Hard to Be a God by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky

Hard to Be a GodThe last five years has seen a resurgence of interest in non-Western European (for the sake of keeping things simple I’ll include the United States, Canada, and Australia in this group) genre fiction. I can speak to this personally, as I’ve had much success with The Apex Book of World SF anthology series. We’re seeing fantastic translated work such as The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu from China, fine work out of Viz Media, and a rise in the number of translated stories appearing in the short fiction zines.

Personally, I’ve always enjoyed the tone and flavor of eastern European genre work. Stanislaw Lem was one of my earliest favorites. The Night Watch series by Sergei Lukyanenko is a fantastic modern fantasy thriller. When a publicist for Chicago Review Press queried me to review their new translation of Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s classic Hard to Be a God, I ditched my usually policy of not doing solicited reviews and accepted the challenge.

Admittedly, part of my decision was influenced by the release of a new film adaptation of the novel by the recently deceased director Aleksei German. German’s film is a messy, muddy, and bizarre affair…and quite possibly one of the most realistic portrayals of early Medieval times ever put to the visual medium. A respected reviewer on RogerEbert.com declared Hard to Be a God one of great films with a capital ‘G’ (I take this to mean it is up there with the likes of 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Godfather). It is a challenging 3 hour slog, so I’m not prepared to agree, but I do encourage my readers to look it up.

SPOILERS AHEAD!!!

The novel is the story of Anton, an operative from our future who is placed on an alien planet to observe a world that has not advanced beyond the technology of the Middle Ages. On this world, Anton is a powerful and infinitely wealthy nobleman named Don Rumata who lives in Arkanar. Through the course of the book, Rumata works in subtle ways to obstruct the usurper Don Reba (a vile, evil fellow) from taking over the region of Arkanar. Reba orders all “learned men” to be killed (the literate–scientists, artists, writers, etc.) and installs a vicious order of monks to carry out his instructions. Rumata despairs at such inhumanity, but hands are tied, as he is bound by the code of his profession to not interfere with the machinations of history. In the end, Reba has his way and Rumata goes on a killing rampage and has a nervous breakdown.

It’s all some deep and depressing stuff. It’s also entertaining and a page turner. While not loaded with action, the dialog is often humorous and ironic in the darkest ways possible. The plot moves along at a fast pace. There is one sequence that will always stick with me…Don Rumata and a rebel friend discusses the role of God and why he should or should not help His suffering people…the sadness in Rumata’s replies and the desperation in the rebel’s questions strike the heart hard.

The thrust of this classic novel is a common one: that religion and misguided faith can be effective tools of the wicked. It’s title is in reference to the technological powers Don Rumata has at his disposal, yet he has to stand by and watch his people murder and torture each other. Rumata is a literal placeholder for God. The metaphor is quite explicit and Rumata does plenty of despairing about his predicament in the narrative.

I know little about Russian history in 1964 (when the novel was published), but based on an essay by Boris Strugatsky that accompanies the book, writing a novel that openly questions and challenges the role of religion and the stark authority of those wielding during that time could be bad for one’s health. It is an impressive thing that Boris and Arkady did.

As a fan of science fiction, I believe Hard to Be a God to be essential reading. As a display regarding the power of literature, Hard to Be a God is a shining example.

I’ve included a trailer to the movie adaptation below.

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