I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.Hard to Be a God by Arkady Strugatsky, Boris Strugatsky
Published: 2014 by Chicago Review Press
Genres: Science Fiction
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The Strugatsky brothers are among the classics of Russian/Soviet science fiction, most famous for their novel Roadside Picnic, which became the basis for the film Stalker and its later videogame adaptation. When I saw that another of their novels was being translated into English, I jumped at the chance to read it.
Hard to Be a God is a bit less accessible than Roadside Picnic, but I ended up loving it just the same. It’s set far in the future, where Earth has become a technologically advanced utopian communist society. Don Rumata is a historian, and he’s visiting another planet as part of his studies. He’s bound by the equivalent of Star Trek’s Prime Directive–he isn’t allowed to kill people, and while he can *suggest* other ways of doing things, he isn’t allowed to reveal that he’s from Earth. On this planet, society is still in the feudal dark ages.
Rumata quickly becomes depressed. He’s trying to help people see how barbaric their ways are, but one person can’t make that much of a difference. He’s observing quasi-fascist coups and religious fanatics controlling popular opinion to try to gain political power. He sees a blatant disregard for human life, and he sees the serf classes becoming so bogged down by the troubles of their daily existence that they don’t do anything to change the system. In short, Rumata sees no way out. He has confidence because of the Marxist view of history that things will eventually change, that industrialism and later revolution will replace the dark ages, leading the way to an egalitarian and peaceful future, but that’s not where he is now. And the fact that there’s that potential for something better is something that gets to him as he continues to observe and record for the people on Earth.
For Rumata, who rarely interacted with children, the ten-year-old prince was the antithesis of every social class in this savage country. It was ordinary blue-eyed boys like this one, identical in every social class, who would grow up to be brutal, ignorant, and submissive men; and yet they, the children, showed no traces or beginnings of such rot. Sometimes Rumata thought it’d be great if all the people older than ten years of age disappeared from the planet.
Bound as he is by his directives, he’s not allowed to take the kind of action that he feels is necessary to change the world. He battles his own feelings of rage and indignation when he sees atrocities committed in broad daylight while people turn a blind eye.
And yet, despite his limitations, Rumata tries to make the world better. He uses his influence to save scholars from being persecuted and to prevent the loss of mankind’s collective knowledge. He even falls in love with a girl named Kira, who he tries desperately to protect from the chaos around him.
As per the stereotypes about Russian literature, this isn’t a happy book, but it’s a good on, especially if you have an interest in Russian history.