Hard to Be a God by Arkady Strugatsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Written in 1963 in the Soviet Union, this novel reflects the politics of its time and place. Arkady and Boris Strugatsky were appalled by their government’s vicious rebuke of artistic freedom after the brief thaw in Stalinism. They say in the Afterword to my edition, “We weren’t as much afraid as disgusted…. We were being governed by goons and enemies of culture…. They will never let us say what we believe is right.”
At that point, they changed their plans for the novel they were working on. They had meant to write a swashbuckling adventure story set at the twilight of the Middle Ages. Instead they wrote about the fate of intelligentsia. A historian, sent from Earth to a distant planet to impersonate a minor aristocrat, observes its medieval-like society as if he were a god — initially with the vague hope of rescuing it.
The historian, Rumata, has a lot of swashbuckling adventures with other drunken aristocrats as the society around him collapses. Scientists, writers, and poets are rounded up and killed by religious fanatics and lazy, cruel overlords, and finally Rumata sees no way to stop the disaster. Could a god enlighten the cruel princes? He doubts it. “Cruelty is power. Having lost their cruelty, the princes would lose their power, and other cruel men would replace them.”
Soon, he realizes that “he was no longer playing the role of a highborn boor but had largely become one…. Does a god have the right to feel anything other than pity?” As blood pools in the landscape around him, he asks himself again and again, “What could we have done?”
Although this sounds bleak, it’s not a chore to read. Action, escapades, and humor fill the novel.
In our own time, Russia seems to be ruled again by “power-hungry dullards and blockheads.” Other countries face tough political choices, including my own, the United States. The strange, Russian, historic feel of this novel now has renewed resonance.
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