No rest for the NITWiT
Come for the Russian speculative fiction, stay for the skewering of institutional foolishness
by Malcolm Cousins, Contributor
Russian science fiction does not often get as much attention as books published here in North America. You will not often hear about them unless they are related to other popular media, such as the cult-classic video games Stalker: Shadow of Chernobyl and the Metro 2033 series. However, the works of brothers and co-authors Arkady and Boris Strugatsky make a strong case for renewed anglophone interest in Russian speculative fiction. While some may know the Strugatskys based on the video game inspired by their work, or the cult classic Andrei Tarkovsky film of a similar name, Stalker, another work of theirs, Monday Begins on Saturday, is perhaps what readers can relate to the most in today’s tumultuous world.
The book came out in 1964, was originally published in Russian and then translated in English in 1977. It was published during a time of easing of draconian laws known as the Khrushchev Thaw, that saw a somewhat greater freedom of the press and freedom from censorship. Writers during the Stalinist era had to edit their work to fit government standards and Monday Begins on Saturday, a science fiction satire on the state of bureaucracies and their attempts to better human society, is a particularly impressive work given the context in which it was written.
In the novel, our protagonist, computer programmer Sasha, picks up two hitchhikers on his way to a camping trip. During the drive, the two men explain that they work for an institute known as the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy, or NITWiT, an organization devoted to the study of magic as science. They offer him a position as a programmer, which he accepts. Unbeknownst to him, Sasha has joined an institute that – putting it lightly – is a sideshow. And that’s not just because of the fact that the institute is home to tea-drinking vampires, magical wish-granting pickerel and Merlin from Arthurian legend (working long past his retirement date). In fact, the most notable part of the institute is the sheer incompetence baked into its practices and organization. At NITWiT, people are being overworked as the concept of a weekend or a holiday is non-existent. In one part of the novel, when Sasha is locking up the building so he can do a firewatch after workers leave for New Years Eve, they come back shortly after to get back to work.
The archetypes of a bumbling desk worker who is only there for a paycheque, or of management that makes one wonder who put them in charge aren’t new. We all know of politicians who have made ludicrously poor decisions, for example with regard to fighting climate change. What made me enjoy the novel was how it exaggerates certain elements of society to an effect that made me think as I was reading: “certainly it couldn’t get this bad”.
The novel also shines in its portrayal of the characters, particularly Vybegallo, the overly idealistic but incompentent scientist. In the book, he attempts to artificially create the ideal man that desires everything and anything (when in reality, it just eats everything, could potentially consume the universe and later explodes from consuming too much). Some people in the real world with the same idealism as Vybegallo look to improve human society, but those attempts are often plagued by purely human errors in thinking and judgement. Vybegallo could be well acquainted with the doctors who were falsely promoting hydroxychloroquine as an effective treatment of COVID-19 before the issue had been appropriately studied.
With our society dealing with the largest pandemic in a century, Monday Begins on Saturday is an often-accurate satire about how putting the wrong people in charge can result in disastrous outcomes for everyone. We all hope that the world will be able to go back to normal someday, that people will follow safety protocols and governments will be proactive, though of course that hasn’t always been the case. Right now, I find it helpful to read Monday Begins on Saturday to have a laugh and escape into a fantasy world – a fantasy world that literally is about the study of fantasy.