Friday, October 17, 2008

A Soft Apocalypse

I'm a fan of many types of speculative fiction and, one of the most interesting, is science fiction that came out of the Soviet Union during the U.S./Soviet cold-war-era. Two real masters in this period were the brothers Akady and Boris Strugatsky. Science fiction was sometimes the only way writers could slip something past the censors - the subtext is always worth closer scrutiny in these books.

My favorite book of the Strugatsky brothers, The Ugly Swans, is not their most well-known but, every time I re-read it, I walk away with a deeper, visceral understanding of human nature and how it interacts with inherited culture within the confines of external political force. No, really. ;)

On the surface, the story concerns what may be a new race of humans evolving beneath our very noses but shunned as if they were lepers as they are seemingly victims of a chronic malaise. For most people, these "Slimies" as they are called are out-of-sight/out-of-mind. While most adults take no notice of these "poor souls", the children however are attracted to them and begin to learn from them just how flawed all the driving factors of the adults actually are. At some point these children, who have become all too bright, have no use for the adults anymore with their passion-driven actions, their hubris and ignorance. The children hold no hate for these flawed, very human adults, only pity - for they are merely slaves to their desires, fears, hopes and lust for power, only partly tempered by their intellect.

The Ugly Swans is a strange cautionary tale of a slow, subversive change from within that may end up being an unexpected kind of cultural as well as physical evolution. It's an ambiguous change, neither malignant nor uplifting in any usual sense and the reader is left to ponder much of this out alone.

If you can dig up this beautiful novel in the back of some dusty bookshop, its well worth the effort. The style is a little odd as the authors' voices have to shine through the lens of translation but fortunately you can hear the brothers loud and clear. While Russian idiom and some of the sentence structure is a little alien, even in translation, to me these quirks are both attractive and novel at the same time. The characters are all deeply envisioned as three-dimensional people by means of a sympathetic omniscience I found refreshing. There are more interesting things at play here in the subtle ways writers of this era found to talk about freedom of speech, or the lack thereof , in an environment where all media is controlled by the government to quash subversive or dissenting voices. Even the title is redolent with multiple meanings and I always grin at its humor. You can even hear echoes of Clarke's "Childhood's End" here, though it's a very different approach viewed through the eyes of a very different culture - much more subtle and subversive is this memorable "Soft Apocalypse".