Strugatskys and Escape Attempt

Arkadii and Boris Strugatsky, Escape Attempt

small photograph of Arkadii and Boris Strugatsky

Arkadii Natanovich (1925-1991) and Boris Natanovich (1933-2012) 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. Today, many post-Soviet works of SF and fantasy, often darkly dystopian, depend on the reader knowing the Strugatskiam background in order to understand the more recent work's point.

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 intended 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 department of mathematics and mechanics, 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 become a professional writer and member of the Soviet Writers' Union. He was ctive 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 joint book came out in 1959 - Country of the Crimson Clouds. The early works fit with 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. Nevertheless, the Strugatsky's early work is marked by an optimism about human nature that is connected with the atmosphere of the Thaw, the era in which they began writing.

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. It's a long short story, so to speak, or the genre known in Russian as a povest' (повесть). 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 its mood isn't typical of ALL their work.

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. How does it (and does it?) work for you when they mention a technology but don't explain it much?
  6. What would be the medical implications of the "psychosurgical" procedures we see on p. 67? How does that bit affect your experience of the story?
  7. What might it suggest that they find no women among the people they discover on the planet Saula?
  8. What can you surmmise about the Wanderers, and their null transport?
  9. How about the Commission Anton refers to?
  10. What do we learn about the civilizations of Leonida and Tagora (and do their names imply anything to you as a reader)?
  11. How does French function during the interrogation (pp. 74-75 ff)? (In the original, it's English: let me know if you'd like to see that bit.) Implications of all these people knowing a foreign language well enough to communicate in it? (We know Saul is a bit of a scholar - he lists his language abilities when he's convincing them to take him into space - and Vadim is a linguist, as he keeps reminding us...)
  12. 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?
  13. Similarly, what light do the frivolous elements of the story (the plans to go hunting for takhorgs) cast on events on Saula?
  14. How is communism presented in the argument over intervention? (pp. 81-82)
  15. 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.)
  16. Once we know where Saul came from, what light does that case back on his behavior through the story?
  17. The translation we're reading was made from a CENSORED version of the story. I'll bring in the real ending and read it to you.
  18. You probably don't have time at the moment, but it's worth reading a second time.