Le Guin, Ursula K.. (1980). Introduction. The Left Hand of Darkness. New York: Harper & Row.

Science fiction is often described, and even defined, as extrapolative. The science fiction writer is supposed to take a trend or phenomenon of the here-and-now, purify and intensify it for dramatic effect, and extend it into the future. “If this goes on, this is what will happen.” A prediction is made. Method and results much resemble those of a scientist who feeds large doses of a purified and concentrated food additive to mice, in order to predict what may happen to people who eat it in small quantities for a long time. The outcome seems almost inevitably to be cancer. So does the outcome of extrapolation. Strictly extrapolative works of science fiction generally arrive about where the Club of Rome arrives: somewhere between the gradual extinction of human liberty and the total extinction of terrestrial life.

This may explain why many people who do not read science fiction describe it as ‘escapist,’ but when questioned further, admit they do not read it because ‘it’s so depressing.’

Almost anything carried to its logical extreme becomes depressing, if not carcinogenic.

Fortunately, though extrapolation is an element in science fiction, it isn’t the name of the game by any means. It is far too rationalist and simplistic to satisfy the imaginative mind, whether the writer’s or the reader’s. Variables are the spice of life.

This book is not extrapolative. If you like you can read it, and a lot of other science fiction, as a thought-experiment. Let’s say (says Mary Shelley) that a young doctor creates a human being in his laboratory; let’s say (says Philip K. Dick) that the Allies lost the second world war; let’s say this or that is such and so, and see what happens… In a story so conceived, the moral complexity proper to the modern novel need not be sacrificed, nor is there any built-in dead end; thought and intuition can move freely within bounds set only by the terms of the experiment, which may be very large indeed.

The purpose of a thought-experiment, as the term was used by Schrodinger and other physicists, is not to predict the future—indeed Schrodinger’s most famous thought-experiment goes to show that the ‘future,’ on the quantum level,cannot be predicted—but to describe reality, the present world.

Science fiction is not predictive; it is descriptive.

Predictions are uttered by prophets (free of charge); by clairvoyants (who usually charge a fee, and are therefore more honored in their day than prophets); and by futurologists (salaried). Prediction is the business of prophets, clairvoyants, and futurologists. It is not the business of novelists. A novelist’s business is lying.

The weather bureau will tell you what next Tuesday will be like, and the Rand Corporation will tell you what the twenty-first century will be like. I don’t recommend that you turn to the writers of fiction for such information. It’s none of their business. All they’re trying to do is tell you what they’re like, and what you’re like—what’s going on—what the weather is now, today, this moment, the rain, the sunlight, look! Open your eyes; listen, listen. That is what the novelists say. But they don’t tell you what you will see and hear. All they can tell you is what they have seen and heard, in their time in this world, a third of it spent in sleep and dreaming, another third of it spent in telling lies.

“The truth against the world!”—Yes. Certainly. Fiction writers, at least in their braver moments, do desire the truth: to know it, speak it, serve it. But they go about it in a peculiar and devious way, which consists in inventing persons, places, and events which never did and never will exist or occur, and telling about these fictions in detail and at length and with a great deal of emotion, and then when they are done writing down this pack of lies, they say, There! That’s the truth!

They may use all kinds of facts to support their tissue of lies. They may describe the Marshalsea Prison, which was a real place, or the battle of Borodino, which really was fought, or the process of cloning, which really takes place in laboratories, or the deterioration of a personality, which is described in real textbooks of psychology; and so on. This weight of verifiable place-event-phenomenon-behavior makes the reader forget that he is reading a pure invention, a history that never took place anywhere but in that unlocalisable region, the author’s mind. In fact, while we read a novel, we are insane—bonkers. We believe in the existence of people who aren’t there, we hear their voices, we watch the battle of Borodino with them, we may even become Napoleon. Sanity returns (in most cases) when the book is closed.

Is it any wonder that no truly respectable society has ever trusted its artists?

But our society, being troubled and bewildered, seeking guidance, sometimes puts an entirely mistaken trust in its artists, using them as prophets and futurologists.

I do not say that artists cannot be seers, inspired: that theawen cannot come upon them, and the god speak through them. Who would be an artist if they did not believe that that happens? if they did notknow it happens, because, they have felt the god within them use their tongue, their hands? Maybe only once, once in their lives. But once is enough.

Nor would I say that the artist alone is so burdened and so privileged. The scientist is another who prepares, who makes ready, working day and night, sleeping and awake, for inspiration. As Pythagoras knew, the god may speak in the forms of geometry as well as in the shapes of dreams; in the harmony of pure thought as well as in the harmony of sounds; in numbers as well as in words.

But it is words that make the trouble and confusion. We are asked now to consider words as useful in only one way: as signs. Our philosophers, some of them, would have us agree that a word (sentence, statement) has value only in so far as it has one single meaning, points to one fact which is comprehensible to the rational intellect, logically sound, and—ideally—quantifiable.

Apollo, the god of light, of reason, of proportion, harmony, number—Apollo blinds those who press too close in worship. Don’t look straight at the sun. Go into a dark bar for a bit and have a beer with Dionysios, every now and then.

I talk about the gods, I am an atheist. But I am an artist too, and therefore a liar. Distrust everything I say. I am telling the truth. The only truth I can understand or express is, logically defined, a lie. Psychologically defined, a symbol. Aesthetically defined, a metaphor.

Oh, it’s lovely to be invited to participate in Futurological Congresses where Systems Science displays its grand apocalyptic graphs, to be asked to tell the newspapers what America will be like in 2001, and all that, but it’s a terrible mistake. I write science fiction, and science fiction isn’t about the future. I don’t know any more about the future than you do, and very likely less.

This book is not about the future. Yes, it begins by annnouncing that it’s set in the ‘Ekumenical Year 1490-97,’ but surely you don’tbelieve that?

Yes, indeed the people in it are androgynous, but that doesn’t mean that I’m predicting that in a millennium or so we will all be androgynous, or announcing that I think we damned well ought to be androgynous. I’m merely observing, in the peculiar, devious, and thought-experimental manner proper to science fiction, that if you look at us at certain odd times of day in certain weathers, we already are. I am not predicting, or prescribing. I am describing. I am describing certain aspects of psychological reality in the novelist’s way, which is by inventing elaborately circumstantial lies.

In reading a novel, any novel, we have to know perfectly well that the whole thing is nonsense, and then, while reading, believe every word of it. Finally, when we’re done with it, we may find—if it’s a good novel—that we’re a bit different from what we were before we read it, that we have been changed a little, as if by having met a new face, crossed a street we never crossed before. But it’s very hard tosay just what we learned, how we were changed.

The artist deals with what cannot be said in words.

The artist whose medium is fiction does thisin words . The novelist says in words what cannot be said in words.

Words can be used thus paradoxically because they have, along with a semiotic usage, a symbolic or metaphoric usage. (They also have a sound—a fact the linguistic positivists take no interest in. A sentence or paragraph is like a chord or harmonic sequence in music: its meaning may be more clearly understood by the attentive ear, even though it is read in silence, than by the attentive intellect).

All fiction is metaphor. Science fiction is metaphor. What sets it apart from older forms of fiction seems to be its use of new metaphors, drawn from certain great dominants of our contemporary life—science, all the sciences, and technology, and the relativistic and the historical outlook, among them. Space travel is one of these metaphors; so is an alternative society, an alternative biology; the future is another. The future, in fiction, is a metaphor.

A metaphor for what?

If I could have said it non-metaphorically, I would not have written all these words, this novel; and Genly Ai would never have sat down at my desk and used up my ink and typewriter ribbon in informing me, and you, rather solemnly, that the truth is a matter of the imagination.

Glukhovsky, Dmitry. (2016). Foreword: The Experiment. The Doomed City. Chicago: Chicago Review Press Incorporated.

No Western science fiction writer, either American or European, has ever been as famous as the Strugatsky brothers were in the USSR. In the 1970s, whenever their latest book appeared, with an initial print run of only 500,000, only the truly fortunate were able to read it immediately. In 1979, Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, based on the Strugatskys’ Roadside Picnic, would finally win them recognition from the Soviet intelligentsia, and The Enchanters(1982), a screen adaptation of their story of magic Monday Starts on Saturday, would soon become an all-time audience favorite. But well before that, a long queue of relatives, friends, and work colleagues immediately formed for each one of those half-million books. Nobody found this daunting. We were used to having to stand in line and wait for the most valuable things. A month for a book, five years for a car, ten years for an apartment . . .

Of course, the difference was not merely in how many people knew the Strugatskys. The Strugatskys were known to the entire reading public of the Soviet Union, but there are also Western science fiction writers known to almost everyone.

The difference is in the attitude.

In the West, science fiction was always more the domain of dreamers. Science fiction literature filled a niche that it still fills to this day-a niche, moreover, that is growing narrower with every year that passes.

But in the USSR it became the absolutely genuine mainstream. The Communist Party and the government were implementing a grandiose project to remodel society, the state, the individual, and the entire world all at once–a project so fantastic that in comparison the most audacious of writers’ fantasies seemed to be no more than a forecast of what was coming tomorrow. Standard Soviet science fiction–and the Strugatskys’ early prose–transported us into the future promised by the ideologists: a future that was just and bright; a future in which communism had triumphed and peace had reigned on Earth for a long time already, Russian had become the language of international dialog, and all the dramatic events unfolded far out on the remote boundaries of the galaxy, to which earthlings carried progress and prosperity.

In the USSR the present day was always hard, but the deprivations seemed justified: all of us, as a country, were simply standing in line for a happy tomorrow. And science fiction writers showed us what was waiting for us there, at the radiant shop counter of destiny, in the communist paradise. They were obliged to show it: if you went up on tiptoe, you could see the front end of the queue. In the early 1960s, Khrushchev promised the advent of communism by1980. Five years for a car, ten years for an apartment, twenty years for paradise . . . It turned out that we could get there simply by staying alive. In paradise, rationality and humanism would be triumphant. Everything there would be honest and just. In paradise, it was explained to us, absolutely everything would be free; society would take from each according to his abilities and give to each according to his needs. This was a plan that we were eager to believe in. And we tried to believe in it as much as we could.

The Strugatskys tried too. Having grown up in wartime Leningrad, they knew and remembered the price we had to pay for victory in the war, the price we paid for “the construction projects of the age,” and the severity the shepherds were obliged to display if the flock they were driving along suddenly balked and refused to follow the trail to the Garden of Eden. But at the time it seemed that the end was simply too great and magnificent to ponder over the means.

In fact, any pondering could really only be done in the kitchen, among family and friends. And although in Khrushchev’s and Brezhnev’s time they didn’t shoot people for their doubts, although the purges were condemned and the cult of Stalin’s personality was debunked, the newspaper Pravda and Gosteleradio (the state television and radio service) were the only ones allowed to do the debunking, and then only precisely as far as was necessary within the limits of the clandestine infighting between the bulldogs of the Politburo.

Of course, Pravda, like the rest of the press, was not merely under the control of the state, it was the state’s advance guard, its assault team. And so-called serious literature was another assault team of the same kind. The novels and stories that were published naturally performed precisely delineated political and social tasks: the heroic glorification of labor and military service, the depiction of everyday Soviet happiness, and the subtle interconnections between personal relations and relations of production. Everything else-from Daniil Kharms to Bulgakov, and from Pasternak to Solzhenitsyn, was not recognized as literature, as if it didn’t even exist at all. Writers were not supposed to create but to serve. To color in the sketches dashed off by the Communist Party ideologists.

Science fiction, however, possessed greater freedom in this respect. After all, it wasn’t about the present day and it wasn’t about the Soviet Union. It didn’t express any doubt that communism would triumph in the foreseeable future. It apparently didn’t stick its nose into current business, but was always talking about something distant and abstract. So the demands made of it were different, gentler. But even so, there were demands: science fiction was no less subject to censorship than everything else that was published on paper.

Time passed, the country was still dawdling in the queue, and the shop counter selling happiness and justice was fading into the hazy future. Khrushchev, who had promised everyone communism within a lifetime, was toppled, and those who replaced him limited themselves to granting people the ownership of plots of land, each six hundred square meters, so that they could build dachas on them. Tomorrow refused to arrive; it kept on being postponed until the day after tomorrow, owing to technical difficulties. People started whispering uneasily in the queue. And as the leaders of the country grew old and relapsed into senility, the whispering grew louder. It was becoming clear that we were standing in the wrong queue. And the most frightening thing was that we might always have been standing in the wrong queue.

In the Strugatskys’ work, too, the whispering became more and more audible through the fanfares of lines proclaiming the happy communist future on Earth. Certainly, everything on Earth was still hunky-dory and all for free, and everyone spoke Russian, but events taking place in the troubled outskirts of the galaxy sometimes suggested a different reading of the current editorial in Pravda.

In The Doomed City, everything apparently happens somewhere that isn’t Earth, and not even on a different planet but in a special world-a hermetic world that is located outside time and space. Its characters have been plucked out of real life, but from various countries and various times in the twentieth century. Here we have a British colonel of World War I vintage, we have a German soldier who did his fighting in World War II, we have the “Soviet man” Andrei, coopted from the 1950s, and an American college professor from the1960s. They all seem to speak the same language, but that language isn’t Russian. Abducted from their own familiar earthly lives, times, and cultures, they have been transported to the City, where they have become the subjects of the Experiment, which has no beginning or end, while its goal and its meaning are kept secret from the participants, who are constantly subjected to various trials. No one, in fact, has any intention at all of keeping the subjects advised about the tests that are being carried out. The organizers of the Experiment look like ordinary people, just as officials of the Communist Party and case officers from the security services did-they smile just as gently and call for patience just as earnestly. And all the inhabitants of the City show patience.

The Doomed City was completed in 1972 but not published in full until sixteen years later, after the beginning of perestroika. It is surprising that it was published even then, because the allusion to the Soviet Union here is so transparent that there was reason to fear, not only for the Strugatskys but also for the censors who allowed the book to see print.

Never mind the fact that it is not only inhabitants of the former Russian empire who are enlisted to the City, that there are foreigners there too. Never mind that the regime there changes, and in some ways this City also resembles the West-perhaps even more than it resembles the Soviet Union. Never mind that the Soviet Union also exists in this book in its own right, thereby testifying that it is not the City and the City is not it. All these defensive ruses are disavowed by the theme of the endless Experiment on living people.

The Strugatskys, in company with the entire country, were searching for an answer to the questions “What for?” “What do I need this for?” “What do they treat us like this for?” But as the final experimenters died out who might possibly have still remembered the purpose for which the Experiment had been undertaken, any hope of receiving an answer faded away. Our sacrifices and our deprivations could no longer buy us a ticket for admission to the Garden of Eden. At some point meaningful action had been transformed into eviscerated ritual, into a cargo cult; we were simply idly plodding around in circles. This queue had no beginning and no end. It was an ouroboros, with its own tail firmly grasped in its own teeth.

That is what I would have written about The Doomed City, my favorite book by the Strugatskys, a year ago.

But during that year, after several visits to their home city of St. Petersburg, I realized something. The City is not an abstraction. It is this city, Leningrad-Petrograd-St. Petersburg, built among the swamps, at record speed, on human bones, by decree of the czar, and destined to be the capital. It is this city, somber and dank, not designed for human inhabitation but obeying the order to gallantly stand and obstinately sparkle through the mist and the rust. It is this city-the “cradle of the revolution,” the arena of the Bolshevik coup, the city that survived the interminable Nazi blockade, the city that the economical Germans cut off from supply lines but didn’t storm, so that its inhabitants would all starve to death for themselves. But they survived and didn’t surrender, although they were sometimes forced to eat each other, while the Soviet army was busy with more important business elsewhere. That wasn’t the first experiment to be carried out on them, and it wasn’t the last.

This was the discovery I made during the last year: the inhabitants of the thrice-renamed St. Petersburg had always called it what they still call it today simply”the City.” They love it desperately, and the more they have to suffer for it, the more they love it. The Strugatskys loved it, of course. But how do you honestly tell people about such a love?

In the West there is simply no need for the kind of science fiction that we had: you already have enough space without it to discuss the fate and fortunes of your own countries and your own peoples. “Serious” literature, for instance. Not to mention talk shows. But in a country where the main newspaper is called Truth precisely because it is crammed to overflowing with lies, there comes a point at which science fiction is transformed into a means for at least hinting at the true state of affairs. What people expected from the Strugatskys were genuine prophecies. The difference from the West was not only that millions of people stood in line for their books but also what those millions tried to find in the Strugatskys’ novels. And what they found.

Because the Strugatskys’ prophecies often came true. And weren’t they the first who dared to state on paper that the City was doomed?