Archive for February, 2018

The 2012 edition of Roadside Picnic, by Arkadi and Boris Strugatsky, carries an Afterword by Boris.

See my earlier review:

For the book:

In this Afterword he describes the chequered career of the book: it was by no means a straight-forward publication. Initially the story was published, unscathed, in the Leningrad Avrora literary journal, 1971, and was then put forward for inclusion in an anthology, Unintended Meanings, consisting of two of their earlier stories, and to be published in 1972. Here the problems began.
The anthology was to be published by a company called Young Guard. The YG belief was that science-fiction literature was intended only for children and teenagers. Adult themes, and especially language, what the editors listed as ‘Comments Concerning Immoral Behaviour of the Heroes’, ‘Comments Concerning Physical Violence’, etc,  had to be eradicated. And there were 18 pages of these.
There are times, places, to negotiate, and times to stick to one’s guns.

The brothers put together a dossier of all these problems and obstacles, thinking to put it out somehow – by samizdat, if nothing else. There were months between replies to their queries, years of wrangling. Then…
Arkadi died, the Wall fell, Communism… faded away.
And the dossier became redundant. The departments, the people causing the problems, also, faded away. Perspective came in. And they all seemed little more than a plague of gnats, biting flies, blown away by the first change in the weather.

Take note, ye bureaucrats: this you are also.

The book opens with a radio interview. The person being interviewed is a Dr Pillman. He introduced the Pillman Radiant. 13 years previously had been the Visitation: 6 spots in an arc across the surface of the earth had experienced the phenomena of the Visitation. One hit Dr Pillman’s home town. It left catastrophe in its wake.
Dr Pillman extrapolated back from impact points to an area in space in the Cygnus constellation: Deneb, the main star. Except, he is at pains to point out, he did not discover this, it was actually a schoolboy, and published by a college student.

What actually do you do? the interviewer later asked  His reply is interesting: for the last 2 years he has been a consultant in the UN  Commission on the Problems of the Visit.
Roughly speaking, we make sure that no one else outside the International Institute gets access to the alien marvels discovered inside the Zones.
Couldn’t you be rather more specific? the interviewer asks.
Wouldn’t you rather move on to the arts?
Dr Pillman hedges, and also distances himself from the Visitation. Even when it had hit his home town. This is interesting.

Why is this ‘interesting’? Because his comments  and evasions make him out to be something of a policing authority. I had taken him initially as a kind of KGB man, but he turns up later as a Nobel Laureate – not the exposure for a secret policeman.
For the Soviet publishers all books for young people had to be clearly moralistic and
didactic. The story admits the existence of such agents, and the part they play in society. Did the YG editors read this as giving him the thumbs up, by having him be at pains to point out the origin of the research that he had taken credit for? Dr Pillman as a Good Citizen?
Except you cannot find a shiftier character in the book, and that is saying a lot.

This, also, sets the scene for the roles of the ‘stalkers’, who enter the Zones to collect articles for sale on the Black Market. This is a highly dangerous activity. Guards are entitled to shoot to kill.
Not only that, but the dangers of the places are beyond imagining.
The Institute has highly detailed aerial photographs to guide patrols and official collection visits. They prove useless. as we see in the book: effects are not static, they wander. Some are invisible.

Which leads to:
I was also particularly interested in another aspect of the book, the attitude to language in dealing with the unknown. There is the language of the physicists, the ‘eggheads’, and of the stalkers.
– Incidentally, this was the first time the English word ‘stalker’ was introduced into Russian/Soviet language and literature  They pronounced it ‘stulker’.

On an official collection visit to the Zone, Red, the ex-stalker and now lab aide, and his laboratory boss Kirill Panov, come across a wandering phenomenon. It is invisible; but it affects gravity in its locality, creating an extra-strong temporary force.
‘Got it. You look for graviconcentrates?’
They are like that, the eggheads. The most important thing for them is to come up with a name.
The next move forward they make, and Red stops them, breaks into a sweat.
Instinct. Gut reaction.
Instinct versus knowledge. Knowledge is the aerial photographs; instinct tells them if they move forward from that spot they’re doomed.
Just before this:
Over the pile of ancient trash, over the colourful rags and broken glass, drifts a tremor……. Damn these eggheads, a great job they did; ran their road down there amid the junk!
What can be seen and measured, and what cannot be. The road was plotted by markers previous teams had positioned. It was a safe route.
For a stalker there were no safe routes: each venture was a life-and-death challenge, literally. They had no maps. They went always at night (they could be seen and shot during the day), and on hands and knees, mostly, feeling, sensing, their way onward.

This also introduces the theme of the limits of knowledge: here was an alien technology that made no sense to our sciences; it wiped our knowledge off the board. Which left you with… the instincts of the stalker. Science gets you killed.
You think, ah, that’s a graviconcentrate – and the book notes how blasé the scientists become once they name a phenomenon. But it remains deadly: that is its only definite, dependable, feature.
The stalkers call it a bug trap – to be caught in that invisible, wandering, anomaly is to be squashed flat by the gravitational field. How do they know? They have seen its effects on fellow stalkers.
The scientist’s phrase merely describes; the stalker’s phrase expresses its impact.

Arkadi’s background was that of editor and writer, and Boris that of scientist. Both, highly trained and experienced in their fields. And yet to them, language could not compete with reality.
Was it that the Soviet experience had devalued the meaningfulness of words to such an extent, that they could no longer be relied on to carry content? Be careful who one talks to: communication became a nuanced trade of possible meanings.

Politically, we can read here, that the Visitation introduces something way off the Marxist-Leninist map, far away from their neat dialectics of history. We read here of highly successful cultures, civilisations, that do not owe anything to Marxist-Leninism (or Capitalism). It is… the unthinkable – in both science, and (pseudo-)scientific political theories.

As unthinkable, it is also nameless.
And Arkadi and Boris bow neither to psychological, political, nor scientific certainties here. It not a Freudian Unthinkable, nor a scientific or sociological category-without-a-name.

The artefacts obviously have a purpose to their owners, but that is at present unknowable to us.
This is reality, and neither science nor theory can cope with it, because they exercise retrospective assessments.
This is reality-in-the-field, and the human person is naked before it. In the last resort, the approach to the golden ball, the stalker must shed everything. The result of the ‘wish’ is a judgement, of a kind, on his capability to embrace his humanity.

In time, we learn, even the scientist invent their own jargon for the artefacts they handle, try to investigate. Their jargon has a wry amusement, a bleak humour. It expresses, rather than describes. It expresses their frustration with the artefacts – they can use of them, oh yes, but have no idea what their proper and original uses were. The Visitors remain as unknown in purpose, intent and being as they always did.

But this is, after all, only a sci-fi novel.

Red looks lovingly into his daughter’s eyes, they are by then perfectly round, and the iris’ now completely dark; he lovingly strokes the long golden brown fur on her face.
The indications are that she is reverting to an earlier form of evolution, due to the effects of the Zone, and Red’s constant activities there.
The bodies that emerge from the cemetery, walled by the Zone, appear to be  formed from basic organic material. They have reverted to their earlier existence, as walking, breathing bodies.
This reversion theme also crops up in the ‘episode’ Red experiences crossing the road. He loses sight of the street, the ordinary world, instead he sees everything in terms of basic shapes: cones, cubes, spheres (Cezanne would have loved it).

The last part, 4, is Red’s quest – not quite for the Golden Fleece, but the fabled Golden Sphere, which grants human wishes – is mostly in the form of internal dialogue. And the Strugatskys convey with great expertise his troubled state of mind, his struggles with himself, and for some form of clarity.
His much-loved daughter, ‘the monkey’, now has been diagnosed as no longer human; his dead father ‘lives’ with them, responding occasionally to stimulus. Both daughter and father howl into the night at times. All the neighbours have gone – they are isolated, for all the money from black-market trading. We learn how Red tried all ways to keep them, get the children to play with ‘monkey’, how his friend even tried to bribe people to stay.

What would his wish be? What is certain, is that he had no intention of coming out alive.

Only a sci-fi novel.
I do feel, though, that the undifferentiating pessimism undermines the classic status of the book. The book references Kurt Vonngegut.
Was this the first time the classic certainties of the time had been openly questioned? Is that its originality?



Girl In A Green Gown, The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait.Girl In A Green Gown, The History and Mystery of the Arnolfini Portrait. By Carola Hicks, Chatto and Windus, 2011.

This is an excellent book by art historian Carola Hicks. It has the added bonus of a Preface by Greyson Perry. It also carries its own  tragedy, though: this is the writer’s last book, she died as she was completing the last stages.

The writer gives a thorough investigation of every aspect of the portrait, from each article of clothing the subjects wear, to background articles, settings, to the portraits’ provenance.

Jan Van Eyck’s painting became a much valued source of trade for royal favours, passing to Marguerite of Austria, where it was catalogued as Harnoul-le-fin. We also see herein the exchange of owners, the changes in the weather of the relationship between the Spanish Netherlands, and Spain proper.

The green gown of the title: it is in the style of a generation previous to the time of the portrait. Coded here are reputation, permissible display, social status. The young woman’s headdress, for example is of a simple material, folded several times for the effect. The painter was at pains to convey, probably through negotiation with the commissioner, the degree of humility of the woman of the family, and hence of the family unit’s claim on level of status. The style at the time, especially among court circles, was for greater display, flamboyance.

Was she carrying a baby? Or was this the convention for conveying fruitfulness, fecundity, and promise, of the young woman. The belt is high, as had been the fashion previously; that was the fashion, and not necessarily a depiction of pregnancy. This is a depiction of a marriage bond based on providing wealth, vigour and unlimited descendents for carrying forward the family name.


The Song Weigher, The Complete Poems of Egill Skallagrimsson. By Ian Crockatt, Arc Publications, 2017

Egill Skallagrimsson, writes Ian Crockatt in his Introduction, was the most original, imaginative and technically brilliant of the old Norse skalds.

It is no small feat then, that he has taken on this task of rendering the complete poems of Egill Skallagrimsson, in as close a Norse metric as possible.
The oldest, earliest, of the old Norse sagas is Egil’s Saga. As we have it, it is a wholly prose translation. Egill’s poems, scattered throughout, also have this form.
It was Ian Crockatt’s task to render the prose form into the recorded poetic metrics of this consummate writer. Our English cannot reproduce the old Norse sound, nor syntax, and so Ian Crockatt had to call upon his own great skills and expertise to render accessible and understandable, indeed appreciable, all Egill’s poems, in translation.
He has succeeded brilliantly.

Unlike the skald of Ian Crockatt’s previous book in this field, Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson, Earl of Orkney (Crimsoning the Eagle’s Claw), Egill Skallagrimsson is not a very likable man. He is too red in tooth and… well, sword. He is too intent on his warrior trade, and lacks the leavening of Rognvaldr Kali Kolsson’s poems to Ermingerd of Narbonne, his journeys to Jerusalem, his humour, and playfulness.
He does, however, have his own laments for his lost sons, as well as his unstinting praise of friendship, and rare poems of love. The life was not easy for those of more liberal dispositions; these poems chart the ups and downs of the life a warrior led, if he was to survive. And Egill was a survivor.

Egill’s main antagonist in his poems was Erik Bloodaxe (Eirikr Blodox).
He’d actually killed Eirikr’s son at one point, then later, shipwrecked whilst sailing to offer his sword to British Saxon King Adalsteinn, ended up seeking some accommodation in Blodox’s own halls. Understandably, his wife, Gunnhildr, wanted Egill’s head.
He was able to save the day through his reputation.
What reputation?
His reputation as the best, most gifted, inventive, skald of the day.

His ‘accommodation’ was to take the form of suitably outstanding verses for Eirikr’s family. These are the Hofuthlausen – the Head Ransom – of Egill Skallagrimsson.
Such was the value of a skald’s work in-the-day, that it could save a life.
He composed 21 verses for his own head. And obviously lived to tell the tale.
He lived long enough to bemoan the loneliness and neglect of the old warrior’s fate.

His own father was also a highly prized skald.
These verse forms were notoriously complex, involved, tightly controlled, with rules and strictures. But mercifully few were longer than 8 lines in length.
For the Head Ransom he produced a new form, with shorter verses interspersed between the regular length verses, and introducing a greater preponderance of end-rhymed lines. It is suggested that this last embellishment echoed the dominant British form of the period, and so was a gesture towards Eirkir’s British base in England.

For deeper discussion of the verse forms, see my earlier post on Rognvaldr:

If, like me, you are a bit of a metre-geek, you’ll love these.

And so, I had a go, using the dominant Drottkvaett form. Eight six-syllable lines, tied in couplets by alliteration, and each even line with two full rhymes. Trochees tend to be the dominant metre.
A recent trip to London gave me these:

Sea-toadstools, slow-flowing
seep of traffic-halted
jet-black, wet, jellyfish’d
jacks. Belligerent
brolly-bargers billow,
hail-stone and sleet harassed:
the City trawling home
to suburban harbours.

So what about the use of kennings – you know, the allusions to, but not actually naming of, things known to one’s audience?
I actually state in the piece what the subject is, in the second part.
I tried to keep the sea-theme throughout.

A kenning is a compound word, made from a base word for a thing, and its ‘determinant’ ie what modifies that base word. In Icelandic there is also a highly allusive element, usually to an element in another saga, and/or their world of myths and gods.
Kipling’s ‘old grey widow-maker’ for the North Sea, is fairly easy for a British person.
Ian Crockatt lists and explicates the kennings used in the poems in a very useful appendix. He also has an excellent appendix on Verse-Forms. Invaluable.

So I tried this one, in a similar setting. What do my kennings refer to?

Canyons of steel and concrete
caught blue-red rain. It blew
to yelps under yellow lights –
baffled us battling
back through. Don’t be seduced,
strangeness does that. Estrange
sight’s stranger: blood’s seen there,
someone’s hurt; someone’s own.

Or, grimly, ambiguously –

Hail and sleet half the day –
how the light is slighted.
What we see’s how wishing
works its superstitions.
Outside worsens: our take
on the season. Reason’s
tangled with belief. Truth?
We’ve wrecked the weather?


Ok, these are first tries, and I was trying for more subtlety.
There is still so much yet to learn about these verse forms.

I hope I have passed on the spark of these to you.
They are certainly a great way of ‘keeping one’s hand in’ in those times of drought.