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Lyle Zapato

Noon: 22nd Century - "Pilgrims and Wayfarers"

Lyle Zapato | 2020-08-27.8300 LMT | Cephalopods | Paraterrestrials | Entertainment | Retro

'Noon: 22nd Century'/'Mittag, 22. Jahrhundert' German edition cover
Septipods depicted by Carl Hoffmann from the dust cover of the German hardback edition.

Noon: 22nd Century (Полдень. XXII век; 1961) is an anthology of Russian sci-fi vignettes set in what later became known as the Noon Universe. It tells an optimistic history of humanity's progress from colonizing the planets of our star system to reaching other systems, and our first encounters with alien intelligences, or the remnants thereof.

It was written by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, who are best known in the English speaking world as the writers of Roadside Picnic, which was adapted into the movie Stalker and has greatly influenced Russian post-apocalyptic aesthetics.

I'm blogging about Noon because it was recently brought to my attention that one of the stories, "Pilgrims and Wayfarers", includes a species of octopus starting to make its way onto land and into the trees (and beyond?)

Since the book doesn't have a plot as such, other than world-building humanity's progress and following the comings and goings of various recurring characters (such as Gorbovsky, below), I'll cover "Pilgrims" on it's own and how it relates to tree octopuses, then follow up with some things I found interesting in the other stories, as well as some meta information.

I don't intend this to be a complete review of the world and themes of the book, as I am writing this only shortly after having first read it. I also have not read any of the other books in Strugatskys' Noon Universe, so if I misconstrue or miss something that was later explained, let me know.

"Pilgrims and Wayfarers"
(«О странствующих и путешествующих»)


Stanislav Ivanov tagging septipods by Lev Rubinstein from the Russian edition [source]

In the 22nd Century on Earth, Stanislav Ivanov, with the help of his daugh­ter Mashka, is studying a newly evolving species of freshwater octopuses. He looks for them in a lake and tags them with ultra­sonic gen­erators to track their migration patterns.

One day an astro­archae­olo­gist named Leonid Gorbovsky visits, striking up a conversation with the two about his pro­fession and how chal­lenging, if not im­possible, it is to identify signs of intelligent life.

He tells them about a "certain curious phenom­enon", the Voice of the Void: "In certain di­rections in space. If you turn the shipboard receiver to auto­tuning, sooner or later it tunes in on a strange broadcast. You hear a cool, calm voice repeating the same words over and over in an unknown language." It has been heard by many for years, but no one can decipher it or find whence it comes. He concludes about the mysteries of otherworldly intelligences:

"You've got to understand that. It's not a simple matter. We don't even know what to expect. They could meet us at any minute. Face to face. And, you understand, they could turn out to be immeasurably superior to us. Completely unlike us, and immeasurably superior to boot. You hear talk of collisions and conflicts, about all sorts of different understandings of humaneness and good, but that's not what I'm afraid of. What I'm afraid of is the unparalleled humiliation of the human race, of a gigantic psychological shock. We're so proud, after all. We've created such a wonderful world, we know so much, we've fought our way out into the wide universe, and there we discover and study and explore—what? For them, the universe is simply home. They've lived in it for millions of years, as we've lived on Earth, and they're just surprised at us: where did these things out among the stars come from?"

The conversation lulls so Ivanov starts telling Gorbovsky about the octopuses he studies, which are known as "septipods":

Inner illustration of septipods by Hoffmann.

[T]hey belonged to the subclass of di­branch­iates of the class of ceph­alopod mollusks, and re­pre­sent­ed a special, pre­viously unknown tribe of the order of octo­pods. They were char­ac­terized by the re­duction of the third left arm (the one symmetrical with the hetocotylized third right arm), by three rows of suckers on the arms, by the complete absence of a coelom, by an un­usually powerful de­vel­op­ment of the venous heart, by a concentration of the central nervous sys­tem that was the max­imum for all ceph­a­lo­pods, and by certain other less sig­nif­i­cant characteristics. The first of the septipods had been discovered recently, when individual specimens appeared off the eastern and southeastern coasts of Asia. And after a year they began to be found in the lower courses of major rivers—the Mekong, the Yangtze, the Huang Ho, and the Amur—and also in lakes like this one, fairly distant from the coastline. And that was surprising, because usually cephalopods were stenohalines to the nth degree, and they avoided even Arctic waters with their reduced salinity. And they almost never came out on dry land. But a fact was a fact: the septipods felt fine in fresh water and came out on land. They climbed into boats and onto bridges, and recently two had been discovered in the forest about thirty kilometers from here.

[...] Gorbovsky listened very attentively. "Were those two still alive?" he asked.

"No, they were found dead. There's an animal preserve here in the forest. Wild boars had trampled the septipods and half eaten them. But they had still been alive thirty kilometers from water! Their mantle cavities were filled with wet algae. Obviously in this way the septipods created a certain reserve of water for journeys over dry land. The algae were from a lake. The septipods had undoubtedly walked from these very lakes farther to the south, into the heart of dry land. It should also be noted that all the specimens caught up to this point have been adult males. Not one female, not one young. Probably females and young can't live in fresh water or come out on land.

"All this is very interesting," I continued. "As a rule marine animals change their way of life sharply only during periods of reproduction. Then instinct forces them to go off to some quite unusual places. But reproduction has nothing to do with it here. Here there is some other instinct at work, perhaps one still more ancient and powerful. Right now the important thing for us is to follow the migratory path. So here I spend ten hours a day at this lake, under water. Today I've tagged one so far. If I'm lucky, by evening I'll tag another one or two. At night they become unusually active and grab anything that gets close to them. There have even been instances of attacks on people. But only at night."

Gorbovsky offers his thoughts on this:

"Honestly, it's fascinating. What a precise analogy. They stayed in the depths for ages, and now they've risen up and entered an alien, hostile world. And what drives them? An ancient, dark instinct, you say? Or an information-processing capacity which had risen up to the level of unquenchable curiosity? After all, it would be better for it to stay home, in salt water, but something draws it... draws it to the shore. [...] Really, Stanislav, you have to think that these are very complex cephalopods, eh?"

"In their way, of course," I agreed.

But the analogy he draws between the septipods exploring dry land and humans venturing out into the stars takes an ominous turn when curious Mashka, trying to tune a radio to the Voice of the Void, discovers that Gorbovsky himself is emitting a strange whee-waa, whee-waa signal.

He explains that he and two other spaceship pilots, on a return flight from a distant system, had mysteriously become sources of radio waves that experts called impossible. One of the pilots shipped out for the planet Pandora (more on this below), preferring "to do his broadcasting a little farther from Earth" and the other went to work on an underwater station.

Gorbovsky is also heading away from Earth tomorrow. Before leaving the two, he offers some advice to Ivanov: "You know, you should be a bit more delicate with these septipods. Otherwise you just tag and tag, and it, the one with the tag, has all the hassle."


Gorbovsky's likening the septipods' "unquenchable curiosity" to our own evokes lines in the second story of the book, "Almost the Same", set (I believe) in the 2000s: one of the characters, a young student undergoing centrifuge training as part of humanity's first interstellar endeavors, says to another student who is skeptical of the point of visiting other star systems: "First a creature said, 'I want to eat.' He wasn't yet human at that point. But then he said 'I want to know.' Then he was a human being. [...] The aspiration to find out in order to live inevitably turns into the aspiration to live in order to find out."

What started the septipods landward? Could it be a search for food -- a common motivation for arboreal adaptation among cephalopods, be it for pandanus flowers, olives, or chewing pitch -- that has turned into a search for knowledge?

The septipods are not tree octopuses yet; but, like those humans of the early 21st century who are still just getting comfortable with the local planets and have yet to travel the stars, the septipods are working their way from sea to freshwater to land to, eventually, the forests. The Strugatskys invite us to observe their progress with an analogous curiosity to that which whatever beings tagged Gorbovsky must undoubtedly have for ours.

But what if their progress isn't just a small-scale analogy for humanity's space exploration. The septipods are taking the first steps (wriggles?) along the same path that humans took. While some species descended from the trees to reach the stars, others might climb them to reach the same goal.

V. A. Firsoff's hypothesis that tree-climbing octopuses may be well suited to eventually becoming a space-faring species suggests that the septipods, long after humans have left for other worlds, could eventually follow. Will they discover the remnants of our civilization and wonder about us? Or will we still be there to meet them, our cousins from where we grew up?

David Brin, in his Uplift Universe, proposed that advanced species should become patrons of promising lesser-species of their planet, helping them to achieve sapiency and join the interstellar community -- he even included an alien species of arboreal octopusoids that were uplifted.

According to the Wikipedia entry on the Noon Universe, the Strugatskys later included similar concepts in the form of "progressors" -- humans whose occupation is to embed themselves with "less advanced humanoid civilizations in order to accelerate their development" -- and the Wanderers -- mysterious technologically advanced beings who might be trying to "progress" sentient beings.

The Strugatskys don't mention the septipods again in Noon, but perhaps humans such as Mashka will one day help them come along on our interstellar journey.

Other interesting bits of the book

Again, I don't want to delve too much into what all happens in Noon, so I'll lazily bullet-point some things I found interesting:

  • In "Deep Search", oceanographers have to hunt and kill a giant squid that has been attacking whales, which humans farm as livestock.

  • In "Candles Before the Control Board", monk-like scientists undertake the Great Encoding -- transcribing a single dying human's brain patterns into a giant crystalline quasibiomass with the goal of one day giving everyone immortality (hopefully with artificial brains that don't take up an entire building).

  • In "The Mystery of the Hind Leg", the computer CODD (Collector of Dispersed Data) solves problems by automatically constructing physical "monsters" -- biomechanical robots that run slightly amok when the CODD's fed bad data. Later in "Defeat", this biomechanical technology has lead to "embryomechanics" and the first test of the Egg -- a capsule that can be dropped onto any planet, scan the environment, adapt itself, consume locally available material, and build whatever structure or device it was programmed to become.

  • Gorbovsky is a member of the Pathfinders, an organization that searches for signs of intelligent life in the universe. Besides exploring known alien ruins (the moons of Mars and other extrasolar satellites turn out to be artificial, and there are empty ruined cities, all millions of years old) they look for evidence of technology. Their unofficial flag has a heptagonal nut on it, after a mocking statement by a skeptic that that would be the only thing that would convince him of alien intelligence.

    In "The Planet with all the Conveniences", Humanity's first encounter with living intelligent life turns out to be with beings who don't use the sort of technology that everyone expected, instead having naturally adapted life on their planet, Leonida, to suit their needs. The evidence of their technology -- the artificiality of how convenient the planet is, without dangerous pathogens and with honey-producing hippos -- is all around the Pathfinders, but it's only after they finally meet some of the Leoniders that they realize it.

  • "The Meeting" is a somewhat disturbing story in its implications. Humanity's first encounter with alien intelligence might not have been with the Leoniders, but instead with an unfortunate fellow whose head is now on display in the Capetown Museum of Exozoology.

  • Planet Pandora exists in the Nooniverse. Yes, just like the movie Avatar.

    We never directly visit Pandora in Noon, but it's described as a fierce jungle planet with flying dragons. While it has no native blue people on it, interestingly the Leoniders, similar to Cameron's Na'vi, live in tune with the nature of their planet, contrasted with interlopping humans' obsession with machine-based tech. And they get around by riding large birds. Avatar also takes place in the 22nd century. Hmmm...

    This similarity was noted (to put it politely) by Russian fans of the series back when Avatar came out, see: "James Cameron rejects claims Avatar epic borrows from Russians' sci-fi novels". That article states that the Strugatskys' Pandora is home to humanoids named "Nave", which isn't mentioned in Noon, so I assume it's from one of the follow-up novels that I haven't read.

About the book and its translations

Полдень. XXII век
Cover of later Russian edition.

I read, and quoted from, the English translation by Patrick L. McGuire, published in 1978. Unfortunately, it appears to be the only English edition, hasn't been in print since the '80s, used copies start around $US60, and there's no legitimate digital version available.

Fortunately, illegitimacy is the Internet's specialty and you can find a copy in various ebook formats here (Note: I cant warrant your computer's safety on sketchy Russian piracy sites). If whoever currently owns the rights makes a legitimate version available, I'll gladly replace the link.

One of the pages is missing from that ebook at the beginning of the story "Natural Science in the Spirit World" («Естествознание в мире духов»). It should include some back story for the esper Peters, between where he starts talking about his beaver colony and where he injects an activated glucose ampule. You can fill it in using this presumably-also-illegitimate Russian version and the translation service of your choice.

Russian editions are of course readily available. As mentioned above, there is also a German translation by Aljonna Möckel (Mittag, 22. Jahrhundert, review in German) that doesn't go for too much, if you are so Germanically inclined.

Lev Rubinstein's inner illustrations from the (original?) Russian edition are here. Yuri Makarov's inner illustrations from a later Russian edition are here (no septipods, though).

Carl Hoffmann's cover and inner illustrations from the German edition are here. The septipod cover is just on the dust jacket; the actual cover has a different image. Many of Hoffmann's images have random dots and numbers scattered about, as can be seen in the two septipod images above. These are just part of his aesthetic and don't exist in the story.

HT to Dr. Drew Brayshaw (@DrewBrayshaw) for mentioning Noon's freshwater octopuses.

End of post.