Science Fiction Studies

# 67 = Volume 22, Part 3 = November 1995



Elana Gomel

Escape from Science Fiction

Yvonne Howell. Apocalyptic Realism: The Science Fiction of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Russian and East European Studies in Aesthetics and Philosophy of Culture 1. Peter Lang Publishing (212-764-1471), 1994. 184pp. $47.95.

Yvonne Howell's book begins with a praiseworthy declaration of intent: to "approach the Strugatskys' work from within the history and evolution of mainstream Russian literature... [to] seek to define the Strugatskys' place in the context of already established, native Russian literary and cultural traditions" (4). She, thus, promises to solve the paradox of the Strugatskys' disparate reception in their native country and in the West. While translated into several languages, the Strugatskys' work has never enjoyed any prominent commercial success outside the bounds of the former Soviet Union. There, on the other hand, their status is of cultural heroes-cum-prophets. Their popularity transcends the Western distinction between the elite writer read by the chosen few and the entertainer pandering to the masses. Though written in the popular idiom of sf, the Strugatskys' novels are prominently featured in every Russian intellectual's book-case. Several generations of the Soviet intelligentsia have been brought up on their work. At the same time, they have created their own fandom. What other writers could boast of encountering their fantastic characters in real life as did the Strugatskys who were feted by the group calling themselves the "ludens" (after a secret society of supermen in the Strugastkys' 1985 novel The Waves Still the Wind)? The group is still active nowadays.

Obviously, such a reception gap calls for an explanation located less in the intratextual dynamics of the works themselves than in their intertextual relations to the rest of Soviet/Russian culture. Howell does, indeed, attempt to unravel the web of these relations, tracing, sometimes with great subtlety, a pattern of allusions, influences, narrative paradigms and ideological continuities linking the Strugatskys' oeuvre with what she considers their real point of origin: the Russian "Silver Age" of modernism, brutally interrupted by the Revolution and the Terror. It is in the work of Bely, Sologub, Bryusov, Blok and others that the Strugatskys' literary roots lie.

This approach, undoubtedly, has the advantage of novelty: previous criticism of the Strugatskys (including Lem's seminal essay on Roadside Picnic) treated their work as sf first and foremost and often attempted to analyze it cross-culturally by comparing the Russian writers with their Anglo-American peers. Howell introduces the term "apocalyptic realism" to describe the unique quality of the Strugatskys' writing that distinguishes it from Western sf and presumably (though she never says so) from run-of-the-mill Soviet sf. Apocalyptic realism focuses on a set of issues central (though hardly unique) to Russian culture: East versus West, humanism versus utopia, individual versus state, past versus future. All these issues are given a particular slant by vicissitudes of Russia's twentieth-century history: the massive social upheaval of the Revolution; Stalinism with its cultural amnesia and falsification of tradition; the crushing power of the State over any form of creativity, expressed in the institution of censorship with which the Strugatskys had to contend throughout their joint career; the sixties "thaw"; and finally (though Howell hardly deals with it) the perestroika and the downfall of communism. These events and their social and cultural implications constitute both the external environment and the hidden content of the Strugatskys' books; their sf form is more or less incidental. Thus, despite the subtitle of her book, Howell relates the Strugatskys to what she calls "a distinguished line of Russian 'realisms'" rather than to the generic tradition of sf (15).

The fact remains, though, that the overwhelming majority of the Strugatskys' works are generically sf, with some admixture of other "popular" genres, such as the detective story and the thriller. The closest Howell comes to explaining this fact is by suggesting that the writers use what she calls "the conventional binary structure of science fiction" to inscribe the binary structure of "Russian cultural myths about Russian national identity." In other words, sf is no more than a disguise for the Strugatskys' project "to reexamine the philosophical, religious, and cultural heritage of Russia's modernist period" (17).

Howell's approach, however, risks a pitfall, similar to the one she rightly discerns in the critical attitude that sees in the Strugatskys a Slavic equivalent of Asimov, Heinlein, or Van Vogt. Whether the Strugatskys are perceived as cryptic (post)modernists, producing esoteric meditations on gnosticism and cultural apocalypse or as slightly incoherent spinners of adventure yarns, the choice of one of these hermeneutical options misses the essential duality of the Strugatskys' position both within Soviet culture and within their chosen genre of sf. It is at the intersection between the specifically Russian tradition of quasi-allegorical and eschatological writing and the largely imported sf paradigm that the Strugatskys' work can best be situated. And the secret of their astonishing and widespread appeal (from schoolchildren to members of the Academy of Science) lies precisely in the writers' skillful manipulation and interweaving of these two generic strands.

It is characteristic of Apocalyptic Realism that it focuses on the Strugatskys' late work, particularly The Doomed City (1988; though written much earlier) and Burdened with Evil (1988)--the books that veer away from sf in their adoption of an oracular style, oneiric structure, and portentous philosophy of history. Burdened with Evil is heavily influenced by Master and Margarita, yet falls short of Bulgakov's playful masterpiece both artistically and intellectually. These novels, however, justify Howell's contention in their explicit concern with eschatology, mysticism, and the supreme irrationality of Russian history. But she has surprisingly little to say about what is, arguably, the Strugatskys' best novel--Roadside Picnic (1972). Perhaps the reason is that, while indeed dealing with a utopian problematic, Roadside Picnic cannot be reduced to a network of covert allusions to Russia's failed millenarian dreams (which is not to say that such allusions play no role in the text). Rather, the novel operates simultaneously as an sf analysis of the nature of alienness and as an eschatological fable. These two levels constantly interact, creating a text of consider able complexity. But the sf elements--the Zone, the alien artefacts, the strange invasion-- cannot be merely discarded as so much window-dressing for religious and philosophical ruminations on Russia's destiny. Regardless of the authors' intentions, their generic framework of sf, with its ideological baggage of rationalistic speculation on the one hand, popular entertainment on the other, mitigates against all those heavyweight mystical concerns that Howell sees as central to the Strugatskys' oeuvre.

Disregard for the sf aspect of the Strugatskys' work peculiarly distorts Howell's reading of the two last volumes in their "future history" series: The Beetle in the Anthill (1979) and The Waves Still the Wind (1985). For one thing, the "future history" itself is a well-known sf sub-genre and the pleasure that the Strugatskys' Russian fans derive from tracing the intricate chronology of their novels and compiling the biographies of the major characters is no different from that of their Anglo-American counterparts arguing over the history of the Star Trek universe. But even taken separately, The Beetle in the Anthill and The Waves Still the Wind deal with traditional sf themes--the alien invasion and the advent of supermen--and in a fairly traditional sf idiom, spiced with elements of the spy thriller. Howell discusses both of them in terms of what she calls "plot prefiguration"--the patterning of the plot by the imposition of some kind of archetypal narrative. In The Beetle the main prefigurative pattern, according to Howell, is the legend of the Pied Piper; in The Waves, the canonical life of Christ. Without denying that both narratives might have been instrumental in shaping the plot structure in the books, one cannot, surely, ignore the more immediately obvious influence of other sf texts, both home-grown and imported. By seeing the protagonist of The Waves as a Christ-figure, one risks obscuring his less elevated origin in the twentieth-century pop-mythology of Superman-- the mythology Howell herself refers to when she lists Ian Fleming as one of the sources of intertextual allusions in the book. The paradox is that this mythology might be more relevant to the political subtext of the two novels--their denunciation of Stalinism, fascism and antisemitism--than the Book of Revelation.

This is not to say that intertextual allusions of the kind Howell finds are imaginary; nor are they necessarily unimportant. But her methodology poses the question of the limits and nature of intertextuality itself. First, the circle of intertextuality can be broadened almost indefinitely. Howell meticulously traces the semantic lines that bind the Strugatskys to the Silver Age, yet disregards other possible--and perhaps, equally important--sources of influence, including, for example, old Japanese literature. The late Arkady Strugatsky was a professional translator from Japanese and those in the know claim to see a variety of Japanese motives in Hard to Be a God. With sufficient ingenuity, one can link together any two texts. Intertextuality in its widest sense is the basic condition of existence of literature and culture in general. Howell herself points out that it "is not always possible, or indeed necessary, to pinpoint the source of a motif to a specific text, especially in times when certain ideas are in the air, and freely used in many different contexts" (19). If so, the origin of a motif--whether in the Silver Age or elsewhere--is less important than its particular deployment. A good example is Howell's discussion of the influence of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov on the Strugatskys. Fyodorov's philosophy is highly idiosyncratic, yet it seems to be refracted in the Strugatskys' texts only in the form of clichés about humanity's conquest of Nature and evolution of man into superman that are a staple of sf in general. Whether the Strugatskys had or had not read Fyodorov ultimately matters little in comparison with their specific use of these clichés.

The second problem relates to the issue of reception. Any text can be seen as a mosaic of allusions, borrowings, adaptations. But which of these adaptations will be seen as significant by the audience depends on the general cultural climate of the period. Howell refers to the stylistic influence of Hemingway on the Strugatskys' early novels; but in order to appreciate the ideological valency of this influence the critic has to be aware of the fact that in the period of the "thaw" Hemingway became a symbol of Western freedom for the Soviet intelligentsia. On the other hand, the femininization of the Forest in The Snail on the Slope (1966) might indeed, as Howell claims, be related to the gnostic doctrine of the fallen Sophia, the Wisdom of God, or to the supposed "femininity" of the mystical Russian soul. But it is quite likely that a sizeable portion of the Strugatskys' readership accepted their unflattering portrayal of women as a matter of course, out of a pervasive, if largely unarticulated, misogyny that was (and still is) widespread among Russian intellectuals.

An analysis of this kind, however, is ultimately sociological and not literary. Howell is rightly concerned with the Strugatskys' texts as texts--literary artefacts that function within a specific cultural configuration. Her stated purpose is twofold: to elucidate the meaning of these artefacts to the Western reader unfamiliar with a specific set of concerns they address and to unravel their inner logic through tracing of a series of interlinked motifs. Even posing these goals is an important advance in the Strugatskys scholarship. So is Howell's attempt to demonstrate the unity of plot, character and setting in the Strugatskys' major novels within the parameters of their apocalyptic vision. Her introduction of the term "apocalyptic realism" in order to reclassify the Strugatskys' work is meant, on the one hand, to wrench the Strugatskys from the "frivolous" matrix of sf and to situate them within the Russian mainstream; and on the other hand, to stress the inner coherence of their thematics. Her book is far more successful in pursuing the second goal than the first. However problematic the Strugatskys' tie with the Silver Age, the importance of the apocalypse as both a structuring device and a central ideological concern in their works is undeniable. But Howell's attempt to address the philosophical, ideological, and cultural meanings of the Strugatskys within the context of Russian and Soviet history paradoxically flounders on the grounds of textual analysis. Her methodology is both too abstract and too concrete.

Howell discusses the Strugatskys' major texts in terms of traditional narratological categories: plot, setting, characterization. She shows how each aspect of these texts is shaped by the key concept of apocalypse: the plot that centers on the appearance of a (false) messiah; the setting that is modeled after the Dantean circles of Hell, the grotesque visions of Bosch, or some more generalized nightmare of the wasteland; and the characteristic images of aliens/supermen that seem to incarnate the fear of an inhuman millennium arising out of the ashes of an historical holocaust. Some of her suggestions as to the sources of this pattern appear rather far-fetched (especially with regard to the influence of Bosch) but the case for the pattern itself is a strong one. Nor is it difficult to see why apocalyptic theme and imagery should hold a particular attraction for the Russian audience. But what Howell's analysis overlooks is precisely this concrete historical and ideological dimension of the apocalyptic idea. On the one hand, she narrows it down to a set of borrowings from an obscure mystical tradition; on the other, she elevates to an eternal supra-cultural myth. These two planes of analysis run in parallel; their missing intersection is the site of ideology and history.

Howell makes a rather startling claim that the Strugatskys "draw their images from the metaphysical systems of the early Christian heresies and dualist cosmologies, and the incorporation of these systems into the Russian modernist movement" (20). She does manage to substantiate this claim, especially with regard to Burdened with Evil and The Doomed City, with their obvious references to Bulgakov who, indeed, self-consciously used Manichean motives in Master and Margarita. In other cases the proposed connection appears to be rather dubious, as when the name of the cafe "The Pearl Oyster" in A Lame Fate (1986) is related to the gnostic Hymn of the Pearl. But reading the Strugatskys as gnostic writers begs the question of the meaning of these "metaphysical systems" for their wide and varied readership most of whom could hardly be suspected of burning with a scholarly interest in early Christianity. Howell rightly notes that the Strugatskys provided their audience with "a kind of cultural myth to live by" (26). If they do, in fact, rework gnostic and Manichean motives, the results of this reworking might have less in common with their esoteric originals than with the social and cultural ambience of Soviet society in decay.

It is not that Howell disregards the question of why a translation of the Hymn of the Pearl should enjoy some vogue among the Russian intelligentsia. But her answers are ultimately unsatisfactory: either she suggests a direct parallelism between the late Roman Empire and the late Soviet Empire (a one-dimensional allegorical reading that hardly requires a complex system of prefigurations and allusions), or she resorts to the abstract concept of the "Russian idea," ultimately reducing it to a series of binary dichotomies such as East/West, old/new etc. In terms of this idea the Strugatskys' "apocalyptic realism" becomes a mere elaboration of age-old mythological patterns which is not even particularly "Russian," in the sense that their defining opposition between apocalypse and utopia is clearly central to the Western thought in general.

Howell's methodology dismantles the text into allusions and hidden paradigms but ignores its surface structure which is, precisely, its genre. In her discussion of The Beetle in the Anthill and The Waves Still the Wind, she points out two possible readings of the texts: as allegories of the "Jewish question" in Russia and as variations on the prefigurative pattern of (false) prophecy. But what mediates between these meanings is the science-fictional structure that allows the reader to pick as much (or as little) as he or she chooses from the multiple possibilities of interpretation inherent in the text, while at the same time enjoying the familiar pleasures of an intellectual enigma coupled with a fast-paced thriller action. It is true that in the Strugatskys' last works the science-fictional structure is aborted and the text forces the reader into adopting the hermeneutics of allegory. But what made them so popular was their original ability to cram a number of intellectually and politically topical issues into a widely accepted generic form. It is not that the Strugatskys are myth-makers providing their audience with a coherent, if esoteric, system of belief; rather, they are uniquely gifted spokesmen of the Soviet intelligentsia, responding with a firework of suggestive images to the cultural and ideological shifts in this group's worldview.

The status of sf in the Soviet Union is an issue Howell does not deal with at all. And yet this status has always been very high compared with the West. The representation of the Strugatskys as "'serious writers' for the intelligentsia" does not necessarily require severing their connection with sf. When the brothers began their career in the late 50s and early 60s, it was their chosen genre that not only kept them out of trouble with the censor but enhanced their prestige with their target audience: young liberal Westernized scientists. The Strugatskys kept pace with the gradual change in the mindset of this audience: from the optimism of the "thaw" to the darker mystical speculations of the 70s and the 80s. But the generic form of sf was always of importance to this mindset; not merely as a convenient disguise but also as an expression of liberal and rationalistic aspirations. The Strugatskys' gradual abandonment of this form testifies not to their growing "seriousness" as writers but rather to its incompatibility with a quasi-religious ideology inscribed in their late work.

Howell's book ultimately does not answer the question implied in its title: what is the relation between "apocalyptic realism" and "science fiction"? And yet, it is an important study. For one thing, it surveys the Strugatskys' oeuvre as a coherent whole, structured by a set of interlinked images and themes. The writers' stature in Russia surely entitles them to a careful and sympathetic criticism; and this is what Howell provides. And even if seeing the Strugatskys' as belated heirs of the Silver Age limits their role in contemporary Russian culture (however much it might exalt them in the eyes of the literary scholar), the necessity of placing them in some kind of indigenous context is patent. In fact, most of Howell's conclusions about the Strugatskys' literary and philosophical sources seem to be sound (or, at least, can be convincingly defended). What is missing is the acknowledgement that sf, both Russian and Western, has its own tradition which interacts with other influences that have shaped the Strugatskys' work; and that in some cases the popularity of the genre does not detract from the popularity of the author.

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