Sunday, July 17, 2022

Fortnightly Book, July 17

 I'm not sure what my schedule will be like over the next two weeks, so I wanted something that would give me a bit of flexibility. I've decided to go with two works by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky: Roadside Picnic (first published 1972) and The Inhabited Island (first published in 1969).

Roadside Picnic is easily the most famous Strugatsky science fiction novel, at least outside of Russia; it was the loose inspiration for a Tarkovsky film (Stalker) and has been translated into languages around the world. Naturally, since the book was originally published in the Soviet Union, it had to pass the censors; the censors for its magazine publication in 1972 imposed only minor requirements, but the book publication was more complicated. It had originally been intended for an anthology that was eventually nixed due to the censors' doubts about the Strugatskys' soundness, and it couldn't be published when things loosened up because there was no money at the time for it. Eventually, they managed to get heavily censored versions through; the earliest English translations were of those butchered versions. My copy is a relatively new translation (by Olena Bormashenko) of the original non-butchered version, with a forward by Ursula K. LeGuin and an afterward by Boris Strugatsky. An extraterrestrial happening called the Visitation has resulted in a number of regions around the world exhibiting strange phenomena and containing artifacts with unusual properties. Nations around the world naturally try to keep a handle on these regions, but a number of people, known as stalkers, scavenge artifacts and try to smuggle them out. In fact, the Visitation was just a pit-stop, for unknown reasons, by an unknown race, and all of the artifacts are just refuse left behind, like from a messy roadside picnic.

The Inhabited Island, published earlier, also had problems with censors. The original magazine version was mauled as well when it was published in 1971. The previous English translation, published in 1977 under the title Prisoners of Power, was based on that butchered version; my copy is a newer version, translated by Andrew Bromfield, which returns in great measure to the Strugatskys' original vision, although a number of minor details from the censored version had to be kept because they became parts of later Strugatsky stories, or else because they ended up being unexpectedly memorable parts of the work. Maxim Kammerer is a space traveler who finds himself stranded on a planet he has just discovered, whose inhabitants have just come through a major nuclear war, and discovers that there is a terrible secret underlying the local population's behavior.