Sunday, March 15, 2020

Fortnightly Book, March 15

Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were brothers who lived much of their lives in the Soviet Union; they became science fiction writers (although some of their work is only loosely science fiction), always skirting the line between what the censor would allow and what would get them seriously into trouble. I recently got hold of translations of three of the works, and these will be the next fortnightly books.

(1) Hard to Be a God (1964) is set in the far future. An operative from Earth is trying to blend into the society of a medieval-ish planet. He is supposed to be merely an observer, but when the kingdom he is observing begins to turn into a police state, having a higher-level perspective on what the society is going through makes it more and more difficult not to use his superior knowledge to intervene. As the title says, it's hard to be a god.

(2) Monday Begins on Saturday (1965) satirizes Soviet research institutions. Far in the Russian north is a hidden-away institution established for research into magic, and a young programmer becomes involved in its workings. He discovers that the institute is more than a little dysfunctional. Everyone has to work almost constantly (hence the title), and researches who do their work dishonestly grow hairy ears.

(3) The Doomed City was written in the seventies, but the Strugatsky brothers deliberately did not try to get it published then, because they did not think that they could get it past the Soviet censor; it was only published in 1989. A great city has been built by an unknown group of people, surrounded on all sides by impassability; they have brought to it volunteers from different societies and times for an experiment, but none of the volunteers know what the purpose of the experiment is. The book is generally considered a very dark and bitter novel, encapsulating all of the contrast between the promises of Soviet Communism and the reality of Soviet life, between the young idealist and the perpetual sell-out he seemingly always becomes.

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