Sunday, May 3, 2015

Hard To Be a God - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

The Gollancz SF Masterworks list includes only a few translated titles and most of them have been written by the Strugatsky brothers. For some reason people like Jules Verne or Stanislav Lem haven't made the list so far. It is yet another sign of how few titles make it in English translation in the genre. To make matters worse, quite a few of the older translations are not very good. Hard To Be a God (1964) for instance, was until recently only available as a double translation. In this case an English translation of the German translation of the Russian original. The Strugatsky brothers were not especially happy with the English translations of their work. Arkady worked as a translator in English (and Japanese), the double translation must have been an irritation to say the least. It doesn't help that censorship in the USSR meant that quite a few translations were based on texts that were not the version the authors preferred.

I read one other book by the Strugatsky brothers, Roadside Picnic (1972), also part of the SF Masterworks series. That edition was based on a translation considered imperfect. In 2012 an new translation appeared by Olena Bormashenko, a few months before the death of Boris, the last surviving brother. I haven't read that translation but from what I hear, it is superior to the earlier one. Unlike Roadside Picnic, which was reissued before the 2012 translation was available, Gollancz used a new translation for this edition of Hard To Be a God. It is copyrighted in 2014 and again credited to Olena Bormashenko. All of this makes me wonder what the story behind the translation of Monday Begins on Saturday (1965), the third Strugatsky title of the SF Masterworks list, is. But enough on translations, let's look at the novel.

An undercover agent has been positioned on a planted where society has regressed to a feudal system. His job is to observe only but he finds it ever harder to keep from interfering in the face of the brutality he encounters. With his more advanced knowledge of history and society, the injustice he witnesses is almost too much to bear. Interfering is not only strictly forbidden, it is also highly dangerous. Those who give in to the temptation put themselves and others in grave danger. It is, in other words, hard to be a god.

The introduction to this edition is written by Scottish author Ken MacLeod and I very much recommend you read it. MacLeod is no stranger to leftist themes in his own work and he manages to put the novel in a political context that many readers would have missed. The idea behind this novel is that society inevitably moves toward a situation where class, money and even control by a state are things of the past. An utopian vision that is not unlike the one encountered in Star Trek. Unsurprisingly, it goes back to the works of Karl Marx. This inevitability comes back a lot in the doctrines of communist states and parties and most of them don't react too well when political theory doesn't quite hold up in reality. A mismatch between theory and reality is what occurs in this novel though, making it a potentially very explosive work in 1960s Soviet society. The brothers had to cover their critique with an exciting adventure but once you have been made aware of the idea that is the foundation of the story, it is impossible to miss.

The story itself takes place in the Noon universe, a loosely related set of novels named after Noon, 22nd Century (1961), the first in the sequence. The brothers didn't really intend to develop a fictional universe so the book can be read independently. On the surface it is an adventure, which according to the afterword by Boris Strugatsky is what the brothers set out to write. They had something along the lines of The Three Musketeers in mind but drifted a bit from the original idea in the writing. Consequently, it is quite fast paced, with developments moving faster than the characters have time to keep up with.

Where theory predicts that society would move into an era of accelerating scientific and economic development and greater personal freedom, the story is one the increasing influence of a cult that looks at knowledge, cultural refinement and even reading as highly suspicious. Knowledge is dangerous and must be suppressed. The level of fanaticism, brutality, rigidity and sheer ignorance reminds me a bit of some of the more extreme Islamist movements that have been making a name for themselves in recent years. The novel draws a direct parallel with Nazi Germany though, the events of  Night of the Long Knives in particular.

Our observer watches all this and tries to subtly influence events by helping notable scientists and intellectuals to flee the country. A task made ever more hazardous by the increasing influence of the cult. It is a very stark contrast to the life our observer has been positioned in. the nobles of the nation are mostly portrayed as corrupt and decadent. Apart from a few exceptions, they don't seem to see the disaster barreling down on them. There would seem to be a parallel between the story and the Stalinist purging of the 1930s. Then again, something that brazen might not have slipped past the censors. Read it a bit differently and it could also be the Russian revolution or the revolution of 1905. There is no shortage of revolutionary events and uprisings in Russian history.

The main character is essentially torn between his experience and knowledge as an observer and growing attachment to the object of his studies. He finds it hard to keep his personal ethics and integrity in line with the assignment he's been given and becomes increasingly desperate over the course of the novel. The increasing strain on the main characters is very well done. It's almost a prediction of what would happen to the USSR when it couldn't bridge the gap between political and economic theory and reality.

The writing style, especially the vocabulary the translator (or the authors?) employs, takes a bit of getting used to. Part of that seems to be conscious choice by the authors to make the nobles in the story sound pompous. The dialogues between them are almost comical to read. The style is probably not something that would get past an American editor though, so for some readers it will be a bit of a rocky ride especially early on. I've seen a lot of comments questioning the translator but one should keep in mind that this book was written by two men from a different literary tradition. Part of it at least, is clearly the authors intent.

The Strugatsky brothers approach science fiction in a very different way than western authors would and that alone makes it a shame that many of their books are out of print. They make a case for more attention to translations if my opinion. There are many more ways to look at science fiction that what the English-speaking world has to offer. Hard To Be a God is, a book that hides a lot under the fast paced surface of the story. Roadside Picnic remains their best known work but I don't think there is much between that book and Hard To Be a God to be honest. It is a work of science fiction that certainly deserves its place in the Masterworks list.

Book Details
Title: Hard To Be a God
Author: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Publisher: Gollancz
Pages: 246
Year: 2015
Language: English
Translation: Olena Bormashenko
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-1-473-20829-2
First published: 1964


  1. Just out of curiosity, what do you think the difference is between the Strugatsky's approach to science fiction compared to other Western science fiction? I've read Roadside Picnic (and will read Hard to Be a God based on this review) and I agree there's something different about their work, but I haven't sat down to figure out what exactly that difference is.

    1. Sorry for the slow reply, I've had a busy couple of days.

      I'd say part of it at least is thematic. The Strugatsky brothers were not shy about pointing out the follies of the political system they lived in but they were very influenced by socialist theories and ideas on societies. In American SF you are much more likely to find libertarian thinking. There is a different view on religion too. Many western SF novels, again the American ones in particular are riddeled with references to the Bible. The religious cult described in this book is a political vehicle really. The Nazi party in disguise.

      The nobles in the novel are viewed as a corrupt (if powerful) bunch, with an emphasis on class struggle. In western novels you'd probably find more references to what I like to think of as the Camelot complex. The idea of chivalry, the rightious king, etc. Had a British or American author written this book the expectations and ideals would have shown up somewhere even if the nobles were in fact a bunch of bastards.

      There is something about the language too but that is probably even harder to pinpoint. I've read a whole bunch of reviews of this novel and it amazes me how many English-language readers put finding words that don't come up in every day conversation too often down to poor translations or bad writing (usually they are not sure on who to blame). Same goes for sentece structures or imagery. Part of it is probably that not everything translates well into another languages but there is usually a way around that. If the translator leaves something like that in, more often than not, there is a reason for it.

      In this novel I get the feeling the Strugatsky brothers partly use their particular vocabulary to show us how ignorant and uncaring the nobles are and how much cut of from the rest of society. They sound pompous in a way that you would probably be very hard to get past an American editor but it does get the point across. Maybe readers from smaller languages, with a larger share of translations available are more tollerant tot his kind of thing.

    2. So, you have sat down to think what the difference is. :)

      In today's science fiction world, we see everything. But looking back over the years, definitely there are strong leanings toward the American/Anglo elements you mention. You would have to look at specific authors rather than groups of authors to find works comparable to the Strugatskies, it seems. I find the language commentary (not your commentary, but other people's) a bit simplistic. There are many sf writers who have extensive vocabularies they put to use in their fiction. I've heard people complain (myself included :) that China Mieville used too many adjectives in some of his works, but I've yet to read a comment that his choice of words is too esoteric, which it is...

    3. It is one thing to perceive a difference and another to put it into words ;) I am generalizing a bit and I did try to compare it to works of more or less the same age.

      Mieville's language is ... er.. a challenge for a second language reader ;) It always takes a me a while to get into it.