Group Read 27The Big Book of Science Fiction

Story #31 of 107: “The Visitors” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

“The Visitors” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky appears to have been written in 1958 according to ISFDB.org, but it gives no original Russian publication source. This older story feels like a trial run for the Strugatskys famous 1972 novel Roadside Picnic. However, the Wikipedia entry for that novel makes no mention of this earlier story about the visitors.

“The Visitors” is yet another first contact story. I’ve lost count of the number we’ve read so far in The Big Book of Science Fiction. “The Visitors” lacks the originality that we discover in Roadside Picnic, but is still a good story. It’s a matter-of-fact account by one observer, K. N. Sergeyev, an archaeologist, who tells a first person story of meeting an alien, and then later quotes from his boss’s diary left at the landing site which describes a close encounter of the third kind. His boss, Boris Yanovich Lozovsky, ultimately volunteers for an encounter of the fourth kind by becoming a storaway on the alien’s ship. “The Visitors” was written during the height of UFO mania, but the story structure and description of events reminds me of The War of the Worlds.

In “The Visitors” we have a very simple account of aliens landing and two humans observing them gather cars, sheep, cows, and other odd bits, before leaving. Boris Yanovich gets to interact with them, but there is no real communication. All their activities are a mystery. Boris thinks they are intelligent machines, but Sergeyev describes them as looking like dog size spiders. I couldn’t help but think of an eight-legged version of the Boston Dynamics robot called Spot.

I enjoy first contact stories, even after reading hundreds of them over the last sixty years. You’d think I’d be burnt out by now. It’s doubtful we’ll ever meet aliens, so science fiction will reimagine the first encounter an infinite number of times. In some ways that’s very frustrating.

Shouldn’t we examine our unquenching thirst for science fiction, especially regarding specific ideas like first contact? Once we thoroughly understand the concept of first contact wouldn’t it be more efficient if we got on with other things? There is so much to learn about reality, why waste all this time with repeating endless speculations on what is essentially is a one sense-of-wonder insight. I’ve often thought we should replace science fiction with a set of concise nonfiction books, each volume covering one science fictional concept, revised and updated every five or ten years.

I have my own ideas of how we’ll make first contact. Someday humans will make a SETI connection with alien beings, and eventually we’ll start sending each other selfies. It might take decades or centuries to even work out a common language and communication standards. I believe most science fiction is overly optimistic in first contact SETI novels by having us intercepting pictures or video right from the start, decoding strange messages in days. I doubt that will happen. I should write a novel about how I picture it happening.

There seems to be a resurgence in UFO interest. Many books were written in the 1950s and 1960s about first encounters, and ufologists worked through all the ideas that science fiction writers have done. I sense the Strugatsky brothers were into UFOs, or they knew about that subculture because “The Visitors” feel more like a UFO report than SF a story.

Evidently, many of us have a strong desire to know we’re not alone in the universe. I’d like to read a novel where the focus is on how human societies change when that finally happens. Any recommendations?

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James Wallace Harris, 10/19/21

3 thoughts on ““The Visitors” by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

  1. I’m not sure why they would include “The Visitors”. Perhaps because it is an early work of theirs–even their first published work? There are many better to choose from, even if this one has its attractions. I’d recommend any/all of their collection/fix-up (of sorts) called “Noon: 22nd Century”. Or any of the novels also set in the “Noon Universe”: for instance, “Far Rainbow”, “Hard to be a God” or “Prisoners of Power”.
    Interestingly, your idea for a first contact story is an almost exact description of the back story to another Soviet SF novel: “Andromeda: A Space Age Tale”. Written by Ivan Yefremov and first published in 1957, it in effect kicked off the “modern” SF scene in the USSR, profoundly influencing many, including the Strugatsky brothers. In the novel, Yefremov hews fairly close to the scientific fact of the day (mostly!), including his description of the ‘the Great Circle’ civilization, which–as you say–is akin to “a SETI connection with alien beings, […] sending each other selfies”. I’ve written about Yefremov’s novel here:

    Review of ‘Andromeda – A Space-Age Tale’

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  2. I have an old English translation published in the Soviet Union from 1959. Interestingly, Yefremov wrote a more conventional first contact story set in the same ‘Great Circle’ universe called “The Heart of the Serpent”. What makes it stand out from its fairly conventional narrative is that in it, Yefremov explicitly criticises Murray Leinster’s classic “First Contact” short story of 1945.

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