Anthropological Science Fiction in ‘Hard to be a God’

hardtobeagodHard to be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky and translated by Olema Bormashenko
Chicago Review Press, June 1st, 2014 (Science Fiction)*

My rating: Beach vacation (but be prepared to think!) (3/5)

Written by two Russian brothers in the mid-20th century in response to political pressure on art and artistic works under Khrushchev, Hard to be a God is about one man’s struggle with the questions of how far to go to save others and live by his moral code, and if he can observe without interfering.

The main character in this novel, known mostly as Don Rumata, is a ‘historian’ who has been placed on a more primitive world to live in and observe the feudal culture that exists there. In kind of a Truman Show way, a camera placed in a gold circlet on his head reports everything he sees, his interactions, the daily life of the people. This culture that he witnesses is a mix of medieval feudalism and 20th century totalitarianism, with secret police and attacks on literate, artistic individuals – writers, poets, artists, musicians, scientists, philosophers, etc.

The story kind of drops its readers in the midst of Don Rumata’s work. He’s been an undercover historian for some time, and has been made sick to his soul by the atrocities committed under the oppressive regime. His dilemma: ordered to observe and never interfere, he feels compelled to rescue the members of the intelligentsia that he can. His role as don, or noble, is to drink and fool around with other dons and ladies, and he finds the company of the other nobles stultifying and dull. When he’s not carousing, he tries to avoid the grey police, the ones who arrest and hang the ‘bookworms,’ as the intelligentsia are called.

This novel explores several interesting issues, such as political control of art and science and intellect, how totalitarian regimes affect their subjects, what sparks rebellion, when to prevent (or not at all) abuse, and what consequences acting “for the greater good” might have. In general, these issues aren’t explored deeply, but the novel does pose the questions, leaving it up to the readers to think about it further. There is a thesis – that stifling art and science and culture ruins individuals’ lives, but more importantly it destroys the society as a whole.

As a science fiction novel, I enjoyed Hard to be a God. It’s a mix of bleakness and humor, action and silliness. The premise is interesting: sending ‘operatives’ to other, less-developed worlds, to study the cultures and societies that live there. The world-building is unique and convincing, a mix of Spanish and Russian cultures, medieval society and mid-century communism that have taken on their own characteristics and become a grey, depressing, and dangerous civilization.

I struggled with the only female characters – one, an unscrupulous and promiscuous woman who, it is implied, “deserved what she got,” and the other, the weak saint, who is helpless without the main character and so honest and simple and true and everything else. Clearly, we have the Madonna and the whore stereotypes here, and no other female characters to balance them out. The characterizations of women are weak, insubstantial, and decidedly unoriginal.

The other thing I found difficult was how distanced I felt from the story. For whatever reason, I never felt fully engaged or absorbed. Don Rumata’s difficulties were thought-provoking, but the immediacy of the action was filtered too heavily by his narration. Additionally, it seemed like a clip had been taken from Don Rumata’s life and work as an operative. As readers, we never really learn about how it was for him before the events that take place in the book. The context of his own life is hard to perceive.

Overall, this book gives readers an interesting glimpse into classic science fiction from Russia. If you’re looking for a diverse perspective, that would definitely qualify. An adventurous, dark tale that questions the results of totalitarianism, it is not difficult to read. I would recommend this book for fans of classic science fiction and more literary science fiction.

 

Read Alikes

For a similar anthropological experience of the past through time travel, and some of the same subtle humor, check out Connie Willis’ The Doomsday Book. Set in futuristic England, it follows a young ‘historian’ (a time-traveler) sent to the Middle Ages.

The Doomsday Book

In the Garden of Iden, by Kage Baker, is another time-travel novel. In this one, residents of all times past, present, and future, are made immortal and sent on missions to save culture, information, but especially species. Mendoza is a young immortal biologist on her first mission back to 16th century England, learning to keep secrets, living in the past, falling in love, and navigating moral and ethical dilemmas.

In the Garden of Iden (The Company #1)

 

Other reviews of this title

Books Without Any Pictures

 

*e-copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley

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