The Noon Universe is The 'Verse where many of the Strugatsky Brothers' works are set. The name comes from the first novel's title and refers to the "noon" (as in, "the high point") of human civilization in the 22nd century, which the novels describe, and its looming dusk. Also, the title was a slight Take That! at Daybreak 2250, a post-apocalyptic sci-fi novel by Andre Norton that the brothers read and disliked with a passion.
The setting is a future Communist/Socialist Utopia that gets gradually deconstructed as the authors become disillusioned with the Soviet Union. Intellectuals suffer from free time and idle hands turn to dangerous experiments, the Precursors may be guiding the course of events on Earth and it's driving the security services justifiably paranoid, attempts to help out primitive alien civilizations frequently end in tragedy, and a general "Golden Age feeling the premonitions of its own decay" atmosphere pervades. The utopia is never truly deconstructed to the point of destruction (though Word of God says only Arkady's death prevented it). There are rumors that their works suffered from massive censorship in early development, censoring away from text (but not background lore) many darker parts, like apocalyptic brutal wars and world-scale disasters that led to the post-scarcity society they depicted.
The Noon Universe starts with a "Society of Plenty" that averts decadence through a well planned education system that respects the role of the Teacher and strives to teach pupils the values of Love of Labor, Camraderie and Goodness. If you ask a Russian intellectual for a vision of Utopia you're likely to get this as an answer.
Thanks to advances in medical science, Noon Universe Earthlings are capable of near super-human feats and can recover from potentially deadly injuries. As they explore the universe, they discover many Earthlike planets inhabited by humanoids re-enacting various periods of Earth history in the most unpleasant ways possible. This allows for some seriously dark and gritty social satire and the posing of interesting questions: just what can a society of Sufficiently Advanced Earthlings do to prevent the Holocaust or the Inquisition from recurring elsewhere without denying free will, and what effect will interacting with violent cultures have on the Earthlings themselves?
Core novels set in the Noon Universe:
- Noon: 22nd Century (1962)
- Escape Attempt (1962)
- Far Rainbow (1963)
- Hard to Be a God (1964)
- Disquiet (later reworked into a standalone novel Snail on the Slope in 1966; the original draft first published in 1990)
- Prisoners of Power (1969)
- Space Mowgli (1971)
- The Kid from Hell (1974)
- Beetle in the Anthill (1980)
- The Time Wanderers (1986)
The eleventh novel in the series, The White Queen (as in the chess piece), was planned but never completed due to Arkady Strugatsky's death in 1991.
In addition to the core novels above, the following Strugatsky works are considered to be set in the same universe, in a late 20th-mid 21st century:
- The Land of Crimson Clouds (1959, never translated from Russian)
- Destination: Amaltheia (1960)
- Space Apprentice AKA Probationers (1962)
- The Final Circle of Paradise (1965)
- ...and several untranslated short stories.
Adaptations in other media:
- Hard To Be A God (1989 movie adaptation of Hard to be a God)
- The Inhabited Island (2008 movie adaptation of Prisoners of Power)
- History of the Arkanar Massacre (2012 movie loosely based on Hard to be a God)
- Galactic Assault: Prisoner of Power (2007 turn-based strategy based on Prisoners of Power)
- The Inhabited Island: Prisoner of Power (2007 first-person shooter based on Prisoners of Power)
- Hard to Be a God (2007 role-playing video game loosely based on Hard to be a God)
- The Inhabited Island: The Earthling (2007 adventure game based on Prisoners of Power)
- The Inhabited Island (2009 real-time strategy based on Prisoners of Power)
- The Inhabited Island (2009 comic book adaptation of Prisoners of Power)
The Noon Universe cycle features these tropes in general:
- After the End / And Man Grew Proud / Scavenger World: The books explore a lot of civilizations whose social, economic and enviromental problems went off the rails in one way or another. However, Earth is not one of these (though there is mention of a few irradiated areas).
- The Alternet: The Great Planetary Informatorium functions akin to the internet, except it seems to be a single supercomputer containing the complete collection of Earth's accumulated knowledge, and the response times to a search query are rather long (several hours).
- Cerebus Syndrome: Starting from Escape Attempt and Probationers the characters tend to be deeper, the world more detailed and worked-out, the focus shifts from future technologies to future people. Many fans believe Hard to Be a God to be the pinnacle of the series (others prefer Prisoners of Power). Subsequent novels (from Space Mowgli onward) become less romantic and increasingly pessimistic and the Noon universe starts to stagnate. Which reflects authors losing battles against censorship and losing the desire to create.
- Chromosome Casting: Downplayed. While the women of the Noon Universe appear by all accounts to be fully emancipated, at least on Earth, there is a distinct lack of prominent female characters in Strugatskys' plots. In most novels, there is at most one recurring female character, who usually falls under the "faithful Girl Next Door" archetype: Tanya in Far Rainbow, Kira in Hard to Be a God, Rada in Prisoners of Power, and Maya Glumova in Space Mowgly, Beetle in the Anthill, and The Time Wanderers. Escape Attempt doesn't feature any women at all (justified by its main setting, which is a Human Alien male penal colony), and The Kid from Hell has only brief cameos.
- Cosmic Horror Story: Although this is hardly the series' main point, all instances where human characters have close encounters with the Wanderers' legacy are downright bone-chilling in their inscrutability. The encounters with Ark Megaforms also qualify. As you'd expect from them, the Strugatskys made good use of their signature Rule of Scary writing style during the more horror-esque parts of the narrative.
- A good example occurs in Beetle In An Anthill, in the story within the novel where the exploration mission on Hope is described. The alien member of the expedition, who seems to possess psychic powers, freaks out when the team approaches a Wanderer artifact (which is inert and fully inconspicuous to his human partner). He's terrified to such an extent and it is described in such a way that the scene could have been taken straight out of a Lovecraft story—complete with vivid descriptions that make no sense but creep the hell out of the reader ("a staircase made of holes"). Interestingly, the exact function of the object is not made clear, although it's hinted that it's some sort of interdimensional/subspace gateway.
- Deconstruction: The series starts off quite idealistic in the vein of Andromeda Nebula and similar Soviet sci-fi utopias (the closest equivalent in Western popular culture would be Star Trek: The Original Series), but gradually deconstructs everything about it throughout following books.
- Fantastic Aesop: So much that it may well be one of the main points of the whole series.
- Fantasy Counterpart Culture: When Strugatskys introduce civilizations notable for extreme, but cold-blooded violence, they make them vaguely resembling Imperial Japan. This happens with the Island Empire in Prisoners of Power and the aboriginal civilization in Escape Attempt. This is largely a Write What You Know, as Arkady was a Japanese translator and a notable figure in Moscow School of Japanese linguistics. He also did his military service shortly after the war as a military translator for the Border Guards in the Far East, at the time when still not all Japanese POWs were repatriated yet and the Cold War tensions ran high, so he knew the Katanas of the Rising Sun firsthand, and didn't have the very high opinion of the Imperial Japan.
- Faster-Than-Light Travel : Of the "jump drive" variety.
- Flying Car: "Gliders" and "fliers".
- Genre Shift: Well, not the genre as such, as the series remained science fiction throughout, but there has been a notable shift in science harness. The earliest stories generally considered part of the Noon Universe were not only much more utopian (and, at that time, still devoutly socialist), as mentioned in the lead, but also much less focused on people and more on technological aspects. The Land of Crimson Clouds stands out most here, being an archetypal hard SF novel in respect to the knowledge of the time, complete with occasional infodumps related to astronomy, physics and aerospace engineering.The depiction of Venus, entirely unexplored at the time of publication, is the sole thing that is seriously wrong - the rest is speculative, but entirely possible. Later, the tone is much darker and cynical and the focus is more on the ethical struggles of people, with science taking a seat at the very back of the bus.
- Government Agency of Fiction : The Earth government's COMCON-1 and COMCON-2. The first one ("Committee for Contacts") is a fairly standard diplomatic institution for dealing with contacts and political relations between Earthlings and aliens. The second one ("Committee for Control") is a more shady organization, more akin to a professional secret service, and is dedicated to monitoring any research deemed as potentially dangerous. COMCON-2 might have been inspired heavily by the KGB. There's also a CIA Evil, FBI Good vibe going on between the two agencies.
- Grey-and-Gray Morality
- Green Rocks / Applied Phlebotinum : Yantarin (i.e. "amberin"), the enigmatic powersource and component of all Wanderer technology.
- Human Aliens : Most of the alien species explored in the books, the most notable being the Cold War-esque Sarakshans, Space Amish Leoniders and Ruritanian Feudal Future Gigandans. All of them also subvert this trope by having lots of cultural and philosophical traditions that would seem pretty alien to Earth humans.
- The subversion is not that pronounced really. The Leoniders are somewhat alien, as are the Tagorians (see Intelligent Gerbil below), but the essentially human-analogue civilizations on planets such as Giganda, Saraksh, Arkanar, Saula, and the only passingly mentioned Hope are really versions of Earth in different times with other names. The humanoids of the Noon Universe for the most part are not really significantly different to humans. Now, for the Starfish Aliens...
- Humans Are Bastards : But this is often justified or played with in some way.
- Inscrutable Aliens : The Wanderers. Humanity finds traces of their presence all over the galaxy but has never encountered one in person. There are, however, clear and obvious evidence that they are, in fact present and active in the Galaxy at large, and actively try to manipulate other sentient races for unclear reasons. Which understandably drives anyone who gives this a thought nuts.
- Intelligent Gerbil : The lizard-like Tagorians and Ugly Cute dog-like Golovans.
- The Paragon: Leonid Gorbovsky's reputation approaches that of Superman more and more throughout the series: a legendary heroic space explorer best known for his motto "Out of all possible solutions, always pick the kindest" and present at most significant events of the century (and over 150 years old in The Time Wanderers).
- Planet of Hats : Virtually any planet with a Human Aliens style civilization. Justified by the hat usually being a time period of Earth history and everything it entails.
- Radiation-Immune Mutants: The Golovans (sentient canine species) evolved from common dogs on the irradiated post-nuclear war wastelands of Saraksh and are largely immune to radiation. But then again, so are humans from Earth (though not the Human Aliens of Saraksh itself).
- Starfish Aliens / Precursors / Higher-Tech Species : The mysterious Wanderers and the Ark Megaforms.
- And they are indeed very, very alien. While there has been actual contact with the Ark Megaforms (read: they have been seen), nobody really knows just what they are, and communication with them is impossible, although the expedition members in Space Mowgli speculate that the titular character has been modified by the Megaforms to serve as an interface between humans and them. As for the Wanderers, no one has ever seen one, only remnants of their technology have been found and the sole two facts that are known about them is that they a) were/are astronomically more advanced than humans and b) are decidedly non-humanoid. No other conclusions at all can be drawn from their tech, hinting at how different they actually must be. It is explicitly stated by one of the Noon Universe "metaplot" characters (either Gorbovsky or Komov) that their non-humanoid nature renders any guess at their psychology useless. The suspicion that they might be progressing humanity, just as humanity is doing with the various Human Aliens, generally considering it a great thing, is downright terrifying to most.
- Teleporters and Transporters : Called "Zero transport" or "null-T" and used as an actual form of public transport. Apparently available only on Earth. The FTL device employed on starships is a variation of this trope, since it's basically a jump drive.
- The Federation : Earth and its global and interstellar organizations. But it's really more of a grand and pretty cynical Deconstruction of this trope, increasingly so with each installment of the series.
- The Unreveal: Because of the abrupt end of the series due to the death of one of the authors, there are quite a few loose threads - however, the true nature of the Wanderers is one thing that is completely cryptic. What are they? Why are they doing whatever they do - are they progressing humankind or trying to covertly destroy/destabilize it? Are they actually doing something or are both COMCON agencies paranoid? Do they even still exist? Did they ever? A lot of questions with not a single definite answer, although hints are dropped here and there with increasing frequency in virtually each one of the latter novels. Then again, probably there would have been no revelation even if the series had continued.
- When in early 2000s a fan asked Boris Strugatsky one such question — why are those planets inhabited by not just Humanoid Aliens, but by Human Aliens — no answer was given besides "Well, we are writers, we can write anything." Considering that at this point Boris was not going to write anymore and the fan got his blessings to write sequels, the answer, most likely, was never planned.
- If we treat the entire cycle as a treatise on ethics of contact between civilizations on different levels of development, then the only explanation fitting the overall message is that the Wanderers have, indeed, been trying to advance humanity - according to their own concept of progress. The primitive cultures of Hard to be a God and Escape Attempt could not meaningfully appreciate what the Progressors from Earth were doing for their sake. Slightly more advanced dieselpunk societies of Prisoners of Power and The Kid from Hell ended up understanding but largely rejecting the message with the exception of a few intellectuals, and even those said that while they appreciate the desire to help, there is no way to make their societies less savage by coercion. Now, with the Wanderers, Earth is on the receiving end of this and we see the entire spectrum of behavior in the Beetle in an Anthill: some protagonists reject the Wanderers' plans purely because they do not understand them, others consider the main dilemma in the plot a Secret Test of Character for the entire civilization, and yet others are confident the Wanderers are well-meaning but doubt whether humanity should develop according to the ideals determined for it by aliens, or it should choose its own path, likely making many, many mistakes in the process.
- We Will Have Perfect Health in the Future: In spades. For example, in Prisoners of Power, the protagonist is not only considered ridiculously strong by the Human Alien inhabitants of a Diesel Punk planet he is stranded on, but apparently can run for tens of miles without stopping, hold his breath for ten minutes, and survive several point-blank bullet shots. Not to mention that he seems completely impervious to most sorts of radiation, even the nuclear one.
- Justified in-universe by the procedure of "fukamization", which is performed upon fetuses shortly before birth to give them extraordinary health and "bioblockade" vaccine. In Time Wanderers, it is also revealed that fukamization has a side effect of preventing people from transforming into Transhuman Homo Ludens.
- What Measure Is a Non-Human?
- What You Are in the Dark
- Worldbuilding: The brothers never planned it as a continuous series, just reused the old characters and concepts in their new novels. This explains the many, many inconsistencies between individual novels, despite the rather good Canon Welding.