OF MAJOR living Russian writers, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky are perhaps the least known in America. There are numerous reasons, most of them bad.
One is that they write science fiction. Many, perhaps even most serious readers, intellectuals of letters, disdain science fiction. Knowing what is true -- that throughout its hundred-year history, most science fiction has been tripe, and poorly written tripe at that -- they have simply written off the genre. (Some of them make an exception for Ray Bradbury, a curious choice. He is actually minor as a science-fiction writer, though a fine and fancy stylist.) They have no idea that there are a handful of writers, such as Ursula LeGuin, Walter Miller, E.M. Forster (in his 1904 novella "The Machine Stops") and the brothers Strugatsky, whose work will be deeply interesting even to people who ordinarily spurn science fiction. One reason the Strugatskys are little known is that they are victims of this prejudice.
Another is that they do not fit comfortably into either of the categories that most Americans have in their minds for Soviet writers. We tend to think that a Soviet writer is either going to be a heroic dissident, who at terrible personal risk writes against the regime, or a slavish party hack who turns out "socialist realism." We cherish the dissidents and generally ignore the party-liners.
The Strugatskys are neither. They are Russians who love Russia, communists who believe (mostly) in communism. But they also believe in independent thought, the right if not the actual duty of all people to keep a critical eye on their governments. They are not unlike the sort of American who, loving this country and wishing to live nowhere else, nevertheless thinks we are horribly wrong in our policy toward Nicaragua, insane to contemplate Star Wars -- and freely says so. The Strugatskys, living under a more repressive rule, are less free to speak plainly. They nevertheless convey their criticism clearly enough so that at least twice books of theirs have been suppressed. But they themselves remain fully accepted. For example, in 1981 they jointly won the Aelita Prize, given by the Union of Soviet Writers. We have no place in our mythology for such people.
The third reason that so few Americans know the Strugatskys is the saddest of all. Their work is almost unobtainable here. That's not because it hasn't been translated. To my knowledge, 13 of their books exist in English translation -- some in more than one version. All 13 have been published in the United States -- some by more than one publisher. How many of them could you go out tomorrow morning and buy? One -- the novel called Escape Attempt. It's worth reading, too, but it is not one of their very best. Their very best are the novella Far Rainbow, the great interconnected set of stories published as Noon: 22nd Century, and the strange novel, set in Canada, called Roadside Picnic. You'd have to go to England to buy even one of these three; the other two can't be had at all. It's a pity that most publishers casually treat major literature like hula hoops or pet rocks.
Far Rainbow is for me the most moving of all the Strugatskys' work. Only the first time I read it was I actually crying at the end (an effect a book produces on me maybe once a decade). But both other times I still felt joyous and sad and wrung out, and as if I had finally come to understand what Aristotle meant by catharsis. THE STORY takes place two or three centuries from now on a remote and beautiful planet called simply Rainbow. Only about a thousand people live on Rainbow, and nearly all the grown-ups are scientists. The whole planet constitutes a research center where physicists are attempting to perfect zero-transport, or the instantaneous transmission of matter across space. They have reached the point where they can send objects, but not yet living beings (without killing them, that is). Eight highly trained pilots have been on the planet for the last three years, waiting to be the first people sent.
The novel doesn't begin with anything about zero-transport, however. It begins with a love scene. A young physicist named Robert Sklyarov and a teacher from Children's Colony named Tanya are sitting outside his observation post at night, talking as lovers do. That dialogue alone, perfectly capturing the intimacy of two people who feel totally secure with each other, is worth reading the book for.
You do get a hint of zero-physics, though, in the middle of the scene. While Tanya is there, Robert must dash back into his lab for a minute to answer a routine phone call from another physicist-observer. There had been a transmission of matter the previous day -- and always, when matter is sent, a tremendous shockwave comes down Rainbow from the poles toward the equator. Once, seven years ago, that wave got out of control and destroyed a considerable slice of the planet. Since then, many new safety and control measures have been taken, and they are effective. Robert and the man who called are just doing standard tracking of the current wave.
The scene now shifts to the scientific village on the equator which is also the political capital of Rainbow. Morning has come, and it's a busy day. A happy one, too. A small starship has arrived with much-needed lab equipment, and there is a wonderful, funny scene at the spaceport, as representatives of many labs try to outmaneuver each other and resort to outright deception in the effort to get their share and perhaps a bit more than their share of the new supplies.
This same day is also when Children's Colony (away from the equator, in a cooler spot) is celebrating its summer festival. Even as the planetary director is trying to settle some of the equipment squabbles, another of the screens in his office lights up, and the images of two self-conscious 10-year-old girls appear, inviting him to come to the festival.
"Today at twelve o'clock!" says the one in pink.
"At eleven!" says the one in blue.
"No, twelve!" pink insists.
"'I'll be there!' the director shouted happily. 'I'll definitely be there! And I'll be there at eleven and at twelve!' " A special joyful Russian exuberance. BUT OF COURSE the director does not go to Children's Colony. For this is the day that a new kind of wave appears, and none of the control devices has more than a trifling effect on it.
This time life on the entire planet will be wiped out -- the innocent birds and the fish, as well as the human beings. There will be a small number of exceptions. A few people will be able to escape on Tariel, the little supply ship that happens to be in port. It has a crew of three (Leonid Gorbovsky, captain; Mark Falkenstein, first officer; Percy Dixon, flight engineer) and is equipped to carry about 10 passengers along with its cargo. By ruthless stripping, one might be able to crowd a hundred people aboard, and still be able to fly, That will leave something over 900 to die on Rainbow -- and the candidates include not only great physicists like Etienne Lamondois and Alexandra Postysheva and the children (Alexandra has none, but Lamondois does) but also hapless tourists. Rainbow, though too far away for mass tourism, is popular both with artists and with honeymoon couples, on account of its great beauty; and at the moment the new kind of wave develops, there are about 60 visitors there.
Nor is it only people who have a claim to space on Tariel. There are scientists, quite prepared to die themselves, who are trying to get a few ounces of microfilm on board, containing the results of 30 years of research. The great artist Johann Sourd happens to be on Rainbow; he hopes to get a single painting on board. And so on. Robert Sklyarov will do anything, literally anything, to get his Tanya aboard, though he expects to stay and die himself.
Obviously there are many symbolic levels here, including the level where we are hearing a nuclear parable. But it is as story that I love Far Rainbow best. There is such heroism on that last day. The Strugatskys describe it so movingly. The contrast between all that chicanery over who should get more equipment, and the terrible honesty as these same people confront death; the 50 or so perfect thumbnail sketches the Strugatskys draw; the final moment as the eight zero-pilots march, singing, into the sea, seven of them carrying the eighth who was blinded trying to jump the wave in a helicopter -- well, there aren't many endings to a work of fiction that have so much in common with the end of a Beethoven symphony.
Owing to the blindness of publishers, you cannot at present buy Far Rainbow. But you can borrow it. Do. Noel Perrin teaches American literature at Dartmouth.