Monday Starts on Saturday by Arkady & Boris Strugatsky
In the Strugatsky brothers’ Monday Starts on Saturday (1965), Sasha, a young Russian man, is about to start his vacation when he picks up a couple of hitchhikers. They are excited to discover that Sasha is a computer programmer because the organization they work for is looking for someone just like him. Curious about these likeable fellows and the work they do, Sasha accompanies them to Solovets to find out what’s happening at the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy (NITWIT).
The scientists at NITWIT love their work which is why Monday starts on Saturday (weekends and holidays are so boring!), and why they often clone themselves so they can get more done. But they aren’t very scientific. Sasha does have a scientific mind, though, which he attempts to apply to all of the strange objects and creatures he encounters, such as a sofa that translates dreams, a book whose content changes every time it’s picked up, a loquacious pike that grants wishes, a coin that keeps returning to his pocket after he spends it, and a cat that loves to tell stories but can never remember the endings.
Eventually Sasha joins NITWIT and, in addition to computer programming, assists in labs and sometimes works as the night watchman. NITWIT’s building, which is bigger inside than out, houses all sorts of weird creatures. And then there are the scientists. These eccentric men resemble characters from a DISCWORLD novel and are studying such topics as “The Correlation Between the Laws of Nature with the Laws of Administration,” “The Materialization and Linear Naturalization of the White Thesis as an Argument for the Adequately Random Sigma Function of Incompletely Representable Human Happiness,” anthropological models of partially-satisfied and completely-satisfied man (a satirical reference to a Marxist idea), reanimation of dead animals, and the Pants of Darkness.
The academy is split into several divisions such as the Department of Predictions and Prophecies, the Department of Universal Transformations, the Department of Eternal Youth, the Department of Absolute Knowledge, the Department of Linear Happiness, The Department of Unsolvable Problems, the Department of the Meaning of Life, the Department of Militant Atheism, and the Department of Defensive Magic.
That last one might remind you of HARRY POTTER and, indeed, the publisher of the first English edition of Monday Starts on Saturday (2005) called it a Russian HARRY POTTER equivalent. While there are some similarities, it would be best to ignore this comparison. The books are totally different in setting, tone, humor, and purpose. Young readers hoping for HARRY POTTER set in Russia will be disappointed, and adult readers who have dismissed this novel based on the POTTER comparison will be missing a surreal and hilarious adventure from a couple of Russia’s favorite science fiction writers.
Monday Starts on Saturday is light on plot. Instead, it’s a tour of some of the Strugatsky brothers’ bizarre and funny characters, situations, and jokes which, as explained in the afterword, they collected over years. Partly it’s a satirical and amusing commentary on the Soviet scientific academy of the 1950s and 60s. While the authors depict the scientists as often careless, unscientific, inefficient, impractical, and haughty, they also show them to be happy as they pursue knowledge and, at least as they see it, meaningful work that will help humanity. A parallel theme is the intersection between science, technology, and what we perceive as magic.
Though it’s set in Russia half a century ago, Monday Starts on Saturday doesn’t feel dated at all and modern readers will find much to appreciate and chuckle at. There are many allusions to Russian folklore, myths, history, and politics. I’m sure I missed some of these allusions, but I enjoyed this imaginative novel nonetheless. I have read it twice and am likely to read it again in the future.
Andrew Bromfield’s 2002 English translation of Monday Starts on Saturday is exceedingly clever and he even manages to make the poetry rhyme! Boris Strugatsky’s afterword explains how the novel was written, patchily, over many years, gives credit to the women involved in its creation, and mentions the role of Soviet censors in the first edition. The 2016 version of Monday Starts on Saturday published by Chicago Review Press includes the text the censors excised as well as charming illustrations by Yevgeniy Migunov. Its introduction by author Adam Roberts is both helpful for putting the novel in context and a far better review of the novel than my effort here. Blackstone Audio’s audiobook edition is brilliantly narrated by Ramiz Monsef. I wish I could share his interpretation of the forgetful cat. It had me laughing out loud.