Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic

A couple of years ago, I picked up a book to review for SF Signal, looking for something different. That book was Roadside Picnic, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, and it turned out to be one of those books that quietly never quite left my head.

Thinking about Roadside Picnic and its authors, as well as our last column on Stanislaw Lem, we get a good starting point for examining how science fiction developed outside of the United States. Given that a lot of SF has been published here in the US, we appear to be a leader in the genre, for better or worse.

At the same time, we forget, ignore or simply don't realize that authors such as Lem and the Strugatskys were as big as the giants in the United States: on par with Bradbury, Asimov or Heinlein. Examining their publishing experiences and approaches to the genre is good to highlight the limits and potential of genre, but also where US authors and fans tend to put on blinders for the world around them.

As awareness of foreign SF grows (see Clarksworld's Chinese SF project, funding now), it's important to realize that a) this isn't a new phenomenon, and b) SF isn't limited to the United States and England.

On top of all that, go read Roadside Picnic. It's a phenomenal book.

Go read Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic over on Kirkus Reviews.


  • Russian Experimental Fiction: Resisting Ideology after Utopia, Edith Clowes. This is a particularly detailed volume on Russian literature, and partiularly looks at the science fiction's complicated relationship with utopian fiction and their own country's political history. This particular book looks at how the Strugatsky's works fit into this.
  • Science Fiction after 1900: From the Steam Man to the Stars, Brooks Landon. Landon discusses the brothers at length, with a fairly good analysis of their works.
  • Survey of Science Fiction Literature, Frank Magill. There's an excellent review of Roadside Picnic here.
  • Soviet Fiction Since Stalin: Science, Politics and Literature, Rosalind J. Marsh. This book has a good look at works of the brothers.
  • The Strugatsky Brothers, Stephen Potts. This is a short book, but a good overview of the brother's works and career.
  • The History of Science Fiction, Adam Roberts. Roberts has a couple of paragraphs of the brother's career and how it fits into a bigger picture.
  • Critical Encounters II: Writers and Themes in Science Fiction, edited by Robert Staicar. There's an excellent essay about the brothers here.
  • Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. This was my introduction to the brothers: the 2012 translation, which threw me at first, then drew me in completely. It's a Weird book, while also a Hard SF one at the same time. It still sticks in my mind, years after reading it. Ursula K. Le Guin opens the book, while Boris provided an afterword.

Online Sources:

  • SF Encyclopedia. As always, the SF Encyclopedia has a good, comprehensive entry on the subject, particularly when it comes to their placement in the genre.

Two obituaries for Boris, one in the Independent and one in the New York Times helped provide some details of their lives, as well as some critical look at their careers:

I hate to do it, but I had to rely a bit on Wikipedia's entry for the brothers, which provided some minor details, although I tried to rely on entries that were backed up with sources.

Yuri Gagarin and the Space Race

"Dear friends, known and unknown to me, my dear compatriots and all people of the world! Within minutes from now, a mighty Soviet rocket will boost my ship into the vastness of outer space. What I want to tell you is this. My whole life is now before me as a single breathtaking moment. I feel I can muster up my strength for successfully carrying out what is expected of me."

Forty Nine years ago today, Soviet pilot Yuri Gagarin lifted off as part of the Vostok 1 mission onboard the Ласточка (Lastochka - Swallow), becoming the first human being to leave the Earth, completing a single, 108 minute orbit before successfully touching down in the Soviet Union. As the U.S.S.R. had done with Sputnik-1 two years earlier, Gagarin ensured that the Soviet Union had taken the lead in the forming space race, with the United States just behind.

In the early days of the Cold War, both the United States and the Soviet Union had begun to clash in highly public displays of technology, with roots going back to the beginnings of the Cold War. At the end of the Second World War, the two countries were on a collision course with opposing ideologies. As Germany collapsed, Nazi scientists were grabbed by both sides to determine how to best gain a new weapons technology that the German military had begun to work on and implement: missiles. For the Soviet Union, this was an essential development. The country was ravaged by war, with millions dead, and a massive conventional military to clothe, feed and train, while the United States, untouched, possessed the technology to directly strike targets within Russian borders. Missile technology would further the Soviet's reach and allow them to threaten US allies at first, then the mainland.

As the weapons race continued with both the United States and Soviet Union creating and testing Nuclear warheads, a smaller race began between the nations to build bigger rockets, which could in turn bring around a better and faster missile that could strike anywhere on the planet. As part of this race, the Soviet Union successfully launched its first satellite, Sputnik-1, throwing the United States into a panic, perceiving the instrument as a direct threat to the country's security, despite gestures from President Eisenhower, that satellite technology was not the key indicator of a country's technical superiority. Despite his attempts, it would be months before the United States could successfully follow the Russians into orbit.

The key to the Soviet's success was simple: they had started earlier, but because they had trouble miniaturizing parts for their own nuclear bombs, larger and more powerful rockets had to be built to carry their payload into orbit and back. Thus, the addition of a human passenger by 1961 was a technical possibility. Gagarin's flight occurred just days before US Astronaut, Alan Shepherd Jr. took off on board Freedom 7 on May 5th. The successes with the Vostok mission signaled an escalation of the space race between the two countries: over the next decade, their respective space agencies would work tirelessly to outdo the other, with spacewalks, number of orbits, people in space and eventually, the first to the moon. While the United States eventually won the space race by reaching the moon in 1969, the early Soviet victories underscored the differences in attitudes towards defensive doctrines in both countries. The United States was reluctant to shift its air force to a deterrent based system, while the Soviet Union essentially had no choice. As a result, they were able to gain a short lead in the race to orbit, as both countries experienced a space industry that was pushed along by military and political developments.

Gagarin never flew in space again. He was grounded by Soviet leadership, who used him as a public relations tool to bolster moral in the country. In 1968, he died in a plane crash while on a routine training mission. His legacy, however, is one of great importance: the first human to leave the planet, something equal, if not greater in importance to Neil Armstrong's first steps on the moon.

Tsutomu Yamaguchi & the Dawn of a Nuclear Era

On Monday, the only survivor of both atomic blasts over Japan during the Second World War, Tsutomu Yamaguchi, passed away at the age of 93, according to an obituary by the New York Times this morning. Together, the two bombs are thought to have killed an estimated 150,000 people, with millions more in the years after due to the effects of the blasts.

The bombs that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima at the end of the war were the product of a massive scientific and military research project known as the Manhattan Project, which completely altered the way that the military would operate strategically over the coming decades. Much debate still rages on about the background motivations of the bombing. As I've been working with the Norwich University Military History degree, I've read numerous entry essays from prospective students on a number of topics, and the motivations behind the atomic bombs is by far the one that I see the most.

The decision to bomb the Japanese at the end of the war, was not a singular issue, but rather a very complicated one, where Truman had to weigh both the immediate effects that the bombs would have, as well as the repercussions of such an attack. There are many arguments that argue for one side or the other, that the bombs were dropped as a last resort to end the war and prevent a mainland invasion by US forces, which would have been incredibly costly to both the Japanese and the Americans. On the other hand, it has been argued that the bombs were a political demonstration to a rising Soviet Union by a growing United States, to show the extents of US power. Again, this has quite a bit of merit to it. So, why not both? In this instance, Truman had the option to not only demonstrate the extent of US power to a potential rival, but also showed that the nation would use it if needed, and by doing so, helped to end the Second World War. The arguments about whose lives were more important, US soldiers or Japanese civilians and military, is one for another time, but a nation will act in its own interests - in this instance, it was in the United States’ interest to end the war and establish itself as a dominant global military power.

Atomic warfare is by its very nature very different than so called conventional warfare. A very good example can be found in the early days of the Cold War, with the Soviet Union's problems in the years following the Second World War. Faced with massive infrastructure damage and tens of millions of people killed in the war, the country was burdened by a massive conventional army - an expensive investment that was rendered largely useless by the advances that the United States Air Force enjoyed. In several demonstrations over the years, General Curtis Lemay flew bombers over Moscow and other Soviet cities in a demonstration that the United States could easily wipe out the country. As a result, the Soviet Union began to research missile technology, as well as nuclear technology, as a way to counteract US power. The military theorist Carl von Clausewitz has noted that with any new advance in offensive force, there tends to be a defense constructed to counteract it. During his time, this was seen in advancements in artillery and fortifications. In the nuclear era, this translated from bomber and air superiority to missile counter defenses and the threat of mutually assured destruction, commonly known as MAD.

As such, warfare of the Cold War was different from the Second World War, because neither country was ready to commit to the literal destruction of the world. Nuclear weapons, because of their awesome, destructive power, held both nations in check. Smaller conflicts around the world didn't involve the two nations actively fighting each other, at least officially, but through proxies, in a delicate game of power. There were close calls, to be sure, but the greatest measure of success was that the remaining major conflicts, such as Korea and Vietnam, were carried out by larger conventional forces, rather than nuclear ones.

Mr. Yamaguchi had a fairly unique view of the dawn of this new era of warfare. While he most likely wasn't the only survivor of both blasts, he is the only one that is officially acknowledged to have been a survivor of both. His story is an interesting one, and shows not only the power of these weapons, but also the consequences that come with their usage. Fortunately, their use has only been demonstrated once during wartime, and hopefully, Mr. Yamaguchi's vantage point will never again be witnessed. However, however horrible the deployment of these weapons were, one needs to keep in mind that the dropping of the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was far more than an isolated event - they ushered in a new era of the world, fundamentally changing the balance of power for the rest of the century, and in all likelihood, helped, in part, to avoid even worse conflict.