Review: The Inhabited Island by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

[originally translated in 1977 as Prisoners of Power; this new translation is of the uncensored version]

translated by Andrew Bromfield

Chicago Review Press

February 4, 2020

416 pages

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This novel from the Strugatskys’ Noon Universe is not just about a space traveler from Earth crash landing on an alien planet and finding himself stuck there for years. It’s also about the journey from naivete to understanding–in terms of power structures, belief systems, and one’s own limitations. It is, indeed, a science fictional bildungsroman borne out of the stresses and hardships of Soviet psychological and literary censorship; and as always, the Strugatskys deliver.

Each section of The Inhabited Island focuses on protagonist Maxim Kammerer’s traumatic experiences with the military, political, and justice systems of one particularly powerful country on the uncharted planet. The inhabitants, he quickly learns, believe that they live on the inside of a sphere and that their world is the only one in the universe. When Kammerer attempts to explain where he came from, his listeners can’t even begin to comprehend the concepts he uses. Thus begins Kammerer’s slow but steady journey toward understanding the inhabitants’ language and adjusting his mindset to fit in with the people around him.

Eventually, Kammerer learns about the mysterious group called the Unknown Fathers who took control of the country years before and exert immense power over the populace. The cruelty of this regime ultimately drives Kammerer into the arms of a rebel group attempting to overthrow the government. From them, Kammerer learns that the antiballistic missile towers the Fathers built around the country are actually radiation transmitters that blast citizens twice a day with a jolt of docility. Those who are physiologically untouched by this radiation experience severe headaches and are usually arrested. This is the turning point in Kammerer’s experience on the planet, and his travels across the country forming alliances to bring down the government and its towers make him see just how complicated and entrenched the politics on this planet truly are.

Kammerer’s transformation from a hopeful and curious stranger into a jaded and battle-hardened rebel (along with his name change- the citizens call him “Mak Sim”) unfolds steadily over the course of the novel, though the reader is often lifted out of his head and placed in that of a government official or one of Kammerer’s allies. The major revelations, which appear in the middle and then at the end of the story, make the reader experience the same kind of mindset shifts that Kammerer himself experiences, making The Inhabited Island a powerful and unforgettable novel.

 

 

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