San Francisco, California

To hell, to hell...

If you love sci-fi then you should read Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky immediately. A while back I wrote a bit about why it’s my favorite sci-fi novel of all time but it was only today that I read the afterword by Boris, which was written years after the fall of the Soviet Union, and in it he describes the nightmarish hell that was publishing in the 70’s and 80’s under Soviet bureaucracy:

At first, I was looking forward to using this afterword to tell the story of publishing Picnic: naming once-hated names; jeering to my heart’s content at the cowards, idiots, informers, and scoundrels; astounding the reader with the absurdity, idiocy and meanness of the world we’re all from; being ironic and instructive, deliberately objective and ruthless, benevolent and caustic all at once. And now I’m sitting here, looking at these folders, and realizing that I’m hopelessly late and that no one needs me—not my irony, not my generosity, and not my burnt-out hatred. They have ceased to exist, those once-powerful organizations with almost unlimited right to allow and to hinder; they have ceased to exist and are forgotten to such an extent that it would be tedious and dull to explain to the present-day reader who is who, why it didn’t make sense to complain to the Department of Culture of the CC, why the only thing to do was to complain to the Department of Print and Propaganda, and who were Albert Andreevich Beliaev, Pyotr Nilovich Demichev, and Mikhail Vasilyevich Zimyanin—and these were the tigers and elephants of the Soviet ideological fauna, rulers of destinies, deciders of fates! Who remembers them today, and who cares about those of them who are still among the living? So then why bother with the small fry—the shrill crowd of petty bureaucrats of ideology, the countless ideological demons, who caused untold and immeasurable harm and whose vileness and meanness require (as they liked to write in the nineteenth century) a mightier, sharper, and more experienced pen than my own? I don’t even want to mention them here—let them be swallowed up by the past, like evil spirits, and disappear…

It took eight painstaking years of correspondence between all the agencies of Moscow and endless letters back and forth between the two brothers (one of which Boris explains the latest delay to Arkady: “To hell, to hell…”). But after all the years of arguments between bureaucrats and agencies, Boris realized that he had it all wrong. The system wasn’t trying to stop them from publishing their book because it was ideological – it was because the language was bleak and hopeless, where most sci-fi at the time was uplifting and fantastical:

It didn’t even cross our minds that the issue had nothing to do with ideology. They, those quintessential “bloody fools,” actually did think this way: that language must be colorless, smooth, and glossy as possible and certainly shouldn’t be at all coarse; that science fiction necessarily has to be fantastic and on no account should have anything to do with crude, observable, and brutal reality; that the reader must in general be protected from reality—let him live by daydreams, reveries, and beautiful incorporeal ideas…