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.

A Person Yoda Is?

In today’s Legal Theory Lexicon entry on “Persons and Personhood”, Larry Solum suggests that if

an intelligent alien species were to arrive on Earth … [and] the members of the aliens displayed evidence of human-like intelligence and could communicate with us (e.g. were able to master a human natural language, such as English), then we might be tempted to treat members of this species as morally and/or legally entitled to the same rights as humans.

He also gives the example of “Chewbacca and Yoda in the Star Wars movies. Neither Chewbacca nor Yoda is a member of the species homo sapiens, yet both are treated as the moral and legal equivalents of humans in the Star Wars universe.”

As it happens, the issue whether aliens able to communicate with us should be entitled to legal personality has in fact been raised in a Canadian Court. In the case of Joly v. Pelletier, [1999] O.J. No. 1728 (QL), Justice Epstein of the Superior Court of Ontario granted the defendants’ motion to dismiss on the ground that the plaintiff, who claimed that he was not a human being but rather a Martian whose DNA test results were being tampered with by the CIA, Bill Clinton, and sundry others, was not a person, and therefore not capable of being a “plaintiff” within the meaning of Ontario’s Rules of Civil Procedure!

For what it’s worth, I think that Professor Solum is right, and Justice Epstein, rather too formalistic, albeit quite amusing. But this raises further questions. If an individual intelligent alien is a person, what about collective intelligences, whether made up of insects (as in Isaac Asimov’s short story “Hallucination“) or bacteria (as in Asimov’s novel Nemesis)? What about a collective artificial intelligence (as in Stanislaw Lem’s novel The Invincible)? And perhaps most importantly: could any alien crazy enough to turn up on Earth these days be considered intelligent?