Novel Review - Hard to Be a God, by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
Hard to Be a God
by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, 1964, 246pp.
2014 Chicago Review Press edition, translation by Olena Bormashenko
TLDR: 3.5 out of 5 for an interesting book, perhaps not quite my thing.
Hard to Be a God is about people from earth, future Russians, who have discovered a far-off planet in a medieval state of development. They have sent secret observers to report on the place, but (like the Federation in Star Trek) have given them strict instructions not to interfere. This book follows Anton (or Don Rumata, as he's known in the kingdom of Arkanar) as he struggles against the directive not to interfere in spite of a rising political and social crisis in the kingdom.
If you don't already know them, the Strugatsky brothers are considered the best soviet-era Russian SF authors. Hard to Be a God is one of their most popular books in Russia (tied with Monday Starts on Saturday - what a great title!) and their second most popular book in English translation (after Roadside Picnic, which of course you've all read, amiright?).
When it was first conceived, Arkady Strugatsky intended it to be an exciting and cinematic novel along the lines of the Three Musketeers. In a series of letters to his brother, he explained:
"I'd like to tell you, my pale, flabby brother, that I'm in for a light kind of thing... So women would cry, walls would laugh, and five hundred villains would shout, 'Get him! Get him!' - and they wouldn't be able to do a thing with one communist... I'd like to... write a novel about abstract nobility, honour and joy, like Dumas. And don't you dare argue. Just one story without modern problems in naked form. I'm begging on my knees, bastard! My sword, my sword! Cardinals! Port taverns!"
But is wasn't to be - at least not exactly. As Boris explains in the afterword, the political climate changed rapidly and politics poked its ugly nose into culture.
"One thing became, as they say, painfully clear. We shouldn't have illusions. We shouldn't have hopes for a brighter future. We were being governed by goons and enemies of culture. They will never be with us. They will always be against us. They will never let us say what we believe is right, because what they believe is right is something completely different. And if for us communism is a world of freedom and creativity, for them communism is a society where the people immediately and with pleasure perform all the prescriptions of the party and government... The time of 'light things,' the time of 'swords and cardinals' seemed to have passed. Or maybe it simply hadn't come yet. The adventure story had to, was obliged to, become a story about the fate of the intelligentsia, submerged in the twilight of the middle ages."
Now, if you read my review of The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse a few books ago, you'll see the similarity in theme. I'll say right off the bat that Hard to Be a God is no nobel-prize winner. It's too sparse to really be called literature, in my mind. It's very light on description, and things that I'm used to seeing described over the length of at least a small paragraph (like people, places, action scenes, and motivations) are often covered here in a single sentence. This often leaves you wondering why some of the characters do the things they do. And it demands your attention, as it's easy to miss important cues if your mind wanders while reading. So it's no Dumas, and it's no Hesse.
But it is Strugatsky, and that means there's lots to think about, and they don't draw all the conclusions for you. In one chapter in the middle of the book the narrator sums up the issue of the war against the intellegentsia, but offers no solution. Later, in a devil's advocate-type dialogue between Don Rumata and another character, they explore all the ways that a 'god' might intervene to solve the current political situation. The conclusion drawn by the other character seems to be that a God should do nothing, and to let events unfold as they should. But Rumata responds "My heart is full of pity - I cannot do that."
In the end, events unfold as they do, and Rumata remains what he was in the prologue - a man who went the wrong way down a one way street.
There's enough depth to warrant a second read, and to give this book maybe 3.5 out of 5. I didn't like it as much as either Roadside Picnic or Definitely Maybe (my favourite of their books so far) or The Dead Mountaineer's Inn, but a couple of days after I read it, it lingered, it lingered...
This book has been made into a movie twice. The first version was a 1989 German film starring Wernor Herzog, and the second was a Russian film released in 2013 to quite good critical reviews. I'll have to look these up and give them a watch.