Friday, January 27, 2017

Hard to Be a God

Hard to Be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky (1964)


I need to write a bunch of posts for Vintage Sci-Fi Month before it's over, but really I am mostly watching politics and I am not happy, friends.  I'm not sure what to say, either, so for the moment I'll just talk about Soviet SF, OK?

Hard to Be a God is a fairly early Strugatsky novel, from before their total disillusionment with the Soviet system, but it has some foreboding themes.  It actually started off as a fun, swashbuckling project that was going to be like the Three Musketeers, but it turned much, much darker as the writing progressed.  So:

Twenty minutes into the future, Anton is an Earth agent stationed on a different planet at a somewhat medieval level of development.  Living as Don Rumata in the kingdom of Arkanar, it's his job to observe, by recording history for observers at home, and to quietly influence without actually interfering.  He is a great swordsman but may never kill.  Arkanar, however, is now under the governing influence of Don Reba, who has a fanatical vision of a united kingdom where everyone will loyally obey the King (as represented by Reba, of course).  Literacy is now outlawed and anything resembling intellectual activity is brutally suppressed; there won't be any Renaissance here. Torture -- to uncover disloyalty -- is routine and the fear of it hangs over everyone.  Only the lowest, most violent, most piggish kind of people are surviving.  In such a place, what can the compassionate Rumata even do?
"I have tremendous love for learned men -- that is, gentility of the soul.  And I cannot figure out why you, the keepers and only holders of high knowledge, are so hopelessly passive.  Why do you meekly allow yourselves to be despised, thrown in jails, burned at the stake?  Why do you separate the meaning of your life, the pursuit of knowledge -- from the practical requirements of life, the struggle against evil?"
It turns into a difficult, melancholy story that asks questions about what is right or wrong, and how we can do good when there doesn't seem to be anything we can do.  The Strogatskys are never very easy for me to read, but they are well worth it and this might be a good one to put on your list.

I read a new translation by Olena Bormashenko; the older translation was done from the German, and was apparently not very clear.  Hard to Be a God was and is a popular SF book in Russia; it inspired two movies, a 1989 German-Russian production and a Russian film that took a long time but was released in 2013.  My book cover features a photo from that movie.  The Strugatskys also wrote a short play version, and there was even an RPG video game!


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NB: Hannah Arendt's book The Origins of Totalitarianism is on sale for Kindle today for two bucks.  Jump on it!

1 comment:

Gin Jenny said...

Hell if I know what to do about politics these days either. There's, ah, a whole lot more of politics than usual, aren't there?