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NPR Arts & Life

'Mountaineer' Is A Must-Read Of Soviet Sci-Fi

During the Stalin years, there were tight restrictions on science fiction in the Soviet Union. Writers were pressured and boxed in, urged to stick to themes of adventure, space travel and the glowing prospect of Soviet scientific and technological achievements.

But after Stalin's death and the relaxation of censorship policies, people like Ivan Antonovich Yefremov and Boris and Arkady Strugatsky started breathing new life into the genre, which had decades of catching up to do. And if Russian sci-fi can be said to have a soul, it resides with the Brothers Strugatsky. The duo collaborated on dozens of smart and entertaining books, not the least of these being The Dead Mountaineer's Inn, out now in a first-ever English translation by Josh Billings.

First published in 1970, The Dead Mountaineer's Innis a biting, deeply funny tale that sends its readers down unpredictable paths. Our hero is police inspector Peter Glebsky, a family man anticipating two weeks of leisure — his first vacation in four years. Soon after arriving at the titular inn, Inspector Glebsky finds out about a tragedy that occurred several years before — a man falling to his death on a nearby peak. Now, the inn has a museum housing many of the late climber's belongings, and a rambunctious St. Bernard, the last living remnant of the dead man, roams freely.

Guests at the inn also include a famous magician, a physicist, a hypnotist and a nervous youth counselor with a bad case of tuberculosis. This bunch of oddballs eats together, they play billiards and cards, they ski and occasionally they share personal accounts of the spookery they've encountered since setting foot in the inn. Apparently some sort of miscreant — or ghost, or something — is wandering the premises ,stealing shoes, filling ashtrays with tobacco, and leaving the shower running.

As is characteristic of many a Strugatsky novel, strange things are afoot in The Dead Mountaineer's Inn. The characters, so emotionally disconnected from one another and their surroundings, reflect a time of lingering pessimism and spiritual isolation, a time that favored scientific progress over human connection. Bleak as they sound, these factors often make for the most layered and well-imagined art. To apply the term "weird" here would be to label water just a touch wet.

One day Inspector Glebsky enters his room and finds a note. "MISTER INSPECTOR GLEBSKY: PLEASE BE INFORMED THAT A DANGEROUS GANGSTER, SADIST AND MANIAC IS CURRENTLY STAYING AT THE INN." The note goes on to claim that a certain guest is responsible for a pending crime, and MISTER INSPECTOR IS KINDLY REQUESTED TO TAKE SOME SORT OF ACTION. Finally, all the pranks and supposed practical jokes take on a more serious tone.

"There goes my vacation," the inspector says to himself. "There goes that freedom I've been waiting so long for."

What is always striking about the Brothers Strugatsky is their penchant for misdirection: They can convince the reader that something is almost certainly true, only to disprove it the next minute to keep the mystery alive. In the world the Strugatskys create, everyone is a suspect and nothing is as it seems. And though the dead mountaineer informs much of the first part of the novel, things take a turn about halfway through: An avalanche cuts off the guests from the outside world, and a dead body surfaces. The reader becomes enveloped in a detective story, and Inspector Glebsky is the only one around who's capable of solving the puzzle. Even then, the narrative is fairly straightforward — that is, until the last section, when life morphs into a science fiction game and the Strugatskys rewrite history.

While other Strugatsky works were subject to delays and government opposition, The Dead Mountaineer's Inn did not suffer that fate — possibly because it's not quite as edgy as books like Roadside Picnic and Definitely Maybe. Still, the comparatively inoffensive material that makes up Mountaineer is no less delightful, and a must-read for a new generation of sci-fi fans everywhere.

Juan Vidal is a writer and critic for NPR Books. He's on Twitter: @itsjuanlove.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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