This is one of the most fun and enjoyable books I’ve read in a very long time and it totally came of out of left field for me.
There is a great documentary on YouTube titled Pandora’s Box : The Engineers’ Plot about how the Soviet Union attempted to use mathematical and scientific principles to bring about the greatest amount of happiness and comfort to the Russian people. Through pure logic and reason the Soviet scientists hoped to control an illogical and irrational population. This was a real thing and it went on for decades. And it was a total failure.
This book was published in the late 1960’s during the beginning of a period of Soviet economic downturn. The (relatively) prosperous days of the 1950’s and early 1960’s of the Soviet Union were coming to an end and the reality of grossly inefficient Soviet rule was apparent to everyone – though not many people said anything publicly. The authors, one of whom was actually an astronomer, would have had a front row seat to many of the societal events of their day from a very unique perspective.
And that’s what this book is about.
But it’s not just about making fun of the Soviet Union – it’s about how all institutions are a bungled mess of competing egos and endless bureaucratic quicksands. But unlike Kafka, they take a much more lighthearted approach to the joke of all human society.
Years ago I was friends with a lady who, like Boris Natanovich Strugatsky, was a scientist. She was one of those wiz-kid PhD’s by her mid twenties and had done so in the field of astrophysics. At the time I was working with a friend making hand built telescopes for the (rich) amateur enthusiasts and so she was always coming by our shop and hanging around.
What I quickly learned, however, was that a genius PhD in astrophysics is not nearly as interesting or romantic as it sounds. Her job was (if I remember this right) the study of the gravitational effect between two incredibly distant galaxies and just those two galaxies. She didn’t study anything else about those galaxies or any other structures in the universe, she only studied how gravity worked on a pair of multi-billion year old galaxies in a constellation I had never even heard of.
And her knowledge of general astronomy was laughable in many regards. Current news and discoveries were things she was totally unaware of and was probably why she hung around us so that she wouldn’t totally lose touch with the greater scope of the field she was working in.
This book deals with pretty much the same idea: scientists have become so hyper-specialized (and, honestly, everyone in higher academia suffers this fate) as to be nearly useless. Here, the scientists are all magus (magicians and wizards – even Merlin himself) who work at an institute devoted to discovering and perfecting human happiness. Their tools include a couch that interperts dreams, a sort of motorcycle that you can drive into the invented future realities of science fiction books. In town there is a mermaid in a tree and a wish fulfilling pike in a well. There are coins that always show back up in your pocket when you spend them and a man who is two men, one who at midnight instead of living into the next day like the rest of us time linear folks, reappears 24 hours earlier and lives that day instead.
It’s a totally bonkers idea, but that’s the whole point, too because in a way it mirrors not only what was going on in the Soviet Union at the time, but also what still goes on in the Ivory Towers of higher-learning around the world.
But there’s a larger theme at work here, too, and that’s of how the general public sees science. For many people the work of the scientists is not much different than that of a magician because it’s nearly impossible to explain what scientists actually do. Academic papers might as well be fairy tales for all the good they do a regular person who has to go to work all day.
The authors then go on to make parallels to the media and the ‘rock star’ scientist who does no real science but the public loves them because they do a lot of neat tricks (like a magician).
Even economics is explored where they take their egotistical, rock star scientist, and task him with trying to create the perfect man but who only turns out to be so incredibly gluttonous because he has everything he wants and can be given everything he wants as to literally explode after gorging on nearly 3 tons of rotting fish heads.
Not bad that they could expose the failings of both Capitalism and Communism with only one metaphor!
And there is so much more here, too. That’s what I love about this book – it’s great fun and wildly imaginative, but it also gets you to really think about a great many concepts and ideas without hitting you over the head with them.
The book is outrageous, the characters are thinner than the pages, there is no dramatic tension at all, but none of that stuff matters because the ideas rule here. And there are also some wonderfully powerful images that will linger : the ride into the future where we meet the soldier near the Iron Curtain thousands of years into the future, or the bird, or my favorite: the giant, lazy mosquito the size of a dog that he shoos out the window into a driving blizzard in the middle of the night where it immediately disappears in the storm and cold.
Strange and brilliant.