How to get a Science Fiction Novel Published in the Soviet Union

For a special look into a publishing nightmare, I recommend reading Roadside Picnic’s afterword by one of its authors Boris Strugatsky. The novel was written in the Soviet Union in 1971 and had to deal with hurdles that most authors in other lands might never have cleared yet are at the same time quite relatable to anyone who’s tried to get published via a traditional route. The new afterword is found in the version of the 2012 translation by Olena Bormashenko.

My initial and wrong assumption was that the book took eight years to get published because of something subversive in the theme or story, but this was not the case. The main story is pretty clear in demonstrating how Red’s need to enter the Zone out of financial necessity is a miserable, dangerous cycle that he is mired in: The Zone has caused a mutation to Red’s daughter, so to the Zone he must go to make enough money to care for his family. Nothing in the Strugatsky brothers’ road to publishing hints at the novel’s challenges having been brought about by political censors, even though it faced censorship of a different kind.


Instead, the challenges rose from bureaucracy and editorial dissent. The gatekeepers over soviet science fiction and its premier publications had a sharply different idea of what science fiction should be. The visions of the future were expected to be idealized, fantastic, and scrubbed clean of any of the present’s harshness. The Strugatskys’ novel had characters who were hard bitten, violent, and cursed frequently. The afterword commentary promises restraint in describing the censorship, then reveals a number of pedantic examples of flagged words the editors wanted changed. Even references to body functions like “spit” were marked as needing to be changed. The entire review process was opaque, requiring hundreds of letters to be exchanged between editors and authors. Boris Strugatsky’s frustration comes through clearly.

Several versions of Roadside Picnic were released with numerous compromises until a version finally came out in the 1990’s that the Strugatsky’s approved..

Anyone that reads the story understands that to take any of the hard edges out of the story would have resulted in an odd tale indeed. Imagine the world of Roadside Picnic where the stalkers are well-adjusted salvage hunters who all get along while collecting their fanciful artifacts from the Zone while politely commenting on how strange it all is without a hint of annoyance with their lives and not a whiff of a slang expression between them. Perhaps this version would have triggered a political censor as it would show that the stalkers’ way of living illustrates that capitalism works in a post-alien encounter world.

Boris Strugatsky

I’m glad the brothers stuck it out. They produced one of the twentieth century’s greatest science fiction stories that needs to be read and holds up as an engaging novel. My review was posted here last week:

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