At the Paris Review website, Ezra Glinter writes about the Russian authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who he calls "the best socialist utopians in the game." They were wildly popular in Russian during the decades leading up to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and they are now undergoing a small renaissance in the English-speaking world, with new editions and translations of their books, such as The Dead Mountaineer's Inn:
All of this makes The Dead Mountaineer’s Inn an anomaly, not just as a mystery or sci-fi novel, but within the Strugatskys’ own body of work. Its genre games seem to bear no resemblance to the utopian adventure fiction of their early career, or to the later, more dystopic books. But even this novel, written just after the thaw period, may have something to say about its times. In an essay for The Los Angeles Review of Books, Boris Dralyuk argues that the failure of the work as a detective novel could be read as a criticism of the Soviet system. Just as the theories of the Soviet state failed to produce the desired results, so too the rules of the detective novel fail to provide a solution to the book’s mystery. “It all should work,” Dralyuk writes, “but reality is a far messier thing.”
Yet the ambiguous ending of the novel, and its insistence on disrupting the conventional mystery narrative with fantastic elements, also speaks to the hopefulness of science fiction. The idea that there is something else out there implies that the situation here can potentially improve. Even the most grim dystopias are rarely without their redemptive escape hatch—a way out of the bind in which humanity has trapped itself. Glebsky’s investigation may not amount to much, and may even cause some harm, but his failure to resolve the inn’s riddles could be for the best. As the innkeeper tells him at the beginning, it’s the unknown that allows us to imagine something better.
Above image: from the cover of the first US edition of Hard to Be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. Via the Paris Review.