always desirable, may overturn all theories, principles and understanding, and have disastrous consequences.

And so on: panta rhei, all flows, nothing is certain. Like a rocket that jettisons its early stages, the Strugatsky brothers explore possibilities with fewer and fewer preconceptions, approaching--let us admit it, despite their greater appeal to American readers than Yefremov's--disintegration of language, a nihilism of thought and a chaos of emotions. These are the two extremes which faced Soviet SF writers as models and anti-models at the end of the empire, and in their archetypical origins they confront every writer of imagination today.

1985, slightly revised 1991


NOTES

1. Patrick McGuire, Red Stars: Political Aspects of Soviet Science Fiction (Ph.D Thesis: Princeton University, 1977), Appendices V and VI, esp. 238 and 245.

2. For a periodization of Soviet Russian SF, see John Glad, Extrapolations from Dystopia: A Critical Study of Soviet Science Fiction (Princeton: Kingston Pr., 1982), 185-198. The Andromeda Debate is covered by Darko Suvin, Survey of Science Fiction Literature (Englewood Cliffs: Salem Pr., 1979), vol. I, 58-9. See Also: Vladimir Gakov, "Soviet Science Fiction: The Golden Age (Part One)," Locus, March 1984; A.F. Britikov, Russkii sovetskii nauchno-fantasticheskii roman (Leningrad: "Nauka," 1970), esp. the chap. "Velikoe kol'tso"; G.V. Grebens, Ivan Yefremov's Theory of Soviet Science Fiction (New York: Vantage Pr., 1978), chap. I.

3. Yefremov's reasoning parallels the non-fictional speculations of scientists connected with SETI, The Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence. The so-called Drake Equation, conceived in 1961 by SETI co-founder Frank Drake, reduces the estimated 400 billion stars in the Milky Way by taking a progressive series of small fractions: first, of stars with planets; next, of those planets with conditions suitable for life; next, of those planets on which life actually arises; next, of those planets where life advances to intelligence; next, of those planets on which intelligent life produces an advanced civilization; finally, of those planets where the advanced civilizations learn to live in peace and do not destroy themselves. Carl Sagan did the math in his 1980 television series, Cosmos, using what seemed to be the smallest reasonable fraction and yet, due to the stupendously large number of stars at the start, arriving at the stunning conclusion that there should be at least one million advanced civilizations in the Milky Way capable of communication. He thought it likely that "the sky is softly humming with messages from the stars." Cosmos (KCET television series, 1980), episode 12, "Encyclopaedia Galactica"; Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980), 298-302.

4. The story, translated by O. Gorchakov, is found in I. Yefremov, Stories (Moscow: Foreign Languages Publishing House, 1954), 193-260.

5. I. Yefremov, Andromeda (Moscow: For. Lang. Pub. House, 1963), 59-68. Yefremov's scheme is not far from the Soviet Strategic Plan for world domination formulated in 1967 by the Brezhnev regime and revealed in 1982 by defector Jan Šejna, former Chief of Staff to the Czechoslovakian Minister of Defense. The broad periods in that plan were: I. The Period of Preparation for Peaceful Co-Existence, 1956-1959; II. The Peaceful Co-Existence Struggle, 1960-1972; III. The Period of Dynamic Social Change, 1972-1995; IV. The Era of Global Democratic Peace, 1995-. Jan Sejna, We Will Bury You (London: Sidgwick and Jackson, 1982), chap. 10, "The Strategic Plan," esp. 106-7.

6. "Miliardy granei budushchego," Komsomol'skaya Pravda, 1/28/66, 3.

7. English translation by R. Prokofieva pub. in More Soviet Science Fiction (New York: Collier Books, 1962), 17-86.

8. Yefremov badly misrepresents "First Contact," which is actually a story about co-operation. Here is what Yefremov did not report: The captains of both the earth ship and the alien ship in Leinster's story express friendly intentions and a desire to exchange information, but as representatives of their respective planets must beware exposing them to attack or exploitation. The captains frankly state their predicament to each other and refrain from acting while they try to work out a solution. In the course of their three-week exchange, they discover that they are very much mirror-images--whatever one thinks, the other thinks, suggesting "parallel evolution" and an identity of "intelligent brains." Finally the hero Tommy, a young astrophysicist (the mission of the ship is to photograph the Crab Nebula), proposes that the two exchange spaceships, having first disconnected all tracking devices. The aliens simultaneously think up the same solution. The two sides then return to their respective planets with invaluable information (the ships) and an agreement to rendezvous at the same place at a designated time. Had he so desired, Yefremov could have cited the story as a precursor to his own advanced thought and fiction. See First Contact, ed. by Damon Knight (New York: Pinnacles Books, 1971), 9-44.

9. Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes (New York: Schocken, 1972), pp. 36-9. The more immediate parallel to Kafka's paradox in Soviet literature is the novel The Foundation Pit (Kotlovan, 1930) by Andrei Platonov, in which the building of a great future proletarian city produces an ever expanding pit. The workers live in a shack. Trans. by Thomas P. Whitney (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1973).

10. I. Yefremov, "Kak sozdavalsya Chas Byka," Molodaya Gvardiya No. 5 (Moscow, 1969), 313-14, quoted by Grebens, 80-81. Note also Yefremov's statement of 1970, in response to an interviewer who asked about his optimism concerning a peaceful "first contact": "It [this optimism] is founded first of all on the most profound belief that no other society but the Communist one can unite the whole planet and balance out human relations. Therefore, for me the question stands this way: either there will be a planetary Communist society, or there will be nothing at all, dust and sand on a dead planet." Ivan Yefremov, "Khoroshego v cheloveke mnogo..." [There's a lot that's good in man...], Fantastika 77 (Moscow: Mol. Gvardiya, 1977), 335.

11. As quoted by Grebens, Ivan Yefremov's Theory of Soviet Science Fiction, 83-4.

12. While Yevremov's work became a canon, his personal reputation became an enigma. The rumor circulated that on the day of his death the KGB came to search his apartment. The reason, according to one version, was that he had been a spy for the Chinese, according to another--that foul play was suspected in his death at age 66, according to a third--that the Strugatskys had informed on him. Admirers saw him as a noble and kind man who had lost his belief in Communism and suffered persecution as a result; detractors--as a cruel, overbearing opportunist who had sold himself to the highest bidder. See the debate in Novoye Russkoye Slovo (New York): 2/20/89, 2/23/89, 4/11/89, 4/22-23/89, 8/29/89.

13. "Izvne," in the collection Shest' spichek [Six Matches] (Moscow: Detgiz, 1960). Reprinted in Nenaznachennye vstrechi [Unscheduled Meetings] (Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 1980).

14. The story appears in Path into the Unknown: The Best of Soviet Science Fiction (New York: Dell, 1968), 89-109. Translator not named.

15. English version in Path into the Unknown, 110-22.

16. The story is published in the collection Journey Across Three Worlds, trans. by Gladys Evans (Moscow: Mir Publishers, 1973), 205-21. I could not locate the Russian source.

17. A discussion of three novels for teenage readers by the Strugatskys, similar in some respects to Yefremov, may be found in McGuire, op. cit., 71-6. The novels are Strana bagrovykh tuch [The Country of Purple Clouds], Stazhery [Trainees], Vozvrashchenie [The Return].

18. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Far Rainbow, trans. by Antonina W. Bouis (New York: Macmillan, 1979), 17.

19. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Final Circle of Paradise, trans. by Leonid Renen (New York: DAW, 1976). Here are excerpts translated from the Preface, not included in the DAW translation:

"The novella concerns an extremely alarming and steadily increasing tendency that is endemic in the modern capitalist world, a tendency revealing itself most openly, clearly and vulgarly in colonialist robbery and terroristic dictatorships, military interventions and economic piracy. But there is another side to bourgeois development--mass ideology, generated every day and every hour by the practice of privately owned enterprise. Such practice inculcates the view of a person as a source of gain... All this inevitably leads to the predominance of egoism, self-interest, trivial feelings and spiritual impoverishment. In a word, we have in mind current tendencies of the present-day bourgeois order, phenomena whose essence is revealed in the works of K. Marx, V.I. Lenin, phenomena that many honest writers and artists in the West are discussing... In order to show this as graphically as possible, perhaps even at the cost of a certain grotesqueness (the tried and true device of fantastic literature), we constructed a model of the Land of Fools. This land is contrived, just as grotesqueness in contrived. We did not set ourselves the task of showing the capitalist state with its poles of wealth and poverty, its inevitable class warfare. We could hardly cast light on all the facets, all the social contradictions of the capitalist state, in a single small-sized novella. Therefore we limited ourselves to one aspect, a very important one, in our view: the spiritual death that bourgeois ideology brings to man..." Khishchnye veshchi veka (Moscow: Molodaya Gvardiya, 1965), 130.

20. The translation is by Alice and Alexander Nakhimovsky, The Ugly Swans (New York: Collier, 1979). Sometimes, however, the translators tend to juice up the racy language and slang. I would question the rendering of "O chort!" into "Jesus!"

21. Roadside Picnic, trans. by Antonina Bouis (New York: Pocket Bks, 1977), 105-6.

22. Glad, 197-8. Note also 156-8, where Glad cites the conservative writer and critic Aleksandr Kazantsev, who in 1979 denounced the "fan method" of exploring the future and called for the heads of writers published by "the CIA-funded" emigre press "Posev." (The Russian texts of The Ugly Swans, The Snail on the Slope and Tale of the Troika were all published in Germany by "Posev.")

23. Rafail Nudel'man, "Razgovor v kupe" [Conversation in the Coach], Fantastika 64 (Moscow: Mol. Gvardiya, 1964), 347-67, esp. 364; Glad, 42, whose observation was originally made in his 1970 doctoral thesis (New York University).

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