Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Education of a King's Man, and a Reader

I recently read Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, pursuant to a New Year’s resolution to catch up on classics I’d missed, It was first published in 1946, and won the Pulitzer Prize the next year The 1949 film version won an Academy Award. I’d seen the movie several times, and once started the book without getting past the first chapter. But there was that New Year’s resolution, and I had Warren’s novel in hand…

Only it wasn’t the original 1946 edition, which won a Pulitzer prize, but a “restored” version published in 2002 and based on Warren’s original manuscript. Some of the changes were minor, some major – including the name of the Boss, Willie Stark. If you’ve read the book or seen the movie, or even just read about them, you know that Stark was based on Huey Long, the Louisiana populist demagogue who might have become a contender for president if he hadn’t been assassinated in 1935.

Some critics today are comparing him to Donald Trump, but that is misleading. While Stark is just as vitriolic as Trump – “Crucify ‘em” he says of his opponents (134, changed from “Nail ‘em up!” in the 1946 version), just as Trump called for Hillary Clinton to be locked up. But he isn’t a billionaire wolf in populist sheep’s clothing. He comes from the sticks, and though he has a veneer of higher education, he’s still at heart one of the hicks he speaks for, and his populist agenda is more like that of Bernie Sanders -- “Share the Wealth.” That comes across in the scene where he abandons a dry, dull conventional campaign address, going off the cuff to appeal to them on their own gut level. His impromptu speech was used almost verbatim in the movie version below (available on YouTube):

<< I have a speech here. It's a speech about what this state needs. There's no need in my telling you what this state needs. You are the state and you know what you need. You over there, look at your pants. Have they got holes in the knees? Listen to your stomach. Did you ever hear it rumble for hunger? And you, what about your crops? Did they ever rot in the field because the road was so bad you couldn't get 'em to market? And you, what about your kids? Are they growin' up ignorant as dirt, ignorant as you 'cause there's no school for 'em? [casts his speech away] Naw, I'm not gonna read you any speech.>>

Perhaps the most famous scene in the book is the one where Stark explains to Adam Stanton, the doctor who will end up shooting him, what he’s trying to bring about. Here’s the movie version:

<<Do you know what good comes out of?...Out of bad. That's what good comes out of. Because you can't make it out of anything else. You didn't know that, did you?>>

The line is so familiar that it was even paraphrased by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (or perhaps this is a retranslation from the Russian version of the novel) as an epigram for their science fiction novel Roadside Picnic (1972): "You have to make the good out of the bad because that is all you have got to make it out of."

But when Stanton asks Stark how he can tell the difference between the good and the bad, Stark offers what seems a snap answer: “You just make it up as you go along.” That much made it into the movie, but in the novel Stark goes on to offer a cynical version of what he means: from the time somebody induced apes come out of the trees, “what folks claim is right is always just a couple of jumps short of what they need to do business on.” (360). And as he tells Jack Bearden, “Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption” (72) – a Calvinistic belief that denies any power of choice to the individual.

Bearden is seemingly little more than a narrator in the movie version, with the focus entirely on Stark. One of the major plot details has to do with an attempt by the State Legislature to impeach the governor – Stark responding by calling on his minions to “get the hicks out” to march on the capital, amid rumors that he might even stage a military coup. But the mob is enough, and a radio announcer proclaims: “Attention, please. Attention, please. The balloting on the impeachment proceedings against Governor Stark has just ended. Here is the result: Willie Stark has won.”

And the fadeout comes with a dying Stark’s last words: “It could have been the whole world, Willie Stark. The whole world… Willie Stark. Why did he do it to me… Willie Stark? Why?” (Huey Long’s last words were seemingly more idealistic: “God, don’t let me die. I have so much to do.” Or maybe Long had even conned himself.)

But the novel refers only passingly to the impeachment uproar, and it doesn’t end with Stark’s death. Burden is more than just a witness and at times accomplice to Stark; he is the protagonist of what might even be called a bildungsroman, a novel of moral education. A blogger who calls himself Efrra made that point in a 2014 post:

<<The human problem is the simultaneous knowledge of the inescapability of sin and the 'agony of will'. Stark  justifies his ways with the aphorism that 'man is conceived in sin and born in corruption and he passes from the stink of the didie to the stench of the shroud'. But the last thing Stark says is: “It might have all been different, Jack. You got to believe that.” Despite the inseparability of good and evil, human volition cannot be forsaken.>>

It might have been different. That is what Burden has to learn, at incredible cost. One of his assignments is to dig up dirt on Judge Monty Irwin in order to blackmail him – he succeeds, but Irwin commits suicide, and only after that does Burden learn that the judge was his own father. There is a long recollection of Burden’s on-again, off-again romance with Anne Stanton, sister of Adam Stanton – who has been offered a chance to head a new hospital offering free care to the needy. Adam can’t stand Stark, but accepts the job anyway – only to become enraged when he learns Anne has slept with him. By that time, she is married to Burden, and he is so devastated that he flees to California, despairing of any hope that life can be anything but reflex action – “the Great Twitch” (605) as he later calls it. But after having lived and learned, he can no longer believe in that. Having reconciled with Anne, they are ready to “go together into the convulsion of the world, out of history into history and the awful responsibility of Time.” (609)

I’d already figured out for myself what the real point of the novel was before I discovered that others had long since found that same point. But with only the movie to go on, I had blithely assumed otherwise.

Noel Polk, who edited the “restored” version, offers an Appendix and afterword explaining the changes. One he is especially proud of is a passage deleted from the original version, in which Burden narrates the events leading up to the assassination without revealing that he was married to Anne at the time, and knew about his father: “I shall keep distinct what I knew that day, and what I came subsequently to know.” (535)

Another major change is an impressionistic first chapter, rejected by Warren’s original editor, which introduces Boss Willie and his aides after he has achieved power, through one of his public works projects – “You follow Highway 58, going north-east out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at and at you.” (1) That same chapter also has a reference to Yankees who got rich off the South after the Civil War, then returned north to eventually will their art collections to “adorn the ivy-clad Gothic halls of Pissproud College” (3) Polk’s appendix reproduces the first chapter of the 1946 edition, which opens in a more conventional manner: “The boss was a son-of-a-bitch, and I will not deny it.” (613)

But I think Polk was dead wrong to embrace Warren’s original name for the Boss: Willie Talos. Talos was the bronze man of Greek mythology who ruled Crete until he was outwitted and slain by Medea – “Talos is indeed much richer than Stark in the ‘metaphorical overtones.’” (636) But such overtones don’t belong in a realistic novel, where nobody can wonder why the Boss has such an odd name. It’s simply jarring. And I can’t help but wonder: could a man named Huey Talos ever have made it as the Boss of Louisiana?

Page references are to the 2002 edition,

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Finding New Things in Old Virginia

We all know about Jamestown and Williamsburg and Yorktown. Or do we? Polls indicate that a lot of young people these days don’t even know who George Washington was… But even those who remember the kind of history once taught in schools have a lot to learn.
I sure did in a week-long Road Scholar tour and series of programs about colonial Virginia – in particular, Jamestown, Williamsburg and Yorktown – that my wife Marcia treated us to. I’d been to Williamsburg and Yorktown before, but never to Jamestown – because there wasn’t any Jamestown. It wasn’t until 2004 that archaeologists found the original site of the first European settlement in Virginia – there had been a re-creation before that, but the archaeologists discovered that some of the details were wrong, and funds haven’t been found yet to correct them.
Most people wouldn’t care about those details, such as how the palisade around the fort was constructed. But there are a lot of things about colonial and revolutionary times that I’d never known.
If we know about Yorktown, we know that is where Lord Cornwallis and the British army were trapped in 1781 by Washington’s army and our French allies – on land and sea. The French fleet blocked the British from coming to Cornwallis’ rescue and, after a siege of the town, he was forced to surrender. What I’d never heard before, however, was that he’d had a plan to escape across the York with a flotilla of flatboats. It might have worked, and changed the outcome of the war – only a sudden Noreaster scattered the boats. Such are the chances of history…
We all know about the grievances that led to the Revolution – the stamp act, the tea tax and all the rest. What I hadn’t appreciated was that the British parliament authorized the trials of anyone violating such acts by military as opposed to civilian courts – just like those suspected of terrorism in our own time. And I was told by one speaker that there were other grievances unmentioned in the Virginia Declaration of Rights that was the inspiration for both the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights – such as prohibitions on the manufacture of steel and anything made from beavers; those were supposed to be a monopoly for British manufacturers.
Yet we saw a silversmith using a rounded piece of steel to form a silver cup, as was common practice on colonial times, and another speaker told me that the supposed ban on making steel was never enforced. That led me to wonder about another sensitive issue: slavery. The first Africans brought to Virginia were treated as indentured servants, just like poor white people; they were freed after seven years. But a series of court rulings stripped black people of their rights, and a 1705 law made slavery the law of the colony. Yet slavery was illegal in Britain itself, and any law authorizing enslavement of, say, Irish or Scottish highlanders was unthinkable – Ireland and Scotland were dominions of the Crown; but so were Virginia and the other colonies. Britain could have abolished slavery in America, but chose not to do so.
Among the delights of the program were the speakers and performers. Carson Hudson was especially good on the military history, and Debbie Downs on African American music and storytelling. Bunny Rich was always entertaining as our guide on the field trips. But the most memorable was Antoinette Brennan, who re-created Martha Goosley, a woman who lived in Yorktown and was related to all sorts of “proper people” as she called them. Brennan was totally in character with her rambling, stream-of-consciousness account, as if she were talking to just a stranger to her town as opposed to a stranger to her time.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Architects of Conscience

I am an animal, you see that I’m an animal. I have no words, they haven’t taught me the words; I don’t know how to think, those bastards didn’t let me learn how to think. But if you really are—all-powerful, all knowing, all understanding—figure it out! Look into my soul. I know—everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone. It’s mine, it’s human![i]
Redrick Schuhart’s desperate prayer for justice and decency, which comes at the end of Roadside Picnic (1972), is addressed to a “god” that is only one of the baffling pieces of technological debris left on our planet by passing aliens as we ourselves might leave trash behind after a picnic. The visitation zones are as fiendishly indifferent to mankind as the alien artifact in Algis Budrys’ Rogue Moon (1960), but in the sf of Arkady (1925-1991) and Boris (1933-2012) Strugatsky, the indifference and uncaring inertia of human society are as cruel as the cosmos. In their science fiction, they struggled unceasingly against that inertia and indifference to reawaken the moral and social conscience.
The Strugatskys have been interpreted and reinterpreted and misinterpreted. Marxist critic/theorist Darko Suvin (Metamorphoses of Science Fiction, 1979 and other works) and American academic Stephen W. Potts (The Second Marxian Invasion, 1991) both take them to have been true believing Communists. That is indeed how they represented themselves during Soviet times, as witness an interview with Arkady published in Soviet Literature in 1983:
Soviet science fiction is the child of the great revolution, and that explains its mission and special features. Our science fiction is socially and ideologically committed and humane… Its ideal is communist humanism and it approaches all problems from this angle… It fosters an active mentality, a kind of mentality that is intolerant of narrow-minded bourgeois attitudes.[ii]
Alexander Genis, an émigré Russian author who grew up reading the Strugatskys, credited them in an essay on the occasion of Boris’ death with having “vindicated the fundamental myth of the entire Soviet regime” in their Noon Universe future history, but argued that their Communist heroes “evolved from one book to the next, acquiring supernatural abilities and losing human traits,” until they became so inhuman they “frightened even the authors.”[iii] Only, what Genis calls their best novel, The Snail on the Slope, a sly critique of Soviet ideology, was first conceived in 1965, well before the Noon Universe novels that venture into transhumanism.
In Arkady Strugatsky’s solo novel Devil Amongst People (1991, as by S. Yaroslavtsev), published as the Soviet Union was coming apart, the protagonist has experienced the worst horrors of Soviet times, from the Gulags to Chernobyl. But the brothers’ disillusionment actually dates back to 1962, when they were working on Hard to be a God (1964).
Nikita Khrushchev had just denounced modern art, and that was followed by campaign against post-thaw works by writers like Ilya Ehrenburg and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. At a 1963 conference of the science fiction section of the Moscow Writers Organization, Genrikh Altov was assailed by Aleksandr Kazantsev over “The Star River Test” (1960), in which a scientist who has devoted 20 years to faster-than-light communication and travel is persuaded to give it up to save three subterranean explorers who are trapped far underground. For Kazantsev, just imagining FTL was equivalent to making common cause with fascists against Einstein. Only, given that Altov was of Jewish descent (his real name was Altshuller), and had done time in a labor camp under Stalin – he had begun work there on developing an influential theory about patterns of invention[iv] – this attack was especially outrageous.
“I broke out in a cold sweat,”[v] Boris later recalled. Even though the denunciations of liberal sf (joined by Anatoly Dneprov and others) didn’t lead to any arrests, he feared for the worst – concluding that, whatever he and Arkady thought communism should stand for, it was not what the Soviet regime stood for. “We shouldn’t have illusions,” he said he realized at the time. “We shouldn’t have hopes for a brighter future. We were being governed by goons and enemies of culture. They will never be with us. They will always be against us. They will never let us say what we believe is right, because what they believe is right is completely different.”[vi]
Only five years later, Yefremov came under attack for The Bull’s Hour (1968), a sequel to Andromeda that was seen as veiled criticism of the Soviet regime although it was ostensibly directed only at capitalism and the Chinese version of Communism.[vii] The Strugatskys had to play things very cagily over the next two decades. But after the collapse of Soviet power, Boris emerged as a relentless critic of all authoritarianism, past and present, which he feared was endemic in Russia. On the occasion of the invasion of Georgia in 2008, he remarked: “We already have returned to the beginning of the 1980s. God forbid that this doesn’t take us back to the end of the 1930s.”[viii] One of his last political acts was to sign an open letter urging Vladimir Putin’s regime to free members of the punk rock band Pussy Riot, who had been jailed for offending the Russian Orthodox Church. He had also corresponded with imprisoned oil tycoon Mikhail Khodorkovsky.[ix]
Khodorkovsky was a fan of the Strugatskys’ works, especially Space Mowgli, Hard to be a God and Roadside Picnic. “When you finally come to the third, you begin to dislike not only the ‘Soviet power,’ but any totalitarian or authoritarian rule in principle,”[x] he wrote in Prison and Freedom (2012). In 2004, Boris voiced sympathy for at least some private enterprise (Arkady’s daughter Mariya had married Yegor Gaydar, who under Boris Yeltsin tried to revive the Russian economy with capitalist shock therapy.), while condemning the “dictatorship of bureaucrats” under both the Soviet and post-Soviet regimes.[xi] 
Had the Strugatskys expressed such views openly during Soviet times, they could have ended up in the Gulag. They might have chosen to become dissidents – their work appearing only under cover names in samizdat or published abroad, as in the case of Yuli Daniel with This is Moscow Speaking and Other Stories (1968) – attracting sympathy in the West without reaching their own countrymen. But they chose a more difficult course of true humanists playing under the protective coloration of “Communist” humanists. Their works thus reached millions of Russian readers, and several – notably Roadside Picnic, Inhabited Island (Prisoners of Power, 1969-71) and Hard to be a God – have been brought to the screen. The Strugatskys are still read, and still influences to be reckoned with, at home and even abroad in translation. Putin himself officially mourned the passing of Boris in 2012; would he have shed crocodile tears for any other critic of his regime?
Ursula K. Le Guin, in an introduction to a new translation of Roadside Picnic, observed that while the Strugatskys never seemed to be “directly critical of their government’s policies,” they wrote “as if they were indifferent to ideology… They wrote as free men write.”[xii] Yet they weren’t living in a free country, and they had to make allowances for that. Moreover, according to Patrick L. McGuire, Boris Strugatsky indicated to biographer Ant Skalandis that “the brothers’ outlooks seem to have been modified more on the basis of the general evolution of the Soviet intelligentsia”[xiii] than on their personal experiences, about which little has been written. McGuire offered a new analysis of the Strugatskys’ “traditional” science fiction in the October, November and December 2013 issues of The New York Review of Science Fiction.
In their early works, the Strugatskys played the role of mainstream post-Stalin Marxists. The Noon Universe future history that begins with The Land of Crimson Clouds (1959) follows the scenario outlined by Khrushchev for the triumph of socialism through economic and ideological competition, as opposed to violent revolution. Here we meet Aleksei Bykov, Vladimir Yurkovsky, and Grigory Dauge, three comrades who prove their mettle while risking their lives to develop a uranium golconda (a natural nuclear reactor) on a hellish Venus on behalf of the Soviet Union.
It is a period of international competition in space, but in their first mission, the Soviet heroes never come face to face with their counterparts from capitalist countries, who remain voices on the radio. In “The Way to Amalteia” (1960), Bykov commands the Takhmasib, a photon freighter on a relief mission to a research base on Jupiter’s innermost moon; planetologists Yurkovsky and Dauge are part of his crew. By this time, they are legend for their exploits on Venus, and young Ivan Zhilin, who has signed on as flight engineer, fresh out of the Advanced School of Cosmogation, is ecstatic at the chance to serve with them. When the Takhmasib comes to grief in the Jovian atmosphere, Zhilin finds himself working to the point of exhaustion by Bykov’s side to repair the photon reflector so that the ship can escape and bring its vital supplies to J-Station.
Foreign astronauts and scientists like Charles Mollart, a French crewman aboard the Takhmasib, begin to appear in “The Way to Amalteia,” but there isn’t any sign of ideological conflict until Space Apprentice (1962). The apprentice, Yuri Borodin, is a vacuum welder trainee assigned to Rhea, who misses his ship and hitches a ride with Bykov and his comrades on the Takhmasib. At Mirza-Charle spaceport, his initial encounter with Zhilin takes place at Your Old Mickey Mouse, a bar-café run by a man named Joyce who prides himself as being his own boss but who is seen by the Russians as a pathetic figure, sacrificing himself to a life of boring work for the sake of providing himself with an economic security that would be his birthright under socialism.
The aging Dauge has retired by this time, but Zhilin is still flight engineer on the Takhmasib under Bykov. Yurkovsky has moved up in the world – as inspector general of the International Administration of Cosmic Communications (IACC), with powers to “reduce rank, chew out, deride, fire, replace, appoint, and even, it seemed, use force”[xiv] to maintain law and social justice on the space frontier. On the asteroid Bamberga, Yurkovsky shuts down a gangster-ridden gem-mining operation, Space Pearl Ltd., that endangers miners (and their unborn children) through exposure to cosmic radiation. The pay is fabulous, however, and most of the miners, philistines to the end, when offered construction and technical work elsewhere, are interested only in how much it will pay.
“Naturally, about five times less than here,” Yurkovsky said. “But you will have work for the rest of your lives, and good friends, real people who will turn you into real people too! And you’ll be healthy and be part of the most important work in the world.”[xv]
On Dione, a Soviet research station has fallen under the sway of Vladislav Shershen, a careerist who has exploited his power as director to play his subordinates off against each other, to claim credit for their work, and so on. Morale has been destroyed, and Yurkovsky must set things right by getting rid of Shershen and his chief toady, but not without giving the staff a tongue-lashing:
“I didn’t expect this of you young people. How easy it was to make you revert to your prehistoric condition, to put you on all fours – three years, one glory hungry maniac, and one provincial intriguer. And you bent over, turned into animals, lost your human image... You should be ashamed of yourselves!”[xvi]
Much else happens in Space Apprentice, from a roundup of flying leeches on Mars to the tragic deaths of Yurkovsky and one of his other comrades in an accident exploring Saturn’s rings. As in American juvenile sf by Robert A. Heinlein, Borodin comes of age by learning from older and wiser heads. The novel ends with Zhilin’s decision to give up the chance for a berth on a Transpluto expedition in order to work for mankind at home: “The most important thing is on Earth,” he reflects. “The most important thing always stays on Earth, and I will stay on Earth, too.”[xvii]
In the Final Circle of Paradise (1965), we meet Zhilin again; now a secret agent for the United Nations, he is investigating a mysterious social disorder in the Country of the Boob, a prosperous – that in itself was enough to make the novel controversial[xviii] – capitalist state in the Mediterranean area. Although the Strugatskys’ approach to near-future sociological sf is clumsy compared to that common in the West – the imaginary country has too much of a fairy-tale quality about it; and the “secret,” a device to stimulate the brain with electric current, as in Larry Niven’s “Death by Ecstasy” (1969), could never be kept secret in an open society – the moral vision of their novel still comes through. Zhilin emerges as the first of their archetypical heroes of utopian conscience in his struggle against the philistinism endemic in a materialistic culture, which has been unable to find any goals beyond immediate sensual gratification.
A decadent intelligentsia, personified by “new-optimist” philosopher Sliy Opir, sanctions this state of affairs. “Satisfy love and hunger,” prescribes Opir. “All the utopias of all times are based on this simplest of considerations.”[xix] But alcoholism and drug addiction are widespread, and alienated youth take part in orgiastic street dances, or “Shivers,” which are subject to disruption by guerrilla attacks from the even more alienated Intels. Eventually, Zhilin exposes the ugly secret of “slug,” the current addiction device. But that is not enough, he realizes:
What a labor lies ahead, I thought... I didn’t know where to begin in this Country of the Boob, caught unprepared in a flood of affluence, but I knew that I wouldn’t leave here as long as the immigration laws permitted. And when they stopped permitting it, I would break them...[xx]
We never see the final crisis of capitalism, for a Communist world utopia has become a reality in Noon: 22nd Century (1967) – “in the square in front of Finland Station in Leningrad, Lenin held out his arm over this city and over this world, this shining and wonderful world that he had seen two centuries before.”[xxi] In its broad outlines, the Strugatskys’ vision of utopia resembles Yefremov’s. Automated farms and factories serve mankind’s economic needs, and a network of moving roads links the far-flung parts of the world together. There is no sign of centralized power or administration (For that matter, the Communist Party is never referred to again after The Land of Crimson Clouds.); everything seems to just run itself. Children are raised in boarding schools, but relations between teachers and pupils are as warm and intimate as those in some of the closest families of old. Although meals are usually communal, utopians often have their own homes and, to keep in touch with their friends, through sophisticated videophone networks and easy access to pterocars.
It is a time of revolutionary advances in science and technology. Faster-than-light D-ships have brought worlds of other stellar systems within mankind’s reach, and a medical procedure involving both immunization and radiation therapy at birth has freed mankind from disease and has given ordinary men an almost superhuman vigor. Philistinism and other social disorders are a thing of the past, it seems, and only the frontiers of space and the challenge of alien contact present any ethical problems.
Leonid Gorbovsky, a recurring hero in the Noon Universe history, represents the antithesis of Yefremov’s anthropocentric philosophy. In Noon: 22nd Century, he is an astroarchaeologist with the Commission on Contacts; when we first encounter him, he is organizing an expedition of assaultmen to Vladislava, a planet with two artificial satellites and possibly a hidden city on the surface – all left by the Wanderers, an apparently long-vanished race like Niven’s Thrintun in the Known Space series. Later, we find Gorbovsky pondering such mysteries as the Voice of the Void, which few like to talk about because it cannot be explained. Still later, he orders the abandonment of a research station on Leonida, where his Pathfinders have disturbed a biological civilization – “Not machines, but selection, genetics, animal training. Who knows what forces they’ve mastered?”[xxii] – without realizing it is a civilization.
Sergei Kondratiev, whose mission on the slower-than-light Taimyr has carried him through time as well as space (an old convention in Western sf), represents the traditional outsider in utopian sf; he finds a new career with the Oceanic Guard and is happily integrated into the utopian society at the end. But in “Escape Attempt” (1962), there comes the first close encounter between a utopian Earth and a dystopian society beyond. In a scenario akin to an episode of The Twilight Zone, two young adventurers about to set out for an unexplored planet are approached by a mysterious stranger, Saul Repnin, and they agree to take him along.
The planet turns out to be a cross between a feudal autarchy and a fascist police state, with one novelty of its own: there is a moving road, filled with vehicles left by the Wanderers, and political prisoners are forced to risk their lives by probing controls at random to try to find out how they work. Vadim and Anton, the young adventurers, know Wanderer technology when they see it, but they are too innocent to understand the sort of society they have run into, until Repnin rubs their noses in the hard facts. Repnin, it turns out, is a World War II Red Army tank commander who has somehow psychically “escaped” in time after being taken prisoner, but decides to return to his own world in the end.
Strugatsky protagonists similarly confront dystopian worlds in Hard to Be a God and Prisoners of Power (1969, revised 1971). Although the social systems on these worlds are likened to feudalism and fascism, it is obvious that they also represent the dark heritage of Stalinism. Hard to Be a God was first conceived as a light adventure story in the vein of Dumas’ The Three Musketeers.[xxiii] But after the shock of the attacks on the liberal intelligentsia in 1962-3, the brothers Strugatsky had second thoughts, and gave it a darker turn. McGuire argues that Hard to be a God isn’t part of the Noon Universe future history,[xxiv] but the two novels are nevertheless thematically akin in the confrontation between agents of a humanist utopian future Earth and the brutal and backward worlds on which they are stationed.
In Hard to be a God, a coup by an alliance of storm troopers and religious fanatics in a kingdom called Arkanar (the planet itself isn’t named in the story) is accompanied by a fabricated doctors’ plot and persecution of intellectuals – complete with stage-managed confessions and show trials – and the familiar cult of personality. Don Reba, the man behind it all, is based on Stalin’s enforcer Beria, and he is supported by religious zealots who write manifestos like A Treatise on Denunciation – as well as common gangsters, although those are later purged.
Anton Malyshev, masquerading as nobleman Don Rumata, has been working undercover for five years. Like his fellow Terrans, he finds it increasingly difficult to maintain his role as a dispassionate observer, especially when the events now unfolding contradict the Basis Theory of feudalism promulgated by the Institute of Experimental History, which supervises its agents on the ground from a space station. Early on, he lets loose at a fellow undercover agent:
“I don’t like that we’ve tied our hands and feet with the very foundation of the problem. I don’t like that it’s called the Problem of Nonviolent Impact. Because under my conditions that means a scientifically justified inaction. I’m aware of all your objections! And I’m aware of the theory. But here there are no theories, here there are typical fascist practices, here animals are murdering humans every minute!”[xxv]
He longs to “hack them to pieces, set them on fire, hurl them down from the palace steps onto the spears and pitchforks of a roaring crowd.”[xxvi] Yet he knows that Earth cannot intervene, cannot bring about a golden age on Arkanar: social consciousness is too low. In a dialogue reminiscent in its power of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s parable of the Grand Inquisitor in The Brothers Karamazov, Anton tries to explain things to Dr. Budach, an intellectual he has managed to rescue from the new order – the sort of small favor he is allowed to perform. Perhaps sensing that Anton really is more than he seems, Budach begins to touch on all the hard questions he might put to a deity:
“I would ask God to shield the weak. ‘Enlighten the cruel princes,’ I would say.”
 “Cruelty is power. Having lost their cruelty the princes would lose their power, and other cruel men would replace them.”
Budach’s stopped smiling. “Punish the cruel,” he said firmly, “so that it would become unseemly for the strong to be cruel to the weak.”
“Man is born weak. He becomes strong when there’s no one stronger around him. And when the cruel among the strong will be punished, their place will be taken by the strongest of the weak. Who will then be cruel. Then everyone will have to be chastised, and this I do not desire.”
“You know best, Almighty Lord. Then just make it so that people have all they need and do not take away from each other that which you gave them.”
“Even this will not benefit people,” Rumata sighed, “for when they get everything for free, without working for it, from my hands, they will forget how to work, lose their zest for life, and become my pets, whom I will henceforth be forced to feed and clothe for all eternity.”[xxvii]
On it goes, until Budach can think of nothing more than to pray that God might remake his race, or at least ordain that it follow a better path. “My heart is full of pity,” answers Anton, “I cannot do that.”[xxviii] Anton himself suffers a mental breakdown when Kira, a native woman he loves, is slain by a crossbowman before his eyes during a mob attack. He manages to avenge her by killing Don Reba; the Terrans on the space station secure his escape by releasing sleep gas on the capital.
In Prisoners of Power, mankind does intervene on Saraksh, a world at a much higher level of technological development – too high for its own good. An atomic war has already devastated this world: “millions upon millions had perished; thousands of cities had been destroyed; dozens of large and small nations had been wiped off the face of the planet.”[xxix] Out of the ensuing chaos, famines, and epidemics, has emerged the All Powerful Creators (Unknown Fathers in the original text and a 2008-9 movie version), a military-technological elite which has restored order in the Central Empire and has managed to run the economy well enough to win widespread popularity among all classes. Or so it seems, for the real secret of the Creators is their broadcast mind-control system – an old concept in Soviet sf, going back to Belyayev’s Ruler of the World (1929):
The field was everywhere. Invisible, omnipresent, all pervasive. A gigantic network of towers enmeshing the entire country emitted radiation around the clock. It purged tens of millions of souls of any doubts they might have about the All Powerful Creators’ works and deeds.[xxx]
The only people immune to the mind-control broadcasts are the despised degens, political dissidents. The same radiation that brainwashes an ordinary man paralyzes a degen with pain, and degens caught in the open are easily rounded up. All this and more is revealed only gradually, through the eyes of Maxim Kammerer, a young explorer stranded on Saraksh, who believes he is the only Earthman there. In order to learn more about the world and what he can do, he joins the Fighting Legion, an elite force charged with defending the frontier regions from post-nuclear barbarians; later he joins the dissidents (socialists, technocrats, new-Rousselians), who seem to be weak and divided among themselves.
Some dissidents hope to take advantage of another war that is breaking out with neighboring Khonti, but they can’t come up with any real plans. Kammerer, despairing of the underground, decides to strike out on his own: like a latter-day James Bond, he manages to outwit everyone, including the secret police of the dread Strannik (Wanderer), to locate and destroy the broadcast center – only to learn moments later that Strannik is actually an agent of Galactic Security, whose careful plan for the salvation of Saraksh has just been derailed by his impetuous action. Kammerer is abashed, and yet he is not repentant: the mind-control broadcasts should never have been allowed to continue, even if they did make Strannik’s work easier. He is willing to work with Strannik’s mission in any capacity he can, he says. “But I’m damned sure about one thing; I’ll never permit another Center to be built as long as I live. Even with the best of intentions.”[xxxi]
The Strugatskys’ approach to the intervention theme influenced other sf, including Yefremov’s The Hour of the Bull (1970) – and also aroused criticism in fundamentalist quarters for casting doubt on the legitimacy of wars of liberation.[xxxii] But the Strugatskys themselves began to turn critical eyes inward, at the institutions of the seeming utopian order itself, rather than outward at the confrontation with pre-utopian worlds. “Far Rainbow” (1963) was a harbinger of this new direction in the Strugatskys’ work. Rainbow is a world devoted entirely to research, especially in Zero-Transport (matter transmission), it has become a warped society; its scientists think of nothing but their work.
One of them, Camill, is the last of the Devil’s Dozen: scientists with grafted computer implants that render them totally rational – and totally inhuman. Disaster strikes: an experiment goes wrong, creating deadly waves that spread toward the equator from both poles. Only the children can be evacuated in the one ship available; the rest face their doom. All but Camill, who has risen from the dead before and will again, “alone on a dead planet, covered with ashes and snow.”[xxxiii] Yet he has always been alone: “You tear out the emotional half of humanity and leave only one reaction to the world surrounding you – doubt.”[xxxiv]
At one point in “Far Rainbow,” Gorbovsky shares the story of the Massachusetts Machine, an artificial intelligence that had once almost taken over the world: “Leonid, it was terrifying,”[xxxv] one of its creators told him. In Beetle in the Anthill (1979-80), the heretofore invisible state machinery begins to seem more ominous. Rudolf Sikorski – whom Maxim Kammerer encountered on Saraksh as Strannik – is now head of a security agency, COMCON-2, that evolved out of the original Commission on Contacts but is concerned with threats from other worlds.
It seems that the Wanderers are still active, after all. In Space Mowgli (1973), we get an inkling of them, through their influence on a youth marooned for years on a desert planet. But their intervention is more far reaching on Hope, a planet from which they have removed nearly all the population after the local civilization succumbed to an ecological disaster of its own making. Lev Abalkin, who took part in the investigation of the Hope mystery, is another of the Devil’s Dozen – here described as thirteen foundlings, raised from fertilized human ova found in sarcophagus at an abandoned Wanderer installation. Mankind has its Progressors, who guide the social evolution of Saraksh and other primitive worlds; what if the Wanderers are similarly attempting to intervene in our evolution?
To neutralize any such threat, Sikorski uses his influence with the Council on Social Problems to have the foundlings raised apart from each other and kept away from Earth afterward, although this violates their fundamental rights and personal dignity. When Abalkin nevertheless suddenly returns to Earth and then drops out of sight, Sikorski is alarmed, and puts Kammerer on the case without telling him what it is actually about. In a brilliantly ambiguous narrative; we never learn whether the threat of the Wanderers is real or only in the imagination of people like Sikorski, reverting to atavistic paranoia. We do learn that the Tagorians destroyed a sarcophagus with larvae of their own kind, and that their progress has since come to a dead end – or has it? What is progress? More important, we learn how little Kammerer himself – a trusted agent of COMCON-2 – knows.
In the course of his investigation, he stumbles across Operation Mirror, a series of “top secret global maneuvers, for repulsing an attack from outside (an invasion by the Wanderers, supposedly),”57 which involved millions of unwitting participants and killed some of them. Meanwhile, we learn of an ongoing rivalry between COMCON-2 and Isaac Bromberg, the leader of a group that opposes restrictions on scientific research, even when it involves the creation of androids. It turns out that Sikorski and other world leaders are in fact all-powerful, although they know they are not all-wise. Sikorski has his doubts – perhaps the Tagorians were wrong to have destroyed the Wanderer-engineered larvae – but when he confronts Abalkin at the end, he executes him with hardly a moment’s hesitation.
What had seemed a classless utopia, founded on humanistic values, now seems a managerial society – one, moreover, in which the creative minority may be, in Arnold Toynbee’s sense, turning into a mere dominant minority as it faces historical crises beyond its competence. The Time Wanderers (1986), which deals with the successful resolution of another crisis – the emergence of a breed of supermen called the Ludens – is less convincing for that very reason. Kammerer has succeeded Sikorski, and all is right with the world; humanity faces a strange destiny but faces it openly and unafraid. This may in part reflect the further closing of the window of liberalization in Soviet literature during the Brezhnev years, when it became increasingly difficult to publish anything critical of orthodox beliefs. The Ugly Swans, for example, was written in 1966-67, but denied official publication until 1987 although it was translated into English in 1980 and circulated in samizdat in Russian.
In novels that weren’t part of the Noon Universe, the Strugatskys had long been less sanguine. The technological marvels left by those passing aliens serve only the black market and the military in Roadside Picnic, and Schuhart can survive only by looting the visitation zone for them. The universe itself seems to conspire against all human hope in Definitely Maybe (1977), an almost Dickian nightmare. In The Ugly Swans, young people of genius are a persecuted minority in a world where it always rains and adults suffer from a loathsome disease. But the most pointed of their novels, perhaps, remains The Snail on the Slope (1972). It was first conceived in 1965 as a Noon Universe story, Disquiet, and that version was eventually published in 1990.[xxxvi] The reworked version came out in fragments in the Soviet Union in 1966 and 1968; its first full publication was an English translation.
On some nameless world, a faceless bureaucracy – the Forest Study and Exploitation Authority – seeks to impose its will on the seemingly endless forest and its primitive inhabitants. In alternating chapters, we follow the lives of two protagonists: Pepper, who finds a place of honor and authority in the system at the end, and Kandid, adopted by the forest people after the crash of his helicopter. If Noon: 22nd Century expresses the Strugatrskys’ hopes for the future, The Snail on the Slope reveals their fears. The Directorate seems at first absurdly comical, but its ominous reality is clear by the time Pepper is asked to sign a directive prohibiting “involvement in chance effects (probability) as a criminal activity.”[xxxvii]
Meanwhile, in the forest, Kandid confronts the brutality of a war of liberation, evidently at least aided and abetted by the Directorate. The language is elliptical, with its invocations of parthenogenetic Maidens and their holy cause of Accession: telepathic broadcasts through “Ears” in each village speak of “the Great Harrowing in the Northern lands... new advances in Swamp-making,”[xxxviii] and the like. But its meaning becomes clear as Kandid witnesses the devastation visited on the natives – one, called “Buster” in translation, is Kulak in the original. Kandid, although he has always believed in progress, cannot accept a cause that has forgotten common humanity, that has come to regard the villagers as expendable. Yet it all comes down to the personal, to his own conscience:
If those Maidens had picked me up, cured me and showed me kindness, accepted me as one of themselves, taken pity on me – well, then, I would probably have taken the side of this progress easily and naturally, and Hopalong and all these villages would have been for me an exasperating survival, taking up too much effort for too long... But perhaps not, perhaps it wouldn’t have been simple and easy, I can’t stand it when people are regarded as animals. But perhaps it’s a matter of terminology, and if I’d learned the women’s language, everything would have sounded different to me: enemies of progress, gluttonous stupid idlers... Ideals... Great aims... Natural laws... And for the sake of this annihilate half the inhabitants! No, that’s not for me. In any language, that’s not for me.[xxxix]
Yet the elliptical language here takes the novel’s message beyond the topical, beyond a masked critique of Soviet ideology, making it truly universal – still relevant in the post-Soviet era, and far beyond Russia itself. Long ago, in “Politics and the English Language” (1946), George Orwell warned against the use of weasel words and euphemisms “to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”[xl] Soviet Communist rhetoric was a case in point, but not the only case he cited. The Soviets were not the first to abuse language in what he called “defense of the indefensible,” and they have not been nor will they be the last – as witness such post-9/11 U.S. coinages as “enhanced interrogation,” “rendition” and “nation-building.” The Snail on the Slope is a stark reminder that we must be ever vigilant against the seduction of lies and half-truths in any language.


[i] Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris, Roadside Picnic, trans. Olena Bormashenko (Chicago Review Press, 2012),
p. 193
[ii] quoted in Potts, Stephen W., The Second Marxian Invasion: The Fiction of the Strugatsky Brothers
(Borgo/Wildside reprint), pp. 15-17
retrieved Jan. 13, 2014
[iv], retrieved Feb. 6, 2015
[v] Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris, Hard to be a God, trans. Olena Bormashenko (Chicago Review Press, 2014), p. 241
[vi] Ibid., p. 244
[vii] The Mentor, Australian Science Fiction, #80, October 1993, pp. 14-15
[viii], retrieved Jan. 13,
[ix], retrieved Jan. 13, 2014
[x], retrieved Jan. 13, 2014
[xi], retrieved Jan. 13, 2014
[xii] Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris, Roadside Picnic, p. vi
[xiii] New York Review of Science Fiction, October 2013, p. 14
[xiv] Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris, Space Apprentice, trans. Antonina W. Bouis (Macmillan, 1981, p. 78
[xv] Ibid., p. 149
[xvi] Ibid., p. 190
[xvii] Ibid., p. 231
[xviii] McGuire, Red Stars, p. 70
[xix] Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris, The Final Circle of Paradise, trans. Leonid Rosen (DAW, 1976), p. 63
[xx] Ibid., pp. 171-72
[xxi] Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris, Noon: 22nd Century, trans. Patrick L. McGuire (Macmillan, 1978), p. 88
[xxii] Ibid., p. 276
[xxiii] Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris, Hard to be a God, op cit., pp. 233-35
[xxiv] New York Review of Science Fiction, November 2013, p. 16
[xxv] Hard to be a God, op. cit., p. 37
[xxvi] Ibid., p. 109
[xxvii] Ibid, pp. 208-9
[xxviii] Ibid., p. 210
[xxix] Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris, Prisoners of Power, trans. Helen Saltz Jacobson (Macmillan, 1977), p. 63
[xxx] Ibid., p, 174
[xxxi] Ibid., p. 286
[xxxii] Suvin, Russian Science Fiction, 1956-74, pp. 43, 48, 49
[xxxiii] Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris, Far Rainbow/The Second Invasion from Mars, trans. Gary Kern (Macmillan,
 1979), p. 131
[xxxiv] Ibid.
[xxxv] Ibid., p. 60
[xxxvi], retrieved Jan. 13, 2014
[xxxvii] Strugatsky, Arkady and Boris, The Snail on the Slope, trans. Alan Meyers (Bantam, 1980), p. 227
[xxxviii] Ibid., p. 52
[xxxix] Ibid., pp. 242-43
[xl], retrieved Feb, 6, 2015