In Memoriam, Boris Strugatsky

Boris Strugatsky died on Monday in Saint-Petersburg, aged 79. The Guardian has an obituary which conveys something of his and his brother Arkady’s importance to Russian culture. The Strugatsky brothers are―are, since the books remain―among my favourite writers. I want to say something about them here. I have sometimes mentioned science-fiction on this blog, especially here and here, though not always seriously. But the Strugatskys were masters of philosophical science-fiction, who did some very serious thinking on political (and also moral) philosophy, so as you will see, I am not straying off-topic and writing about them.

Though they wrote about many things, from satires on bureaucracy such as The Tale of the Troika to meditations on life, the universe, and everything such as Definitely Maybe (the Russian title of which translates as A Billion Years before the End of the World) and Roadside Picnic, perhaps their most famous novel (and the only one that seems easily accessible on Amazon, including on Kindle), which was made into the movie Stalker by Tarkovsky. But one of their recurrent themes was intervention by one civilization into the affairs of another. This, obviously, is political philosophy, and very topical too, given the events of the last couple of years in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere (and so many other places before).

One virtue of the Strugatskys’ oeuvre is that they look at intervention, and ask the question of its permissibility, from many different angles. They look at representatives of an advanced, benevolent civilization (the Earth’s, as they dream it in some not very distant future) thrust by choice or accident in the midst of repression and despair of a dictatorship, in Hard to Be a God and Prisoners of Power (the Russian title translates as The Inhabited Island). They look at a representative of a civilization apparently mired in misery and war who is brought to the advanced and benevolent―and to him, incomprehensible and hostile―Earth, in The Kid from Hell. And then they look at the representatives of the Earth’s advanced and benevolent civilization, used to hurrying progress of those less fortunate than their own, confronting first the possibility and then the certitude of an even more advanced civilization apparently trying to hurry the progress of their own, in Beetle in the Anthill and The Time Wanderers (the Russian title translates as The Waves Extinguish the Wind).

Another virtue of the Strugatskys’ reflection on this topic is that they leave the reader free to work out answers for him- or herself. Their books are ambiguous―frustratingly so sometimes, but it is good frustration. If there is one thing about which they had no doubts, it is the importance of thinking for oneself. They were content to ask questions―brutally difficult questions―and did not seek to impose answers.

Their books are good reads―sometimes haunting, sometimes vivid, full of appreciation for the mystery of the universe. Sometimes hilarious, though the humour is often sardonic. If you prefer getting your philosophy in the shape of good literature rather than dry disquisitions, do try to read them. As Goethe’s Mephistopheles pointed out, Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie/Und Grün des Lebens gold’ner Baum―all theory, my friend, is grey, and green the golden tree of life.

Life will be a little more grey though, without the Strugatskys.

Author: Leonid Sirota

Law nerd. I teach constitutional law at the Auckland University of Technology Law School, in New Zealand. I studied law at McGill, clerked at the Federal Court of Canada, and then did graduate work at the NYU School of Law.

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