Sunday, March 29, 2020

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God; Monday Starts on Saturday; The Doomed City


Opening Passage: From Hard to Be a God:

The black stock of Anka's crossbow was made of plastic, while the strings were chrome steel, operated by a single motion of a noiselessly sliding lever. Anton didn't trust newfangled technology; had had an old-fashioned arbalest in the style of Marshal Totz (King Pitz the First), overlaid with black copper, with a a cable of ox sinew wound around a little wheel. And Pashka had taken a pneumatic rifle. Since he was lazy and lacked the mechanical aptitude to work crossbows, he thought they were childish. (p. 1)

From Monday Starts on Saturday:

I was nearing my destination. On both sides the green forest pressed right up against the road, giving way now and then to clearings overgrown with yellow sedge. The sun had been trying in vain to set for hours and still hung low over the horizon. As the car trundled along the crunching gravel surface of the narrow road, I steered the wheels over the large stones, and every time the empty gas cans in the trunk clanged and clattered. (p. 3)

From The Doomed City:

The trash cans were rusty and battered, and the lids had come loose, so there were scraps of newspaper poking up from under them and potato peels dangling down. They were like the bills of slovenly pelicans that are none too picky about their food. The cans looked way to heavy to lift, but in fact, working in tandem with Wang, it was a breeze to jerk a can like that up toward Donald;s outstretched hands and set it on the edge of the truck's lowered sideboard. You just had to watch out for your fingers. And after that yo could adjust your mittens and take a few breaths through your nose while Donald walked the can farther in on the back of the truck and left it there. (p. 3)

Summary: These are three very different books. Hard to Be a God is sad and melancholy, Monday Starts on Saturday is comic and absurdist, and The Doomed City an endless mist of doubt and uncertainty.

In HtBaG, Anton is an undercover operative from planet Earth, which is a communist utopia, observing another planet that is undergoing a medeival-ish period. He has taken an aristocratic role as Don Rumata in the court of the Kingdom of Arkanar. Things have taken a turn for the worse in the kingdom, as the scheming Don Reba has begun a campaign to stamp out dissident intellectuals, which, for someone like Don Reba, always eventually becomes synonymous with intellectuals generally. Don Rumata tries to convince his fellow observers that something must be done, that this is no ordinary turn into fascism, but they are unconvinced: Earth has a rigorous scientific approach to history, basis theory, which shows that this is just an ordinary element in the course of progress to enlightenment. Don Rumata reluctantly confines himself to observation, investigation of what is going on, and occasional rescue of an intellectual or two. It becomes increasingly difficult to do this as things in the kingdom become worse and worse, with Don Reba managing a breathtakingly bold and effective coup that brings the kingdom into the hand of a fundamental religious-military order, the Holy Order, a sort of more ruthless Teutonic Knights.

Suppose that Communism and all its pomp and promises were true, that the theory of dialectical materialism were the true theory of all historical events and that on the basis of it you could know that all things, however bad they seem, were whirring through the machine of history to inevitable progress. Suppose it all. What then? You see the world with the eye of a god now, know how this pain and this suffering fits into the big picture, why it must be there if the glorious world of tomorrow is to come. What then? You have but to observe and see it all unfold, step by step by step. What then? You are still human, though you see the sweep of history with the eye of a god; you are still here and now, though you know where it all tends; you are still faced with human suffering though you know why it must be. The greatest gift a god could give to people, one of the characters suggests, is to leave them all alone. But if you had the knowledge of a god, it would still be human eyes that you see crying; the machine of progress is still lubricated with human blood, and it is the blood of people you know; your heart would still cry out when faced with the unbearable loss. If you knew it all, what then? Would it not break you to stand aside, even knowing that that was best?

MSoS is actually three linked stories, each of which ends with a comment about something that happens that would make it all make sense and the words, "But that's an entirely different story." In "The Commotion over the Sofa", Aleksandr (Sasha) Privalov is a programmer driving in Russian Karelia when he picks up two hitchhikers. The two hitchhikers, discovering that he is a programmer, convince him to stay in Solovets to work for the Scientific Research Institute of Sorcery and Wizardry (in Bromfield's translation it is National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy or NITWiT, to try to give a play on words analogous to the corresponding Russian acronym. They have some difficulty finding a place for him to stay, eventually settling on the Institute's museum, where he ends up meeting an array of wacky characters, from the merely odd to the Lewis-Carrollish, particularly over the sofa in his room, which everyone is trying to steal because it is the world's most effective universal translator. "Vanity of Vanities" sees Privalov settled in and getting used to the oddities of the Institute. The Institute has a large number of strange departments, all of which are geared in some way to improving human life, but all of which go off the rails somewhat in doing so, and each of them is headed by some odd person or other. There's the Department of Linear Happiness, the Department of the Meaning of Life, the Department of Predictions and Prophecies (headed by Merlin the liar, i.e., Mark Twain's version of Merlin), the empty Department of Defensive Magic, the Department of Eternal Youth (filled with senile old people), the Department of Universal Transformations, the Department of Absolute Knowledge (where people, knowing that knowledge is infinite, and that any finite inquiry will only be finite, which is as zero to infinity, get to zero work more efficiently by either doing no work at all or spending their time trying to calculate what happens when you divide zero by zero) and so forth. Much of the work of the Institute consists of the different researchers making modified doubles of themselves as models of happiness to test. The most famous of the researchers, Ambrosius Vybegallo, who thinks that happiness consists in always wanting more, repeatedly has experiments that end disastrously but also has good press because he always talks up his experimenters to reporters like a used car salesman. "All Kinds of Commotion" unfolds like a comic science fiction detective story as Privalov and his friends try to unravel the mystery of Janus Polyeuctovich, who is both A-Janus and S-Janus, two different people who are also only one person. (The other two stories were fun, but this story, I thought, was excellent.)

The Institute, of course, is a send up of all kinds of research institutes and academic organizations. After all, in a fairly straightforward sense, the point of these research institutes is human happiness. But as with the Institute, the people involved generally don't know what human happiness is, the people who are most successful in the Institute politics very definitely don't know what human happiness, and much of their research of human happiness consists of modeling the ideal human person after themselves with a few magical corrections. I found the work to be almost unsettlingly accurate in its satire of the lives of academics and researchers, who are indeed very often using their research as a sort of therapy for their personal issues, who do indeed tend to talk themselves up while having relatively little to show for it, who do indeed justify their work as essential to human happiness despite the fact that their views of human happiness are often lacking in all basic common sense, who are indeed often absurd peddlers of absurdities that only make sense on the assumptions of their own research. It's all exaggerated and pile together, of course, but the book ends with a notice from Privalov himself, in which we learn that the book, while told from Privalov's point of view, is not written by Privalov, but while it is exaggerated and sometimes inaccurate, it correctly captures the sense of life at the Institute. And it does.

There's a recurring cycle in philosophy departments of having to justify their existence to people who have entirely arbitrary views, often dubious, of what an academic department should be doing. What does the teaching of philosophy, say, contribute to the world? It teaches...hmmm...Critical Thinking! 'Critical Thinking' is a buzzword; it doesn't actually mean anything in general but it could mean something, and sometimes does mean something very specific in specific contexts, and if you can just get the people asking to accept that 'Critical Thinking' sounds like something they should be supporting, as something that would be important for human happiness, then a clever academic can come up with all sorts of arguments about how what they are teaching -- which in reality they are usually just teaching because they think it's interesting and they enjoy teaching it, or because it makes them feel like they are contributing to some important cause they otherwise would be doing nothing for, or because they have issues and are working them out by teaching-as-therapy -- is profoundly valuable for Critical Thinking in some sense of the word 'Critical' and some sense of the word 'Thinking'. And if anyone ever comes demanding that the piper be paid, that the academic prove that they are actually getting Critical Thinking out of students (as if teachers could get anything out of students), the clever academic can argue that what the demanders are demanding misconceives how Critical Thinking works, for some sense of the word 'Critical' and some sense of the word 'Thinking', for, after all, are the academics themselves not in fact the experts on what Critical Thinking is? To whom else would you appeal to show that you were right? And so it goes, until Critical Thinking is boring and the label game goes on with something else. And so it is with research, and so it is with every other department. The justifications never match the things that are done, except by sleight of hand, and the motivations never have much to do with the justifications, and everything ends up being valuable because it can be dressed up symbolically as something that sounds good, whether that be Critical Thinking or Social Justice or Pursuit of Truth or something else, and everyone's working for nominally the same goals conceived in ways that are absolutely, undeniably, mutually exclusive. It's a NITWiT life. But sometimes something interesting comes of it, and you undeniably do get to meet interesting people.

TDC gets its name from a painting by Nicholas Roerich, which depicts a city in a desolate landscape with a vast red serpent coiled around it. In his afterward, Boris Strugatsky suggests that what drew the brothers to the painting was "its somber beauty and the sense of hopelessness emanating from it" (p. 458), and that captures the book. Andrei Voronin is one of a vast number of people who have agreed to join the Experiment, run by the mysterious Mentors. None of them have any idea what the Experiment is really about, but all of them had been at a point in their life where that didn't matter. The Experiment is run in a vast City that sits between a sheer Cliff on one side (going up as far as the eye can see) and a vast Abyss on the other (which has no known bottom). Everyone there is from different times and places but can communicate with each other. The Mentors occasionally talk to the people in the Experiment, but they largely govern themselves, and they each get their jobs by a kind of arbitrary assignment that changes regularly. Voronin, a Leninist-Stalinist from the 1950s, gets assigned to garbage duty and the crew of co-workers and neighbors is a motley bunch. They all have their differences, whether it's European liberalism or Soviet communism or Nazism, but they are now part of the Experiment, and keep trying to make sense of their lives in that context. Sometimes people wonder if the Experiment has failed, because awful things keep happening, but pretty much anything could be justified as part of the Experiment, and so ultimately, if you ask why, the answer is always, "The Experiment is the Experiment." Voronin after several adventures will find himself a bureaucratic functionary after a military coup by one of the Nazis -- the idealistic Stalinist finding that he is really not so different from the barbaric Nazi after all -- and will eventually lead an expedition to see if there is anything to the north of the City, which seems to go on and on between the Wall and the Abyss.

Everybody goes about their lives in a society that's set up on certain principles. It might be liberalism, or Communism, or Nazism, or Imperialism, or any number of other ideologies. It provides the framework, the answer to "Why are we all doing this?" The answer to that question is always something like, "Because that's what liberalism is" or "Because that's what Communists do" or, sometimes defining the same thing by negatives, "Because doing anything else is fascist," or whatever it may be. That's the Experiment. And the answer to all the Why questions always boils down to: The Experiment is the Experiment. When people begin to think the Experiment is failed, sometimes it hits hard, as when the American Donald commits suicide, or they rebel and continue the Experiment while insisting that there is no such thing as the Experiment -- we are not victims of ideology! -- and yet in the end everything is justified by the Experiment. Since nobody really knows where it's going, everything comes down to, "The Experiment is the Experiment." But, of course, human beings are petty power-grubbers, so we use that to manipulate the people around us, and we concoct enemies so that we can spread our views, and we just muddle along trying to get by in a way that lets us get things we want. Sometimes you get a big shift in the Experiment -- who knows why, maybe it's a holocaust and maybe it's a plague and maybe it's the sun going out for a week, but who knows why -- and yet, whether people admit it or not, they still try to make sense of their lives against some version or other of "The Experiment is the Experiment." Stalinist Voronin becomes almost by accident a functionary in the government of Nazi Heiger, and as it turns out, fits right in. All these ideologies have the same structure, however different their rhetoric; people do the same kinds of things under each, but just dress it up differently. It all moves in circles like the serpent Ouroboros.

And what is the answer to it all? How can you answer a question about what the Experiment means when all your life you've been appealing to the Experiment to make things make sense? We start with "The Experiment is the Experiment" and that's sort of how we end, maybe having learned a bit about it, but still having no real idea how to live life with that background ideology. In his afterward, Strugatsky notes that the tale of Andrei rather maps the trajectory of the authors' own lives, and of the entire generation of Soviets from 1940 to 1985, and the baffling experiencing of an idealism that leads smoothly to selling out, and the shift, unimaginable without experiencing it, of having started with an ideology, not knowing what it means but certain there is a meaning, to being suspended in an empty ideological void, not knowing what it means and having no idea if it means anything at all.

Favorite Passage: From HtBaG:

"The essence of man," Budach said, chewing slowly, "lies in his astonishing ability to get used to anything. There's nothing in nature that man could not learn to live with. Neither horse nor dog nor mouse has this property. Probably God, as he was creating man, guessed the torments he was condemning him to and gave him an enormous reserve of strength and patience. It is difficult to say whether this is good or bad. If man didn't have such patience and endurance, all good people would have long since perished, and only the wicked and soulless would be left in this world. On the other hand, the habit of enduring and adapting turns people into dumb beasts, who differ from the animals in nothing except anatomy, and who only exceed them in helplessness. And each new day gives rise to a new horror of evil and violence." (p. 205)

From MSoS:

...They worked in an institute that was concerned first and foremost with the problems of human happiness and the meaning of human life, but even in their ranks there was no one who knew for certain what happiness is and what exactly is the meaning of life. And they had accepted as a working hypothesis that happiness lies in the constant cognition of the unknown, which is also the meaning of life. Every man is a magician in his heart, but he only becomes a magician when he starts thinking less about himself and more about othes, when his work becomes more interesting to him than simply amusing himself according to the old meaning of that word. And their working hypothesis must have been close to the truth, because just as labor transformed ape into man, so the absence of labor transforms man into ape or something even worse, only far more rapidly. (pp. 139-140)

From TDC:

"Maybe you think," Izya asked acidly, "that the most exceptional builders of this temple aren't swine? Lord Almighty, what hideous swine they are sometimes! The thief and scoundrel Benevuto Cellini, the hopeless drunk Hemingway, the pederast Tchaikovsky, the schizophrenic and black reactionary Dostoyevsky, the thief and gallows bird François Villon...My God the decent people among them are the rare ones! But like the coral polyps, they know not what they do. And neither does the whole of humankind. Generation after generation they guzzle, wallow in pleasure, ravage, kill, turn up their toes--and before you know it an entire coral atoll has sprung up, and how beautiful it is! And how enduring!" (pp. 442-443)

Recommendation: All Recommended. MSoS in particular is delightful, and Highly Recommended if you like comic stories of the absurd.


Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Hard to Be a God, Bormashenko, tr., Chicago Review Press (Chicago: 2014).

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Monday Starts on Saturday, Bromfield, tr., Chicago Review Press (Chicago: 2017).

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, The Doomed City, Bromfield, tr., Chicago Review Press (Chicago: 2016).

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