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Literature / Prisoners of Power

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Prisoners of Power (original Russian title: Обитаемый остров, lit. Inhabited Island) is the sixth novel by the Strugatsky Brothers to be set in the Noon Universe. First serialized in a magazine in 1969, published in book form in 1971.

The protagonist, Maxim Kammerer, is stranded on the After the End Crapsack World of Saraksh where the atmosphere has such enormous refraction index that the horizon seems to bend upwards. After a nuclear war, the planet is divided into several surviving rump empires. And all of them seem to be competing over who can be the most evil. The empire where he lands practices Mind Control on the unwashed masses and Fantastic Racism against those who can withstand their Mind Control methods. At first Maxim seems a bit of a Fish out of Temporal Water, just trying to get back home and unable to comprehend the nature of what's happening around him, taking the propoganda at face value. He proceeds to uncover the truth and tries to improve the situation. How well he succeeds is debatable.

Various Action-Adventure tropes are played with and deconstructed, including but not limited to Mighty Whitey (the locals are white, but certainly savage compared to the protagonist, who is tan due to sunburn), No Endor Holocaust (averted), and What the Hell, Hero?.

There are three versions of the novel - the original (all but impossible to find), the censored version (896 corrections) approved by the Soviet government (the basis for all official foreign translations) and the 'restored' version that reverts many — but not all — of the changes (the only version still in print). A movie adaptation premiered in Russia in December 2008.

Tropes found in the novel:

  • Adaptation Explanation Extrication: The "Dummkopf! Rotznase!" Wham Line doesn't have such an effect in the 2009 movie, since it's said with such a hard Russian accent that you won't at first realize it's in German.
  • After the End: The Human Aliens of Saraksh are the survivors of a nuclear war, and live in this kind of setting. Everything is radioactive, the countryside is filled with rusting, malfunctioning Killer Robots, the world is divided between savage regimes squabbling over the remaining habitable scraps of land, and the best hope for preserving civilization may be a horribly oppressive dictatorial state that employs Mind Control to keep its subjects in line. At one point in the story Maxim comes across old photos from before the war, showing a lush, beautiful planet filled with happy, prosperous people; he actually becomes angry thinking about how Saraksh's inhabitants ruined their world.
  • Alien Sky: Saraksh's skyline must look really bizzare to a Terran. The atmosphere's chemical composition results in TOTAL lack of clear skies (number of times when sun was clearly seen is counted in one-digit number), and somehow distorts optics to the point where the planet's surface appears concave instead of convex, making it seem as if the planet is actually the interior of a giant bubble. It's pretty bad when you consider it prevented the planet's inhabitants from developing any kind of cultural concept about the existence of a universe outside their world.
  • An Aesop: If you want to change the world for the better, a thorough plan is required - not just blowing things up.
  • Apocalypse How: Saraksh's nuclear war was a Planetary Scale / Societal Disruption variety. Industrial civilization survives, but not in a particularly pleasant form, and doesn't seem likely to recover any time soon.
  • Bullet Time: One of Kammerer's abilities.
  • Cool Plane: The "Mountain Eagle" bomber.
    • That's His Imperial Highness Prince Kirnu's Personal "Mountain Eagle" Bomber With Four Golden Banners to you, private!
    • Based on giant planes of the time, mostly ANT-20.
    • It's a Cool Plane to the natives, but Maxim, used to 22nd-century Earth technology, regards it as The Alleged Plane.
  • Crapsack World: The story is a Robinsonade — but instead of being stranded on a desert island, the protagonist is stranded on a horrible, ruined planet full of radiation, killer robots, oppressive dictatorial regimes, mind control technology, and the threat of a second nuclear war. No-one here is having a good time — even the despots at the top of the social hierarchy must suffer.
  • Diesel Punk: Saraksh's aesthetic hat, with some Used Future mixed in.
  • Does This Remind You of Anything?: The Center for Mind Control is located at The TV Central Studio. Additionall redistribution of the signals by Towers is exactly how TV translation worked in USSR. And of course, the Towers are useless without regular propaganda.
  • The Dreaded: The White Submarines.
  • The Empire: All four of them, both in the literal and tropey sense. One of them seems to be more democratic, but...
  • Fascist, but Inefficient: Securing their own power is the only thing which Unknown Fathers can do well. In everything other their government isn't very competent.
  • From Bad to Worse: Your Crapsack World isn't bad enough? Let's start a second nuclear war!
  • Go Mad from the Revelation: What happens to the less stable of the mind-controlled population if they don't receive dose of tower's radiation.
    • Also, to some degree, to Maxim: when he discovered that Wanderer is German.
  • Happiness Is Mandatory: The government is oppressive, highly corrupt and very incompetent, but still totally approved by the citizens - thank to Mind Control.
  • Human Aliens: two races are native to Saraksh. One is this (and in this book, we only see them). The other is the Headies (Golovans), who are Intelligent Gerbils in appearance but quite Starfish Aliens in mindset.
  • Killer Robot: Of a Used Future, Diesel Punk variety (but also relatively realistic in that they are neither humanoid nor particularly intelligent). Saraksh is mostly at a 20th-century level of development, but has unusually advanced computer and nuclear technology — so autonomous nuclear-powered robots were used during the War that turned it into a Crapsack World. When Maxim arrives, the planet's wilderness is filled with rusting, malfunctioning machines that are still attempting to follow their original instructions, attacking anything they perceive as an enemy while leaking poisonous radiation wherever they go. Maxim is originally stranded when his starship is shot down by an autonomous AA platform. He later comes across a rusting, highly radioactive robot tank rumbling through the landscape; fortunately it is too stupid and broken down to react to Maxim's presence. The evil government routinely sends political prisoners into the wilderness to try and disarm all the dangerous machinery, which generally amounts to a death sentence.
  • La RĂ©sistance: A certain percentage of people have innate Psychic Block Defense against the mind towers' rays. Said rays, however, cause them horrible headaches. On this account, they are officially declared sub-human and ruthlessly persecuted, the true reason for which being, of course, that they are the only ones who have enough free will to topple the government. Even they, however, have fallen prey to apathy, lack of planning and extremism. The heads of state are actually this exact kind of people, who just managed to grab viable power in time. Even they suffer from their own mind rays and have scientists relentlessly working on protection - to little effect. Some of resistance members are even recruited by leaders when they need replacement.
  • Left for Dead: Granted, he's been shot several times to vital organs and a headshot barely missed.
    "Massaraksh, just the bullet to the liver should have been more than enough!"
  • Literary Allusion Title: The original Russian title — Inhabited Island — is a reference to Robinson Crusoe and other Robinsonade stories. Crusoe was stranded on a Deserted Island — a trope usually rendered in Russian as "an uninhabited island." Maxim is stranded on a "desert island" as well, but this island is anything but "uninhabited" — which turns out to be his main problem.
  • Schizo Tech: Sarakshians have roughly World War II level tech and science, but their astronomical knowledge and worldview are practically at a prehistoric level due to the above mentioned atmospheric phenomenon (i.e. they believe they live on the inner surface of a sphere, and have no concept of "space" or even "celestial bodies"). This made it impossible for them to work out ballistic flight physics and their aviation technology is very primitive. However, they have achieved remarkable progress in nuclear physics, computers, and the neurological sciences. Hence an otherwise 20th-century-type civilization with mind control technology — and surrounded by scrap piles filled with autonomous, nuclear-powered Killer Robots left over from their last war.
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: Destroying the Centre, ruining the plan to save the country, not following safety instructions when making planet sweep to begin with. This has consequences in the larger 'verse, with Maxim's blunder being the final nail in the coffin of the program that allowed private citizens to explore the galaxy on their own. The program is shut down, and exploration is left to the professionals.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: The Unknown Fathers and the whole government in their country.
  • Punch-Clock Villain: The chilling effect of this trope played seriously is briefly explored. A captured insurgent sneeringly tells his interrogators that their hate and passion makes them ineffective at cracking him, because it's just too easy for him to see them as enemies who must be defied. Now, when he had been tortured by some small-time drones, who didn't give a shit about him or the reasons he'd been tortured for, and showed more passion at filing the accompanying paperwork or cursing their wretched pay than at sawing off his arm, then he'd been terrified to the bone.
  • Putting on the Reich: The remaining empires, especially the one that becomes the main antagonist of the novel.
  • Twist Ending: "Dummkopf! Rotznase!" It turns out, the Terrans were present on Saraksh the whole time and secretly steered it towards recovery—and Maxim has just ruined their entire plan.
  • Unusual Euphemism: "Massaraksh", literally "the world inside out" - referring to a heretical theory, according to which life as they know it exists on the outer surface of the world sphere, rather than the inner surface.
  • Used Future: The planet Saraksh has some of this aesthetic, especially when we see the machinery left over from the War that turned it into a Crapsack World — much of it still functioning, but very much worse for the wear. Provides a contrast to the 22nd-century Earth that is Maxim's homeworld — which is more at a Crystal Spires and Togas level of development by this point.
  • War Is Hell: In the process of invading another state, the protagonist, his friend, and several other convicts are forced to steer outdated tanks towards the border so the nuclear mines along it are set off, making it safe for the professional army to roll through.
  • We ARE Struggling Together: The mind-controlling totalitarian oligarchy is opposed by what may initially seem to be an unified rebel "Underground". However, to quote the novel itself, "the Underground wasn't a political party. What's more, it wasn't even a front of political parties". Its members couldn't even agree as to whether or not the mind control has to go. Factions range from blatant fascists (who want to overthrow the government and keep the mind control towers) to "biologists" (who just want to destroy the towers, but don't mind keeping the government - so they can't even agree about that), and there are factions within factions as well. It is explicitly pointed out that many prominent Underground leaders are either agents or secret allies of the government. The protagonist ultimately doesn't even bother trying to rally them, instead striking a deal with one of the less secure government leaders for inside information, recruiting a few of the more sensible Underground members and blowing up the mind control center without consulting anybody else. It is implied in later Noonverse novels that he and his allies then had to put down rebellions by some of the other groups, even though the country was already a terrible mess by then due to mind control withdrawal and such.
  • Well-Intentioned Extremist: Deconstructed. The Stranger, The Man Behind the Man who stands at the top of the government food chain, has been trying to pull Saraksh out of the chaos. However, he only managed to achieve any semblance of order and stability by supporting and blending in with the corrupt dictatorship, which all goes down the drain once Maxim helms the resistance formed by all the malcontents and possibly causes a Full-Circle Revolution.
  • Wham Line: "Dummkopf! Rotznase!" This line is uttered by the Stranger, the supposed mastermind behind The Government's tyranny on Saraksh, in German—a Terran language, revealing himself as a fellow (very pissed-off) Earthling to Maxim.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: An unusual version in which Maxim and Rudolf (The Stranger who was one of the figures in charge) end up hurling that at each other - The Stranger for Maxim's hasty and hotheaded way of waging a revolution, and Maxim back at him for cooperating with a tyrannical, genocidal, mind-controlling government to prevent anarchy.

Alternative Title(s): Inhabited Island