Review: Monday Starts on Saturday by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky

translated by Andrew Bromfield

original publication (in Russian): 1964

first English edition: 1977, DAW

this edition: 2016, Chicago Review Press

grab a copy here or through your local independent bookstore or library

I’ve read several Strugatsky novels at this point, and I have to say that Monday Starts on Saturday is by far the strangest of the bunch. Perhaps this is because the book under discussion is mostly an absurd take-down of an academic institution devoted to the study of magic and ultra-theoretical forces, where books like Roadside Picnic and The Inhabited Island are serious, even haunting.

My appreciation for this early book may also be influenced by the fact that I’m reading it after having read several later Strugatsky novels, which reveal the developing complexity of their writing. Nonetheless, in Monday Starts on Saturday we can detect a stylistic structure that will come up again and again in the later books–namely, an episodic cadence that at once relieves the reader from feeling crushed under the weight of an inexorably advancing plot, but also offers different perspectives on the same story. The Beetle in the Anthill, The Waves Extinguish the Wind, and The Snail on the Slope all include these major shifts in character perspective and setting throughout their pages. In Beetle, for instance, we have parts of the story narrated by Maxim Kammerer, interspersed with journal entries by the man he is chasing. A more extreme example is Waves, the last novel the Strugatskys wrote together, which is presented as a compendium of documents: reports, interviews, narrative interludes, etc.

Monday Starts on Saturday is composed of three major sections, each of which includes one or two stories that could stand alone. We first meet the main character, Sasha Privalov, as he’s driving to meet some friends for a hiking trip. Flagged down by some hitchhikers and persuaded to stay in a strange building at the institute where they work, Sasha somehow finds himself drawn into a bizarre world of disappearing-and-reappearing translating sofas, talking cats, tree mermaids, and mirrors that do more than reflect things. Oh, and there’s a coin that keeps reappearing in his pocket, but only if he spends it on something.

Recruited to work at the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy (NITWiT) after the people who derailed him find out that he’s a programmer, Sasha learns that his colleagues may be quite smart but aren’t always thinking about the consequences of their experiments, despite the institute being devoted to the problems of human happiness and the meaning of life. Explosions, cloning, dead parrots–ethics don’t really seem to come into the picture until Sasha brings them up, at which point most of the other characters don’t see the problem.

In two interludes, the Strugatskys show their hand and lecture the reader through Sasha, but those lectures are so interesting and so obviously plant the seeds that will flourish in their later books that we must just stand back and admire them. Early in Monday, Sasha asks us to consider what it means to be a “rational materialist” and how we interact with our world based on our senses and logic. Because we demand that there must always be a rational explanation, “it never occurs to anybody that the known facts and some new phenomenon might be separated by an entire ocean of the unknown, so we declare the new phenomenon supernatural and, therefore, impossible.” Scientific progress, in fact, prepares us for certain things but not others: “As a rule, the science in which we believe (quite often blindly) prepares us long in advance for the miracles that lie ahead, and we only suffer psychological shock when we come up against the unforeseen, like some hole through into the fourth dimension, or biological radio communication, or a living planet…” (44-45).

Even more interesting is Sasha’s interior monologue about science and technology bending back around to look like magic: “the most interesting and elegant scientific results frequently possess the property of appearing abstruse and drearily incomprehensible to the uninitiated. In our time people who have no connection with science expect it to produce miracles and nothing but miracles, but they’re practically incapable of distinguishing a genuine scientific miracle from a conjuring trick or intellectual acrobatics” (161). Most of us use computers, but few of us truly understand how they work. Thanks to camera and computer technology, for example, those of us who religiously watched one or more Star Trek series have to reconcile the smooth sailing of starships and warp drive with the seemingly-stagnant space program of real life.

No matter how absurd things get in Monday, Sasha never gets flustered, and thus acts as a worthy guide for us through the maze of magic and science that goes on at NITWiT. As a former academic myself, the portrayal of professors so buried in their own research that they forget everything going on around them is apt (then again, isn’t this true of almost every profession?). When you’re pulling on a thread, everything else seems like a distraction. The Strugatsky brothers demonstrate this truth with hilarity and brilliance.

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