Arkadii and Boris Strugatsky, Escape Attempt

Arkadii Natanovich (1925-1991) and Boris Natanovich (b. 1933) Strugatsky are generally considered the best Soviet (and now Russian) science fiction authors: there may be other good ones, but the Strugatskys are classics. Members of the intelligentsia considered some of their books (such as Трудно быть богом [It's Hard Being a God] de rigueur reading even if one was a not a fan of SF. Each new book was an event! They insisted on being read as a single author; their works included novels, stories, and screenplays.

Their family was living in Leningrad when the Second World War began (1941), and in 1942 the brothers' father, Natan Zalmanovich, and Arkadii were evacuated from the besieged city over Lake Ladoga (the so-called "road of life), while their mother and the younger son, Boris, remained behind in Leningrad. Arkadii was drafted into the Soviet Army in 1943, was trained in artillery and then sent to the military foreign language institute, where he graduated in 1949 as a specialist in translation from Japanese and English. He served in the army in the Far East until 1955. After he was demobilized he worked in an institute and as an editor in Moscow. After he died in 1991 he was cremated, at his request, and the ashes were scattered from a helicopter.

Boris graduated from high school in 1950 with a silver medal (roughly equivalent to being salutatorian, if a gold medal is like being valedictorian?) and was psyched to study physics at Leningrad State University, but he was not admitted to that department (in essence, because of anti-Jewish quotas) and instead studied in the mathematics and mechanics department, graduating in 1955 as a specialist in astronomy. He worked for some years as an astronomer and computational engineer, but by 1966 was able to be a professional writer and member of the Soviet Writers' Union. He has been active for decades as the leader of a group of SF writers and a judge for SF literary prizes.

Arkadii Strugatsky published his first work, Пепел Бикини [The Ash of Bikini - referring to the H-bomb tests carried out on the Bikini atoll], in 1956. He co-wrote it with a friend while still in the army, and it's not a remarkable piece: "anti-imperialist prose typical for that time" says one critic now. The first story both brothers wrote was published in 1958 in the journal Техника - молодёжь (Technical Youth, a rough translation), and their first book came out in 1959 - Country of the Crimson Clouds. The early works fit the demands of Socialist Realism, but when critics of the time compared them to Efremov's Andromeda Nebula they found the Strugatskys' characters more down-to-earth and believable, thus more interesting, than the elevated types we saw in Efremov.

Together the Strugatskys wrote 27 novels and novellas, one play about the Jews of St Petersburg, and two collections of stories. To date ten of their works have been adapted as films, including Stalker (dir. Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979) Дни затмения (Days of Eclipse, dir. Aleksandr Sokurov, 1988), and Трудно быть богом (It's Hard to Be a God, dir. Aleksei German, 2009).

Попытка к бегству "Escape Attempt" was published in 1962, so it falls among the earlier works of the brothers. As early as 1963 (with Далёкая Радуга, 'Distant Raduga' or 'Faraway Rainbow'), their works began to be more pessimistic. I picked this one both for its theme and for its light-heartedness, but it's probably not entirely typical in its mood.

Questions for reading:

  1. How much do we learn about the major characters?
  2. How does the humor leaven the other elements of the story?
  3. Comment on the technology: "live" ships; the flight described on pp. 20 ff. (scientifically plausible?); the manipulation of Earth's weather.
  4. What other technology do we glimpse?
  5. What would be the medical implications of the "psychosurgical" procedures we see on p. 67? If this seems implausible, how does that affect your experience of the story?
  6. What might it suggest that they find no women among the people they discover on the planet Saula?
  7. What can you surmmise about the Wanderers?
  8. How about the Commission Anton refers to?
  9. What do we learn about the civilizations of Leonida and Tagora (and do their names imply anything)?
  10. How does French function during the interrogation (pp. 74-75 ff)?
  11. What does Anton's and Vadim's behavior suggest about the world they live in - and what does Saul's behavior suggest about the world he lives in? What do you expect to happen when Vadim, especially, is facing the Exploiters on Saula with their swords and spears?
  12. Similarly, how do the frivolous elements of the story (the plans to go hunting for takhorgs) interact with events on Saula?
  13. How is communism presented in the argument over intervention? (pp. 81-82)
  14. What can the reader make of the last page of the story? - How do you react to not learning how Saul made it to this time on earth? (The Strugatskys felt that one could leave out an explanation or two in every work and the reader would just deal with it.)
  15. Once we know where Saul came from, what light does that case back on his behavior through the story?
  16. You probably don't have time at the moment, but it's worth reading once again!

Return to syllabus for Russian and East European Science Fiction.