Sunday, May 3, 2015
Hard To Be a God - Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
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.
Title: Hard To Be a God
Author: Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Translation: Olena Bormashenko
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 1964