Strugatsky Brothers as “anti-utopia within utopia”

Within the Russian-speaking cultural space the Strugatsky brothers need no special introduction. Their 1958 debut in a popular magazine “Technology for the Youth” ushered in the new era of science fiction in the Soviet Union. Books by Arkady and Boris enjoyed colossal print runs and became instant must-reads. Several generations of readers were raised on this alternative to social realism.

Most of Strugatsky legacy follows the triumphs and tribulations of future exploration of the Noon Universe. Their rise to literary fame coincided with the political thaw of the 1960s. The heroes of that time were creative types inspired by the technical and social progress. However, the authors foretold many moral and technical dilemmas facing the future generations: the work of the Experimental History Institute, aftermath of consumerist lifestyle, and struggle for survival inside the forbidden Zone. Such worldviews displeased and unnerved those in power. A magazine that printed one of their satirical novellas was promptly shut down in 1968. The government censors made edits by the hundreds and throughout the 1970s Strugatsky were virtually blacklisted. Only post-Soviet editions restored many of their books to the original auteur texts.

The brothers also wrote separately using pennames and translated from English and Japanese. They introduced Russian-speaking audiences to the classic Japanese works by Akutagawa Ryunosuke, Kobo Abe, Hiroshi Noma and others, in addition to the prose by Hal Clement, John Wyndham and the Grand Dame of American science fiction and fantasy – Andre Alice Norton. The Milky Way became a fitting Walk of Fame for the writers when in 1977 an asteroid was named after them. The Strugatskys continue to be culturally relevant. A successful computer game and a first domestic blockbuster flop were recently based on the cult novel “An Inhabited Island”.

Despite the fact that a limited edition of their books was published in 42 languages, the oeuvre of the Strugatsky brothers remains little known abroad. The fifth anniversary edition of Depesha offers an exclusive translation of an excerpt from their novella “The Little One” in its first English language publication.

 

The Little One

By Arkady Strugatsky and Boris Strugatsky
(excerpt)

I quietly moved over to my console and stopped the robots. Komov was sitting at the table, gnawing on his thumbnail and staring into the scattered pages of his notes. I asked his permission to go out.

“Why?” he perked up for a second, but quickly caught himself. “Ah, the robots… Yes, please. But as soon as you’re done, come back right away.”

I shepherded the kids into the hull, deactivated them, strapped them in for an unexpected take-off, and stood by the hatch for a few seconds, looking at the empty construction site, at the white walls of the weather station that was not to be, at the iceberg, still perfectly ambivalent… The planet seemed different now. Something changed. There was some purpose behind the fog, the low foliage, the rocky cliffs with lilac spots of snow. The silence was still there, but the emptiness was gone, and that felt good.

I came back into the ship, peeked into the mess hall, where the supremely annoyed Vanderhuse was digging through the library, and, feeling overwhelmed, I went to Maika to get some consolation. Maika rolled out a giant composite map all over the floor of her room and laid on it, a magnifying glass in her eye socket. She didn’t even turn to look at me.

“I don’t get it,” she said angrily. “There’s nowhere for them to live. We’ve surveyed all possibly suitable locations. They can’t live in the swamp, can they?”

“And why not?” I asked, sitting down.

Maika sat up with her legs crossed under her and looked at me through the magnifying glass.

“A humanoid cannot live in a swamp,” she said significantly.

“Why not?” I objected. “On Earth, there were tribes that lived on lakes; they built structures on stilts…”

“If only those swamps had a single structure in them…” Maika said.

“What if they live underwater, like water spiders, in air bubbles?”

Maika pondered.

“Nah,” she said regretfully, “he’d be dirty, he’d track dirt into the ship…”

“What if they have a water-resistant layer on their skin? Water-resistant and dirt-repelling… Did you see him glisten? And where did he disappear? And that locomotion mode of his… why?”

That got the discussion started. Under the pressure of multiple hypotheses that I advanced, Maika was forced to admit that theoretically, there was nothing that would prevent the locals from living in air bubbles, although she personally was inclined to agree with Komov, who thought the locals to be cave dwellers. “If you only saw those ravines,” she was saying. “That’s where we need to check…” She started pointing out locations. The locations looked unwelcoming even on the map; first, knolls overgrown with dwarf trees, then, foothills full of bottomless cracks, finally, the mountain ridge itself, wild and harsh, covered in snow, and beyond it, endless rocky flats, gloomy, completely lifeless, deep canyons cutting through. This was a deep-frozen bitterly-cold world, a world of bristled-up minerals, and simply thinking of having to live here and walk barefoot on the sharp pebbles gave me goose bumps.

“Don’t get depressed,” Maika consoled me. “I can show you the infrared scans; under this plateau, there are large pockets of underground warmth, so if they do live in caves, they probably are not suffering from cold.” I immediately retorted: what do they eat, then? “If there are cave-dwelling people,” Maika said, “there could be cave-dwelling animals, too. Then, there are moss and mushrooms, plus, plants that do photosynthesis in infrared are conceivable, too.” I imagined this life, this pitiful parody of what we think life is—continuous, yet anemic struggle for survival, monstrous sameness of experiences-and immediately started feeling very sorry for the locals. So I proclaimed that taking care of this race has to be a noble and thankful task. Maika objected; she thought it was a totally different deal; the Pantians were doomed, and were it not for us, they would simply disappear, their history ended. As to the locals, it was not at all clear if they had any use for us. It was possible that they were thriving without out attentions.

This was an old argument of ours. In my opinion, the human race knows enough to judge what sort of development has good historical prospects and what doesn’t. Maika doubts that. She thinks we know very little. We encountered twelve sentient races, including three non-humanoid ones. What sort of relationship we have with those non-humanoids, even Gorbovsky himself can’t tell. Have we made contact or not? If we have, was it something mutually agreed upon or have we simply forced ourselves onto them? Do they perceive us as brothers in intellect or as rare natural phenomenon, like unusual meteorites? With humanoids, it’s all clear; of nine humanoid races, only three have agreed to have anything to do with us, and even then, the Leonidians, for example, generously share their information with us, while politely, but decisively, rejecting ours. It seems obvious that quasi-organic mechanisms should be preferred to domesticated animals, but the Leonidians reject the mechanisms. Why? For a while, we argued about it, got confused, swapped viewpoints (Maika and I do that all the time), and finally, Maika proclaimed that it was all nonsense.

“That’s not important. Don’t you understand what the primary purpose of any contact is?” she asked. “Don’t you understand why the human race aspires to make contacts for two hundred years now, overjoyed when the contacts are successful and saddened when it doesn’t work?”

I did, of course.

“It’s the study of intelligence,” I said. “Research into the highest product of evolution.”

“This is correct in general,” Maika said, “but it’s only words, because in reality, we are interested not in the problem of intelligence in general, but that of our own, human intelligence; in other words, we are mostly interested in ourselves. For fifty thousand years now, we have been trying to understand what we are, but this problem can’t be solved from within; it’s just as impossible as lift yourself off the ground by pulling your own hair. We have to look at ourselves from the outside, through alien eyes, completely alien…”

“And why exactly do we have to do that?” I inquired aggressively.

“Because,” Maika said significantly, “the human race is becoming galactic. How do you see the human race in a hundred years?”

“How do I see it?” I shrugged. “Probably just like you do… The end of biological evolution, breaking through the galactic barrier, entry into the null-world… Contact vision becoming common, realization of P-abstractions…”

“I am not asking you about your ideas about the human race’s achievements in a hundred years. I am asking you, how do you see the human race itself in a hundred years?”

I blinked, confused. I wasn’t understanding the difference. Maika looked at me victoriously.

“Have you heard of Komov’s ideas?” she asked. “Vertical progress and all that?”

“Vertical progress?” I began to remember something. “Wait… It’s Borovik, Mikawa… Right?”

She reached into her desk and started rummaging.

“While you were in the bar dancing with your dear Tanya, Komov got the guys together in the library… Here,” she handed me a crystal recorder, “Listen!”

I reluctantly put the recorder on and started listening. It was something like a lecture, delivered by Komov; the record started in the middle of a sentence. Komov spoke slowly, simply, very accessibly, seemingly adapting to the audience. He drew examples, made jokes. What he was trying to get at was along the following lines.

The man of Earth has achieved everything he planned and is now becoming the man of the galaxy. For a hundred thousand years, the human race was crawling along a narrow cave, losing its members in cave-ins and dead ends, but there was always a goal, the blue light at the end of the tunnel; and now we are out of the cave, spreading over the vast expanse of a plateau. The plateau is vast indeed, so there are places to spread into. But now we see that it is indeed a plateau, and above it is the sky. The new dimension. Yes, it feels good to be on the plateau, and we can spend as much time as we want realizing P-abstractions. And it seems that nothing pushes us up, into the new dimension… But the man of the galaxy isn’t just the man of Earth living in the vast expanses of the galaxy according to the laws of Earth. He is something more. He lives according to different laws, he has other goals. And so far, we know neither those laws nor those goals. So, in a nutshell, we need to formulate the ideals of the man of the galaxy. The ideals of the man of Earth were defined for thousands of years, based on the experience of ancestors, including other life forms. The ideals of the man of the galaxy, it seems, should be defined based on the experience of other galactic life forms, including different sentient beings that have lived in this galaxy. So far, we don’t even know how to approach this problem, and we will need to actually solve it, and solve it in a way that would minimize possible losses and errors. The human race never accepts challenges it is not ready to tackle. This is true, but this is also painful…

The record ended just like it began, in the middle of a sentence.

To be honest, this went straight over my head. What do the galactic ideals have to do with it all? In my opinion, humans in space aren’t galactic beings. I’d say just the opposite; they extend Earth into space, along with its comforts, its norms, its mores. If you want the truth, to me, as well as to everyone I know, the ideal future is one where our tiny planet expands itself to the edges of the galaxy and then possibly beyond. I proceeded to communicate all this to Maika, but we suddenly noticed that Vanderhuse was in the room and it looked like he’d been there for a while. He stood leaning against the wall, playing with his lynx-like sideburns and looking at us with an absorbed and absent-minded camel-like expression on his face. I stood up and pulled a chair for him.

“Thank you,” Vanderhuse said, “but I’d rather stand.”

“So what do you think about it?” Maika asked him forcefully.

“About what?”

“About vertical progress.”

Vanderhuse was silent for a while, then sighed and said,

“We don’t know who discovered water, but it definitely wasn’t the fish.”

 

Featured in DEPESHA vol. 5 Anniversary Double Issue (September 2011) available now for pre-order.

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