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Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Roadside Picnic

© Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

© Translated from Russian by Antonina W. Bouis

© MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc, New York


Good science fiction is good fiction

This assertion is one which must be made again, and over again, until the general reader and the "serious" critic cease to associate science fiction solely with girls in brass brassieres being rescued from the advances of bug-eyed monsters by zap-gun-toting heroes in space armor. There is as much of a spectrum of excellence in science fiction as there is in any other field. Mickey Spillane is not Dorothy Sayers or Ngaio Marsh. Hopalong Cassidy is not Shane or True Grit. And the best of science fiction is quite as good as the best of any literature.

It happens also to be the most explosively popular genre on the current scene. American and English science fiction is widely read in France, Italy, and Scandinavia, increasingly in Spain, Portugal, and Latin America, and is attaining new peaks in Germany and the Netherlands. New writers are appearing in Europe, especially in France and Italy, and the translations are beginning to Bow the other way into the English-speaking world. And the rise in printed science fiction is reflected in the increasing number of cinema and television productions in the field

There are several reasons--and a great many more hypotheses-- for this upsurge, but they are not within the purview of these remarks and can be left to the dozens of postgraduate theses being written on the subject and to the teachers of high-school and college courses in science fiction (of which there are, at this writing, over 1,500 in the U.S.A. alone). Suffice it to say that there has never been a field of literature so limitless, so flexible, so able to evoke astonishment and wonder, so free of the boundaries of time and space and that arbitrary fantasy we call reality, as science fiction. Not since the invention of poetry.

What is not generally known to the readers of science fiction in English is that the most widely read science-fiction writer in the world is not Heinlein or Bradbury or Clarke, but Stanislaw Lem, a Pole; that the largest science-fiction section of a writers' union is in Hungary; that excellent science fiction is being produced in East Germany, Czechoslovakia, and especially in the Soviet Union. Some Of this--far too little--is beginning to trickle into the English-speak- ing world, and, sad to say, a certain portion suffers from execrable translation. Some works have had the hazards of translation more than doubled by passing from the original to a second language before being rendered from that into English, a process in which the style and character of even a laundry list could hardly be expected to survive. Keeping that in mind, however, the discerning reader will find, even in the most brutalized of translations, a strength and inventiveness marvelous to behold.

In the highest echelon of Soviet science-fiction writers stand the names of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky. I first encountered these talented brothers in a novel called Hard to Be a Cod Remarkable, purely as a novel, for structure, characterization, pacing, and its perceptive statements of the human condition, it touches also on almost every single quality most avidly sought by the science-fiction reader. It has space flight and future devices; it has that wondrous "what if ... ?" aspect in its investigation into sociology; by its richly detailed portraiture of an alien culture it affords a new perspective on the nature of ours and ourselves; it even has that exciting hand-to- hand conflict so dear to the hearts of that cousin of science fiction called swords-and-sorcery. And among its highest virtues is this: though there are battles and fights and blood and death where the narrative calls for them, the super-potent protagonist never kills any- body. Writers everywhere, keeping in mind in these violent times their responsibility for their influence, should take note. It can be done, and done well, at no expense to tension and suspense.

And now comes Roadside Picnic. . . . In the so-called Golden Age of American science fiction, when the late John W. Campbell, editor extraordinary, gathered around him in a handful of months the great- est stable of science fiction talent ever seen, he would throw out challenges to his writers, like: "Write me a story about a man who will die in twenty-four hours unless he can answer this question: 'How do you know you're sane?' "; and this one--surely one of the most provocative of all: "Write me a story about a creature that thinks as well as a man but not like a man." (The answer "Woman" is disallowed as too obvious a rejoinder.)

The Strugatskys posit that the Earth experiences a brief visit from extraterrestrials, who leave behind them--well, call it litter, such as might be left by you and me (in one of our less socially conscious moments) after a roadside picnic. The nature of these discards, pro- ducts of an utterly alien technology, defies most earthly logic, to say nothing of earthly analytical science, and their potential is limitless. Warp these potentials into all-too-human goals--the quest for pure knowledge for its own sake, the search for new devices, new techniques, to achieve new heights in human well-being; the striving for profit, with its associated competitiveness; and the ravening thirst for new and more terrible weapons--and you have the framework of this amazing short novel. Add the Strugatskys' deft and supple handling of loyalty and greed, of friendship and love, of despair and frustration and loneliness, and you have a truly superb tale, ending most poignantly in what can only be called a blessing. You won't forget it.

Tale of a Troika is a very different thing indeed--so different that it might have been written by quite different authors--which is the highest possible tribute to the authors' versatility. How much you like it will depend on your taste for satire and lampoon. It is, in nature, reminiscent of Lem's Memoirs Found in a Bathtub, with (and here I confess to a highly subjective evaluation) one important difference: Lem's approach and style are, in comparison, unleavened, no matter how deeply he plunges into the surrealistic and the absurd. The cumulative effect is Kafkaesque horror. The Strugatsky fury--and it is fury: disgust with hypocrisy, with bureaucratic bumbling, with self-serving, self-saving distortions of logic and of truth and of initially decent human motivations--their fury is laced with laughter, rich with scorn, effervescent with the comic spirit. One has to search back to Alice's tea party to find a scene as mad as the chamber of the Troika; yet, in retrospect, one realizes that one has experienced a profoundly serious work, since every bent line illuminates a straight one, all illogic signifies the purity from which it has departed.

A word of appreciation must be extended to Ms. Antonina W. Bouis, the translator of these short novels. Russian I do not know; fiction I do; and I must honor anyone who can so deftly pass emotion, character dimension, even conversational idiom, through so formidable a barrier. Theodore Sturgeon San Diego, California 1976

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky Translated from Russian by Antonina W. Bouis MacMillan Publishing Co., Inc, New York

Roadside Picnic

You have to make the good out of the bad because that is all you have got to make it out of. * Robert Penn Warren
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