Celestial Hellscapes: Cosmology as the Key to the Strugatskiis’ Science Fictions

Celestial Hellscapes: Cosmology as the Key to the Strugatskiis’ Science Fictions


Kevin Reese

Series: The Real Twentieth Century
ISBN: 9781618119797 (hardcover)
Pages: 278 pp.
Publication Date: June 2019

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Neither Arkadii nor Boris Strugatskii had originally intended to make a living in writing. Arkadii dreamed of becoming an astronomer, but his wartime experience and training led him to work as a translator and editor of Japanese literature. Boris intended to become a physicist, trained as an astronomer, and ended up as a computer specialist at Pulkovo Observatory. This common thread of astronomy turns out to be fantastically important for understanding their works, as their most important ones are experiments in cosmology, and their shared expertise is instrumental in their construction of literary hellscapes. This book explores how the Strugatskiis’ cosmological explorations are among the most fundamental elements of their art. It examines also how these explorations connect to their predecessors in the Russian literary tradition—particularly to the poetry of Pushkin.

Kevin Reese has been studying the Strugatskii brothers for twenty years. At UNC, he developed a course on Soviet science fiction centered around their works. Currently, he is translating the Strugatskiis’ final works—their novel Those Burdened by Evil and their play The Yids of the City of Peter.


Reese has come closer than any other Anglophone scholar to situating himself as an ‘embedded reporter’ from the Strugatskiis’ world, or perhaps more aptly, a literary anthropologist, whose goal is to apprehend the way the ABS thought about things. He has made intricate use of available Russian accounts of the Strugatskiis’ life and times. As an amateur astronomer himself, Reese shows us how to perceive events through a Strugatskian telescope—and the resulting interpretive moves he is prepared to make for us really illuminate their science fiction. Nothing like this has been done before.
— Yvonne H. Howell, Professor of Russian and International Studies, University of Richmond
Kevin Reese addresses a series of the Strugatskiis’ works that present an evolving ‘cosmology of hell.’ Reading several novels and a play, he elicits poetic contexts and subtexts, as well as biographical background, and usefully illuminates important information encoded in scientific references. As Dr. Reese notes, these books often feature an astronomer as a bewildered everyman. Celestial Hellscapes is an admirable addition to the literature on Russian and Soviet science fiction; readers will find it informative and enjoyable, and it will inspire them to turn, or return, to the Strugatskiis with new insight.
— Sibelan Forrester, Professor of Russian, Russian Section Head, Swarthmore College

Table of Contents

A note on the names of our “author”

The Strugatskiis’ Pushkinian Cosmology

Chapter 1: A Biography through Astronomy
Chapter 2: Minor Planets: the Strugatskiis’ Earlier Experiments in Cosmology
Chapter 3: The Hell of the Ignorant: The Second Martian Invasion
Chapter 4: Poincaré’s Starless Hell: The Inhabited Island
Chapter 5: Exceptions to the Laws of Thermodynamics: Roadside Picnic
Chapter 6: “Long live darkness!”: A Billion Years Until the End of the World
Chapter 7: The Island Universe and the Copper Doorknob: The Doomed City
Chapter 8: Chronic Bewilderment and Astronomical “Fact”: Those Burdened by Evil
Coda: “Day and night my Man in Black gives me no peace…”: The Yids of the City of Peter

Appendix I: The Altitude of Vega